Report: Fencing Torahs No Easy Task


rabbi-ben-zion-chanowitz-monticelloJames Nani reports in the Times Herald Record:

What do you do with a stolen Torah?

It’s a question Jews and gentiles alike are asking after the theft of the sacred Torah scroll belonging to Monticello’s Landfield Avenue Synagogue.

And weeks after the burglary, with no sign of the scroll, it might be a question the thief – or thieves – is asking as well. Especially since this Torah, like marked bills in a bank heist, can be tracked.

“It’s like a car with a VIN number on it,” explained David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. He helped create the Universal Torah Registry, a system to track Torahs and of which Monticello’s stolen Torah is a member.

“It basically wiped out Torah theft in the U.S.,” Pollock said.

Basically, but not quite.

On New Year’s Eve, Village of Monticello police said one or more people entered the Landfield Avenue Synagogue during the night through a rear window, ransacked some offices and stole the $35,000 Torah.

Pollock knows a lot about pilfered Torahs. He was first approached by the New York Police Department in 1980 to help create a registry for the holy scrolls. Back then, Torahs were disappearing at a rate of 200 a year, said Pollock.

After working for two years, Pollock said he had a system that met all the criteria: inexpensive, easy to use, acceptable for the courts and something thieves couldn’t easily erase. And of course, it was kosher.

Mordecai Dzikanskym, a retired NYPD detective, was a lead investigator in a special unit called the Torah Task Force, set up in the early ’90s to combat a new wave of Torah thefts in the city.

He said many times thefts are inside jobs and, in his experience, thieves know a Torah can be worth big bucks.

“The people who took it realize it was a very valuable item,” said Dzikanskym.

Once taken, Pollock said thieves typically need to find a fence to pawn a hot Torah off to.

“You need to find someone in normal business channels,” said Pollock.

Pollock said the obvious place to hock a Torah is Israel, though he’s even seen some end up on eBay. He even knows someone who tried to sell one on the streets of Harlem. Generally, though, Pollock said sophisticated thieves don’t want them because they’re too easy to track.

As for the Landfield Avenue Synagogue, it’s not taking any chances. The congregation put up a $6,000 reward for the safe return of the Torah, no questions asked. A flier members begun handing out pretty much sums it up:

“You may not have realized what kind of mess you got yourself into. What can you do with a Torah?”

{Record Online/ Newscenter}