U.s.-donated Torah Stolen from a Congregation in a Ukrainian City

A Torah donated from a U.S. temple to a congregation in Ukraine has been stolen. In April 2004, three members of Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, Calif., carried a historic Torah scroll from their congregation to Odessa, Ukraine, where they handed it over to that city’s tiny, financially struggling Reform congregation in a festive ceremony.

Right before Rosh Hashanah this year, the Torah scroll disappeared, stolen right out of the ark in what is apparently being investigated as an inside job.

“The congregation is in shock,” says Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, head of the Reform movement in Ukraine. “You can imagine what Rosh Hashanah services were like.”

Most Torah scrolls in the former Soviet Union are either donated from abroad, or newly written with funding from foreign supporters.

The World Union for Progressive Judaism has a twinning program to match up Reform congregations in the West with needy congregations in the former Soviet Union, Israel and elsewhere. Donating a Torah scroll is often part of the arrangement.

Julia Grishchenko, spiritual leader of the Odessa congregation, which is now also known as Emanu-El, discovered the theft on the eve of Rosh Hashanah when she opened the ark to prepare for services. She had seen it two days earlier during Shabbat services. Police found no evidence of a break-in, and suspicion quickly fell on a former congregant. Dukhovny says the president of the congregation called the woman and “gave her a chance to repent” for the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Instead, Dukhovny reports, the woman offered to return the Torah for $5,000. Police were listening in. They detained her for two weeks of questioning, but finally released her, apparently for lack of evidence.

Dukhovny says the Odessa police wanted to set up a sting operation to entrap the suspect, but she told the congregation’s president the Torah was in Kiev, where Odessa police don’t have jurisdiction. Dukhovny says the case seems to have come to a standstill.

“The police aren’t telling us what’s happening,” he says.

San Jose marketing consultant Jonathan Hirshon spearheaded the original donation project, and was part of the group that took the Torah scroll to Odessa last year.

“We just found out about this, and we’re in shock,” he says. “To steal a Torah is bad enough, but to think it’s a Jew who did it. We feel punched in the gut.”

The Odessa congregation did not tell Temple Emanu-El about the theft until this weekend, to spare them distress during the Jewish holidays.

Emanu-El has sent photos of the Torah to the Odessa police to aid in their investigation. The Torah scroll was written in 1948 to commemorate the founding of Israel, and was restored by Emanu-El before it was taken to Ukraine as a gift to their twin congregation there.

Dukhovny says this is the first Torah scroll theft he’s heard of since the fall of the Soviet Union 14 years ago.

Temple Emanu-El has produced a DVD about the Torah’s journey to Odessa, and is now selling it for a minimum $25 donation to raise money for the Odessa congregation.

Dukhovny hopes that another U.S. congregation may step in and donate an extra Torah scroll to Odessa, perhaps during the upcoming biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism later this month in Houston.

Dukhovny recently went to Odessa and delivered a Shabbat sermon to the congregation.

“I told them that no one can steal a Torah,” he says. “Even without a physical Torah, they can have Torah in their hearts. With the help of their sister congregation and world Jewry, they are not alone.”

To order the DVD and help raise money for Congregation Emanu-El in Odessa, contact jh@horizonpr.com.

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