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Stolen Ritual Objects Recovered when Florida Police Nab Suspects

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Quick-thinking congregants of an Orthodox synagogue here have helped recover $10,000 in ritual silver objects stolen from a Savannah, Ga., synagogue.

Jacksonville police say the suspected thieves, who had claimed to be collecting for charity, had documents suggesting that they might have successfully solicited across the country.

Three men and a woman with Russian and Israeli names are expected to be extradited to Georgia to face felony charges stemming from the Feb. 12 theft of items from Bnai Brith Jacob.

Papers and canceled checks in their possession “appeared to be records of money collected from cities all over the United States,” a police report said.

Rabbi Avigdor Slatus of Bnai Brith Jacob traveled to Jacksonville this week to identify the stolen items, including an ornate silver yad, or pointer, donated 100 years ago by a Savannah family still active in the 133-year-old congregation.

Slatus said members of his congregation were tremendously relieved to discover that everything was recovered, with one small exception — a tzedakah box containing about $5 in change.

Slatus had given $250 to five people who visited his synagogue Feb. 12, ostensibly to solicit for Jewish charities.

While one man joined the congregation in prayer, the others apparently made off with small items that could be tucked into their sleeves or stuffed under their shirts, Slatus said. After they left, he discovered the loss.

“While we were at services, they made the rounds,” Slatus said, describing the theft as “nauseating.”

The rabbi immediately called synagogues in Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville to warn them that they could be the next victims. One of his calls was to Jay Graff, a member of Jacksonville’s Orthodox synagogue, Etz Chaim.

The next day, Graff said Etz Chaim was visited by three men and a woman who said their car broke down and asked for money to get back on the road.

As soon as they got out of the taxi, Graff recalled, he said to a fellow congregant, “These are the guys. We’re gonna get them.”

He gave them $30 and called police, who found the four at the home of Jacksonville’s Chabad rabbi, where they were requesting money, a police report said.

Questioned separately by police, they gave inconsistent stories, Jacksonville police said. They gave police permission to search their 1987 Mercedes, which had a New York license plate.

Police said that in the trunk, they found seven silver ritual objects in a black coat, a tallit and scores of silver items with chains, identified by police as silver eyeglass holders. Slatus said they were clips for tallitot.

Arrested on a misdemeanor charge of fraudulent accosting were Meir Tetrashvili, 43, of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Meir Sepiashvili, 27, of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Lioudmila Kovalskaia, 49, no address given; and Rafael Batach, 57, of Israel. If extradited to Georgia, they would face felony charges.

The suspects were apprehended with the help of Israeli secret service agents, who happened to be in Jacksonville to provide security for former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who was speaking at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, which is next door to Etz Chaim.

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