Residents of the northern Israeli city of Safed are in shock after the discovery of six Torah scrolls stolen from the historic Tzemach Tzedek Synagogue. But even as police continue their investigation into the Friday night theft, members of the local community have commissioned the writing of a new Torah scroll in the hope that their good deeds will aid the recovery of the missing holy items.

“All the doors were open, the window bars were cut, the curtain was pulled aside, and the ark was empty,” stated Rabbi Gavriel Marzel, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary and director of the synagogue.

Marzel, who also directs Chabad of the Old City of Safed with his wife, Shterna Sara Marzel, discovered the Torah scrolls missing when he arrived early for Sabbath prayer services Saturday morning. The ark – a cabinet built to house Torah scrolls and other religious items – was in the process of being replaced with a more secure structure.

Community member Nechama Caplan’s husband Shraga was among the first people there that morning.

“My husband went to shul bit early on Shabbat morning and returned home shortly after to tell me that the Torahs had been stolen,” she related. “He was ashen and visibly shaken.”

Services were relocated to the Chabad House, and another community member lent his personal Torah scroll for use during the Sabbath morning reading.

“My children and I were obviously very upset,” said Caplan, 41, who moved to the city fromo Philadelphia last July. “All day we kept telling ourselves in disbelief that the Torahs had been stolen.”

Caplan encouraged her children to recite extra chapters of Psalms in the merit of the Torah scrolls’ return.

“They say, ‘Please G‑d, bring us our Torah scrolls back!’ ” said Caplan.

An investigator dusts for prints.
An investigator dusts for prints.

Special History

Built in the early 1800s by the followers of the Third Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who was also known as the “Tzemach Tzedek,” the synagogue holds a special place in the hearts of Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidim all over the globe. In the early 20th century, as the local Lubavitch community left the city, the building fell into disrepair, but in the 1973, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, dispatched Rabbi Aryeh Leib and Sarah Kaplan to Safed to serve as his emissaries. Among their first priorities was to rebuild the synagogue to its former glory in time for Rosh Hashanah.

The history of the Torah scrolls themselves reads like a tribute to the synagogue’s revival: One of the scrolls was dedicated in memory of Rabbi Kaplan, who perished in a 1998 car accident; another was donated by the Rappaport Family in Canada, whose foundation paid for a renovation to the synagogue three years ago; another was commissioned by the community in honor of the Jewish people; and a fourth was written in memory of Shterna Sara Marzel’s father. (The other two scrolls had been loaned to the synagogue.)

Marzel said she couldn’t bring herself to tell her mother, who is not well.

“This is still very painful for the family in a lot of ways,” she explained. “We have a big beautiful building, but when you take the diamond out of its setting …”

Her words hung in midair, and she was unable to complete the sentence.

According to Rabbi Shalom Pasternak, who runs the Yeshiva Temimei Derech the opened inside the synagogue three years ago, students have been expanding their daily studies in the merit of the stolen scrolls. They’re learning the Jewish laws governing the construction and use of Torah scrolls, and they’re also encouraging more Jewish men to don the prayer boxes known as tefillin.

On Monday night, the community held a Chasidic gathering in the synagogue in honor of the 14th anniversary of Rabbi Kaplan’s passing.

Rabbi Chaim Kaplan, who became the director of Chabad of Safed after his father’s passing, urged anyone who hears of any Torah scrolls being sold to find out where they came from and alert authorities if necessary.

“We have to do everything we can to find a way to bring them back,” said Kaplan, adding that he hopes such activities as the Monday night gathering and collective good deeds of the community will “give the Old City spiritual strength.”