NEWS FEATURE: Orthodox Jewish detective scours black market for stolen Torahs

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

ENGLEWOOD, N.J. _ Mordacai Dzinkansky is a New York cop who defies central casting. A Hebrew-speaking Orthodox Jew, Dzinkansky patrols an unusual underground: the black market for stolen Torahs, sacred _ and valuable _ scrolls integral to Jewish worship.

As part of the NYPD Torah Task Force, Dzinkansky has tracked down some of the estimated dozen Torahs stolen each year in the United States, including two recently taken from Temple Emanu-El in Englewood.

The Torah is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, handwritten on a parchment scroll in Hebrew by a special scribe who must meet exacting standards. A new Torah can take up to one year to produce with the cost easily topping $50,000. Antique scrolls, often decorated with ornate silver or gold finials or shields, can go much higher. Reading from the Torah is essential to Jewish worship. Congregations like Temple Emanu-El are often at a loss to replace stolen scrolls. “This is a crime that touches me very closely,”Dzinkansky said.”Stealing a Torah is like putting a knife through the heart of the congregation. But I think people of other religions can relate, too. I could relate if a chalice were missing.” Dzinkansky went undercover as a rabbi to recover the two silver- and gold-adorned Torahs stolen from Temple Emanu-El. In this case, the scrolls were recovered from the man charged with stealing them, but Dzinkansky said a Torah may pass through several hands before a bona fide scribe or congregation buys it. Unethical dealers may look the other way when a stolen Torah comes along, and an unsuspecting congregation may then purchase the Torah without knowing it was taken from another synagogue. “As in any business, there are terrific dealers, and there are people willing to take shortcuts,”said David Pollock, director of government relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council. “It’s hard to identify how big the underground market is for these items,”said Special Agent John Varrone of U.S. Customs.

Dzinkansky said the two main markets for stolen Torahs are Israel and the United States. There’s little indication that Torahs or other religious icons stolen in the United States are exported overseas, but many valuable religious treasures, stolen from synagogues as well as from churches in Europe and Russia, find their way into this country.

The U.S. Customs Service this summer recovered an antique gold finial from a Torah valued at $50,000, stolen from a museum in Jerusalem. Earlier this year, Customs confiscated religious artifacts stolen from European churches. Customs has confiscated about $2 million in stolen religious valuables since 1990. That’s a tenfold increase from the previous decade, according to Customs officials. “History has shown us things are sold with false documentation,”Dzinkansky said.”And there are collectors who buy things without the proper authenticity.” Robert Spiel, a Chicago private investigator specializing in art and collectibles, said even high-end auction houses generally only ask for sellers to sign a form saying they own the object being sold. “It’s really that easy,”Spiel said. He said the chances that a stolen object would be recognized amid thousands being sold each week is remote. He tracks down lost collectibles by finding the dealers most likely to be approached with a sale, and then cultivating some underworld contacts.

Vredy Lytsman, a spokeswoman for Christie’s North and South American, the auction house, disputed Spiel. She said a respected auction house performs its own rigorous investigation before selling any item, to check its authenticity as well as history. She said Torahs generally belong to institutions and an individual selling one would need to show some proof of ownership. “An auction is the most public way to sell property,”said Matthew Weigman, a spokesman for Sotheby’s.”It’s the worst place to dispose of stolen property.” Weigman said Sotheby’s helped start a database to keep track of stolen art, including objects stolen during World War II.

Though it’s little solace to congregations that lose a Torah, thefts of the scrolls are on the decline. In the early 1980s, when several hundred Torahs were being stolen each year in the United States, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, at the suggestion of the New York City Police Department, began a worldwide Torah registry. Synagogues register a Torah by inserting a pattern of tiny perforations in portions of the scroll. The markings are within Jewish law.

About 10,000 Torahs now are registered, most in the United States but that is only a fraction of the world’s Torahs. A handful of the registered Torahs have been stolen and one has been recovered through the registry, said David Pollock, director of government relations for the Jewish Community Relations Council.

But the registry’s greatest success has been making it more difficult for thieves to sell stolen Torahs. It’s like trying to sell a car without a registration. Now only about a dozen Torahs are taken each year in the United States.


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