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What the thieves left behind

The holy Torah scrolls lay strewn around the room. Their silver ornaments were gone, their coverings torn. But the community got busy, and I knew we would endure
Torah scroll as found in the ransacked synagogue in Zichron Yaakov this week
The image of the cast-down Torah scroll and its ripped cover on the floor of a synagogue in Zichron Yaakov this week. (courtesy)

The call came in Sunday morning from the police: “There was a break-in at your synagogue and the Torah scrolls were stolen.” After seeing the fence cut open, the officers surveyed the building, peered into the sanctuary from the outside windows, and saw the broken-open empty ark. As community members arrived on the scene and the detectives gave the all-clear to enter, a simultaneous feeling of joy and horror spread. The holy scrolls were still there, but cast out around the room and floor.

The police quickly shared that the attack on our synagogue appeared to be connected to a series of break-ins that took place the night before at two local schools. With the targeted theft at the other locations focused on computers, projectors, and petty cash, it was assumed that the attack on our synagogue was an act of thievery and not motivated by nationalistic or religious animus.

Detectives explained that the thieves cut through a metal fence, climbed onto the roof and over the building to enter, avoiding cameras and alarms. They ransacked the synagogue and pried open the locked ark looking for what they deemed “valuables,” stealing the silver adornments from the Torah scrolls and in the ark.

As the investigators concluded dusting for fingerprints, community members began to restore the space. Each of the Torah scrolls was returned to the ark: our acacia wood-enclosed Yemenite scroll that came to Israel before the founding of the state; our Sephardic scroll written in 1970s Israel; our tall Ashkenazi scroll written in Czarist Russia that was smuggled out to the United States and then brought to Israel in its maroon velvet cloak; and our soft blue-with-grapevine-embroidery-covered Ashkenazi scroll, completed in Zichron Yaakov in 2019.

The emotions were intense. A Torah scroll lying on the floor with its covering torn evoked a deep sense of violation and desecration. Our community leadership gathered, consulting with rabbinic and lay mentors, weighing questions of appropriate response to this trauma including fasting, bolstering our study and prayer, providing space for people to share their feelings, alongside technical decisions regarding upgrading the security of the space, repairing the damage, and replacing the objects stolen.

We sent a note to the wider community explaining what had happened and immediately there flowed forth messages, and pop-in visits of people who wanted to share in the grief, provide emotional support, pledge to help to replace the silver that was stolen, and offer care. Our community has always understood its role as a kehilla (congregation) as reaching beyond itself. An inclusive space of prayer and Torah study that welcomes seekers of all backgrounds to find meaning and share fierce dedication and active efforts to advance social welfare. While used to looking outward and lending help to others, this week, our community became its own wounded healers.

(courtesy)

The covering that was ripped from one of the Torah scrolls bears a verse from the portion that will be read this Shabbat, “the bush was not consumed.” The reference from Exodus 3:2 describes Moshe’s initiation as the leader of the Jewish people, beholding a burning bush in the desert engulfed in flames yet not devoured.

As in all first impressions, the Talmud notes God’s posture as an unassuming lonely bush, rather than a towering tree with a naturally powerful presence easy to evoke awe as fundamental to God’s lesson of humility to humanity in crafting His message of redemption (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 5). The midrash pushes even further, suggesting God’s revelation from within the thorns of the bush, as God’s empathetic entrance into the prickly challenges of the world (Shemot Rabba 2:5). Another midrash notes Moshe’s approach. This refugee shepherd walking in the desert lifts his eyes to behold the burning bush demonstrating Moshe’s acute sensitivity and awareness of his surroundings (Esther Rabba 7:9). As Moshe draws close, the Torah notes God’s instruction to Moshe to remove his shoes, as “this space is holy.” This meeting of humility, empathy, and attentiveness begins our nation’s sanctified journey forward.

Our community Torah scrolls attest to the long complex journeys of our people, and, together with this week’s kindness and resolve in our community’s response, it is clear that “the bush is not consumed.” Generations of our nation have revisited this surreal vision of the raging fiery bush whose branches remain, despite the threats surrounding it, and they have shaped our identity in its image. The bare footsteps of Moshe have guided humble, passionate, and determined Jews to thrive.

This week our community met a path of destruction, but rather than ashes, it exposed kedusha, sanctity. A true kehila kedosha, sacred community with empathetic compassion for one another, resolute to uphold the honor of the Torah. What an incredible revelation in the desert.

About the Author
Ilana Fodiman-Silverman is Director and Rabbanit of Moed, a community organization in Zichron Yaakov, Israel that brings together secular and religious Israelis in deep Torah study and innovative social action as an investment in the past, present and future of Jewish life in Modern Israel.
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