Thieves and vandals attacked three area synagogues in the last week, stealing eight Torahs from one in Queens and scrawling anti-Semitic graffiti on the other two in Staten Island and Long Island. It was the third time in a month that the Long Island synagogue, the Dix Hills Jewish Center, was struck by vandals.
The theft of all eight Torahs from the main sanctuary of the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills was discovered when the ark was opened during morning services last Saturday.
"I was sitting in the last row and when the curtain was pulled open everybody fell silent," recalled Herman Saltzman. "I was in shock. Complete shock. Nothing was there."
He said there had been eight Torahs in the ark, plus embroidered Torah covers, and assorted silver pieces, including Torah crowns, breastplates and Torah pointers. Only a few bells that had fallen off a breastplate remained.
The police were called and could find no sign of any forced entry, Saltzman said. He said the door to the main sanctuary had been locked, that the ark alarm was on and that the two padlocks on the iron gate in front of the ark had not been tampered with. And he said that the keys kept elsewhere in the synagogue were still in their rightful place.
The synagogue’s president, Meredith Deckler, said that when she learned of the theft upon returning from vacation Sunday she was particularly pained because her cousin had donated one of the stolen Torahs. "I can’t think of any other reason for this other than the monetary value" of the items, she said.
Saltzman said the stolen items might be worth about $500,000. But he pointed out that each of the Torahs had been registered with the Universal Torah Registry so that it can be identified if the thieves try to sell it.
"If someone approaches you to buy a Torah, you should ask for the certificate of registration," said David Pollock, assistant executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which established the registry in 1980.
"No one would ever think about buying a used car without first getting the registration," he said. "People who purchase Torah scrolls should do the same thing."
Saltzman said the 60 congregants at synagogue last Saturday morning continued services using one of two Torahs that were kept in the minyan room and that were not touched by the thieves.
"Those Torahs are smaller and don’t have any silver," Deckler noted. She added that if the Torahs are not recovered quickly, the congregation might accept offers to borrow Torahs for the High Holy Days from several neighboring congregations.
"Synagogues in Flushing, Jackson Heights, Merrick, L.I., and Far Rockaway have been most generous," Deckler said. She added that all of the locks in the synagogue were immediately changed and "we will be more careful about where the keys are kept and who has access to them."
The Dix Hills Jewish Center began installing outdoor security cameras Tuesday, according to Gail Jospa, the congregation’s president. She said the equipment had been on order well before the crime, which was discovered Sunday morning as congregants arrived for services. The words "Die Jews" and "f— Judaism" were spray-painted on an outside wall near the sanctuary. A stop sign at the synagogue was also defaced.
Just a month ago, vandals scrawled, "Jesus lives," on another outside synagogue wall. Of the six words written on the walls, two — "Jesus" and "Judaism" — were misspelled.
Just a day after Sunday’s attack, vandals returned to the synagogue and shot paint pellets at the lone car in the parking lot. The synagogue hired a private company that removed the graffiti Sunday evening.
"Please be assured that our lay leadership is working hand-in-hand with the Suffolk County Police Department to ensure the integrity of our premises," Jospa said in a letter to congregants. "The police have increased their patrols as the Bias Crime Bureau continues its investigation … Hate crimes do not deter us from our mission. Our synagogue is in the midst of celebrating our 40th anniversary and a moment of bias and hatred cannot diminish what we represent."
The congregation’s rabbi, Howard Buechler, on vacation in Israel, called the vandalism a "reprehensible, heinous act."
"This was not a crime of opportunity," he said by phone from Jerusalem. "We want to catch the guy who did this. It is a violation of the sanctity of what we represent."
Detective Sgt. Robert Reeks of the Suffolk County Police Hate Crimes Unit said the person who defaced the synagogue might have been six feet tall, based upon the height of the graffiti. That suggests a child did not do it. And he noted that anti-Semitic graffiti in Suffolk is usually left at playgrounds and parking lots, not at synagogues.
Joel Levy, New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he had noticed an increasing number of such incidents lately and that it was unusual to see it at this time of year.
"You usually see this closer to the High Holy Days," he said. But he suggested that instances of anti-Semitic vandalism posted on the Internet could have an influence.
Less than a week before the Dix Hills attack, a story was posted that described how police were baffled about two cases of anti-Semitic graffiti found last spring on the outside door and walls of Beth Israel Center in Madison, Wis. In addition to swastikas, the vandals wrote, "Die, Jew."
Anti-Semitic graffiti was also found Sunday morning on the outside walls of Temple B’nai Israel in Revere, Mass.
"There are people who see something in one place and say, ‘I could do that in my neighborhood," Levy said. "It may not be uncommon, but it is very alarming."
In Staten Island, a commuter last Thursday morning spotted a three-foot misshapen swastika on an outer wall of Congregation B’nai Israel as she glanced out the window on the Staten Island Railway, which is directly across the street, according to Charles Greinsky, the congregation’s co-president.
"I was notified at 10 a.m., and at 1 p.m. a number of elected officials called a press conference to denounce what happened and offer a reward" for the apprehension and conviction of the perpetrators, he noted. The reward is now $13,000.
Greinsky said top police brass converged on the scene and that "police were able to get a number of fingerprints from the building and the fence" that was scaled to enter the synagogue’s property.
By 5 p.m., he said, the mayor’s graffiti removal squad arrived and power-washed away the swastikas on the brick synagogue and on a storage bin next to the building. Greinsky said next to one of the swastikas were the numbers 88, apparently code for "Heil Hitler." (H is the eighth letter of the alphabet, and 88 is sometimes used for H.H., shorthand for "Heil Hitler")
The last time the building was defaced was seven years ago, he said, when a neighborhood teenager also spray painted a swastika. He was caught and ordered to perform community service.