Clutching them like rescued babies, a non-Jewish police officer salvaged two Torah scrolls from the ruins of the Chabad-Lubavitch center in downtown Christchurch, providing a momentary relief to a Jewish community forced to mourn the additional loss of two Israeli backpackers.

Calling Det. Chris Bell no less than a hero, Chabad House co-director Rabbi Shmuel Friedman said that the officer literally risked life and limb for the sake of the scrolls.

“We didn’t come to him; he came to us,” related Friedman, who approached the city’s central business district with an Israeli backpacker on a mission to find someone to help them recover the scrolls. “He walked up to us, and asked for identification. And when we told him about our Torahs, he offered to take us there in the squad car.”

What they found resembled a war zone: Whole buildings toppled into piles of rubble on the street. Friedman didn’t recognize where they were. With several of its weight-bearing walls crumpled into its main hall, the Chabad House was “red-tagged,” forbidding entry to anyone but emergency personnel.

“When he heard of the importance of the Torah to Jews around the world,” recalled Freidman, “he put on his helmet and gloves, and went in himself.”

For the rabbi, who just a day before chanted a traditional mourner’s prayer as the recently-identified bodies of 22-year-old Israeli citizens Ofer Levy and Gabi Ingel were handed over by authorities for repatriation, the recovery of the scrolls was a welcome bit of good news.

Chabad House co-director Rabbi Shmuel Friedman described Det. Chris Bell as a hero for his selfless rescue of the center's two Torah scrolls.
Chabad House co-director Rabbi Shmuel Friedman described Det. Chris Bell as a hero for his selfless rescue of the center's two Torah scrolls.

“For me, it was extremely emotional,” said Friedman, who like many residents was left homeless in last week’s 6.3-magnitude earthquake. “It was such a beautiful scene when I saw the detective coming out from the Chabad House. It was like a fireman coming out of a burning building clutching a baby.”

Current casualty figures blame the quake for 155 deaths, including those of Levy, Ingel and 23-year-old Ofer Mizrachi, an Israeli whose body was identified on Sunday and flown home for burial. Reports, however, indicate the toll could rise; the Israeli Embassy warned that another of its citizens still remains unaccounted for.

Amidst such gloom, it’s amazing that anyone would risk further loss of life, stated a thankful Rabbi Mendel Goldstein, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of New Zealand.

“We are really overjoyed by this remarkable rescue by this heroic police officer,” said Goldstein. “He went into what is literally an extremely dangerous situation and pulled out the Torahs; it’s completely unbelievable.”

Goldstein pledged that life would continue for the city, its Jewish community, and the thousands of Israeli tourists who visit the region each year. Just a shell of the Chabad House remains, the result of several tons of roof crashing through the building, but already, plans are underway to open a temporary center on the outskirts of the central business district.

Related Video: Eyewitness Account
Chabad emissary from Christchurch, New Zealand, Tzippy Friedman speaks from the scene of the earthquake.

“While a number of local families have moved out of the city, many of those who’ve remained behind are extremely vulnerable and still in shock, and need all the help they can get in terms of comfort, support, and a lot of the practical things,” said Goldstein. “So we’ve arranged with other communities for food to be flown in from Auckland and Wellington and Australia. Moshe Naor, the B’nei Akiva representative in Auckland, has reached out to our community and is helping greatly with the relief effort.

“We’ll continue to serve the Jewish community,” he added, “and with G‑d’s help, we’ll certainly rebuild the Chabad House.”

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