Craigslist ad helps Phoenix congregation recover stolen Torah

LEISAH WOLDOFF, Jewish News of Greater Phoenix

PHOENIX — “Reward: Torah Scroll, Hebrew – $500: A Torah scroll was recently stolen, and the Jewish community is offering a reward of $500, no questions asked, for its return or for information leading to its return.”

This Craigslist ad, which also included a description and photos of a Torah, led to the return of the Torah stolen from Young Israel of Phoenix on Oct. 25.

Congregant Sam Saks placed the listing in the “wanted” section on Craigslist the day after the Torah was stolen. “I figured that the person who took it most likely didn’t know the true value of what they were taking,” he said. The Torah is valued at about $35,000.

That evening, he received an e-mail in response to the listing, from a woman who said she could help. They corresponded via e-mail the next day. She claimed that her sister found the Torah, tefillin and prayer shawls while “Dumpster diving” and wrote that she “saw the news and my heart dropped because I got the feeling that they belonged to your community.”

Saks said he initially was cautious because the woman’s responses were cryptic. She expressed concern about legal action, but he assured her that his primary focus was getting the Torah back and that he would respect her request for anonymity. She also indicated that she has a strong passion for her religious faith and that if it were property from her church, she wouldn’t feel right until it was back where it belonged.

Then the e-mails stopped. Late Thursday evening, with the assistance of the synagogue’s rabbi and president, Saks sent another e-mail: “It would be tremendous of you to finalize this tomorrow, before the beginning of our Sabbath so we could use the Torah in our services on the Sabbath. We appreciate that you are a church-going person and understand how much this means to us.”

On Friday morning, the woman delivered the Torah, tefillin and prayer shawls in a black garbage bag to an office in the complex where the synagogue is located; nobody was at the synagogue.

Congregant Jessica Weiss, wife of president Farley Weiss, went to the synagogue after being notified of the woman’s visit, dressed the Torah and returned it to the ark. “It was unreal,” she said. She said the garbage bag hadn’t smelled like it had been in a trash bin.

The Torah, including the cover and silver adornments, was in perfect condition, said Rabbi Reuven Mann. In addition, it was rolled to the exact place where the congregation read it on the Shabbat before. “It’s like a miracle,” he said.

After the burglary, the story of the stolen Torah spread throughout the world. Mann heard from colleagues in New York who found out about it, and it was reported in the Israeli press. “People were really concerned,” he said, adding that he also received a call from a pastor who expressed his concern.

“We have no plans on pressing charges against the woman who returned the item,” said Farley Weiss. “That does not mean that we will not pursue going after the person who we believe stole the item,” he said. “We want (that) person to be caught and be prevented from stealing items in the future.”

The synagogue has upgraded its security system to include an alarm and cameras, he said.

Investigation of the case continues, according to Sgt. Tommy Thompson of the Phoenix Police Department. “We want to do whatever we can to make sure it never happens again.”

Leisah Woldoff is managing editor of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.