Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mystery of missing Mumbai scrolls riles Baghdadi-Indian community

By Fadi Eyadat

On Monday, the eve of the Tisha B'Av, the fast day that commemorates the destruction of both Holy Temples, some 300 congregants arrived at the Kely Yakov Eini synagogue in Kiryat Bialik for evening prayers and the recitation of lamentations.

"During the service, people recalled the Torah scrolls that had been stolen [some four months earlier], and began to bemoan the missing scrolls. These were the holiest of holies among all our Torah scrolls," related Kely Reuven on Tuesday with deep sadness. Reuven, 51, the volunteer director of the synagogue, and all the members of the Baghdadi-Indian community, are deeply distressed by the disappearance of three Torah scrolls that are over 120 years old. They were brought to Israel from Mumbai in the early 1950s.

"These were handwritten scrolls," explains one of the congregants, "made of high-quality parchment and housed in pure silver containers."

The scrolls' disappearance was discovered about four months ago when a young member of the congregation opened the ark to kiss the scrolls one Friday evening.

"One of the worshippers asked the cantor, who was responsible for the removal of the scrolls from the ark," continued another member of the community. "The cantor claimed he had taken them for repairs." The cantor, 50, later changed his story, claiming he had taken them to a repository for damaged scrolls, because they were old and no longer usable.

After a covert investigation by the Central Unit of the Coastal Region, police arrested the cantor on suspicion of stealing and selling the scrolls, but later released him to house arrest.

Chief Inspector Yariv Cohen, who headed the investigation team, says the scrolls are worth over $150,000.

"The suspect has not confessed, but the story he is telling is fabricated," says Cohen. "The material [from the investigation] has been transferred to the State Prosecutor's Office. Now our goal is to find the scrolls."

Attorney Tami Ulman reiterated the suspect's claim of innocence.

"This man has been volunteering at the synagogue for 25 years, and this is the thanks he gets. There is no doubt that he was following Jewish law and did what was required with the scrolls, which were not usable."

"People don't believe it," said a member of the community Tuesday.

"Ever since we were small children," Reuven said, "when we began to learn how to pray, our fathers and grandfathers told us how special these scrolls were. After services, we always kissed those scrolls, and not the other ones. They were the holiest of the holy."

"They arrived here with our grandfathers," said another congregant. "Losing these scrolls was like losing a relative."

In the late 19th century, members of the Baghdadi community moved to India, and have since been known as the Baghdadi Indian community. In the early 1950s, they moved to Israel and settled in Kiryat Bialik. They missed India, and wanted to build a synagogue identical to the one in Mumbai, and did so with their own hands.

"The community did not receive any donations and never wanted to be dependent on anyone. Everything was from donations by community members. First, they built one story. Then, when there was enough money, they built a second story," relates Reuven. The synagogue has a fish pond in the garden, which is surrounded by palm trees. The names of the 12 tribes of Israel and memorial candles in memory of departed members of the community adorn the walls.

"The synagogue is our community center," said another congregant. "There are secular and religious [worshippers]. We all come here on festivals and special occasions. Some people come here to be with their friends and drink coffee in the courtyard."

Despite the estimation that the precious scrolls have already been sold, the police this week asked for the public's assistance in finding them. The police hope that the scrolls were purchased by someone whose conscience will move him to return them and will lead the police to the thief. The congregants no longer care who stole the scrolls.

"We're not interested in the thief. All we want is to get the scrolls back. They are very dear to us."

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