On Friday, Sept. 5, Shalom Zachmy, the ritual director of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, began preparing the Torah scrolls for the first Bat Mitzvah service of the new season, when he noticed that a substantial number of the silver adornments were missing from the arks in the main and sisterhood sanctuaries, as well as from the chapel. The theft, which was determined to have taken place sometime between June 29 and Sept. 5, was immediately reported to Cheltenham Township police.
According to the police report, the stolen items include: 11 silver breastplates; three silver crowns; 14 Torah adornments; and 12 silver yads, or Torah pointers.
Detective Michael Levitsky said that while a few employees have been interviewed by the police, there are no leads at the current time, and the theft "is still being investigated."
Executive director Harvey Friedrich and congregation president Fred Wolfson informed congregants of the theft in a letter dated Sept. 29.
In the letter, the total loss is estimated "to be in excess of $25,000"; the police report states that the value is closer to about $57,000. The exact dollar amount won't be known until the insurance company appraises the value of the missing items, explained Friedrich.
The stolen items were insured, but that covers just the financial and artistic worth of the items, he said, not the sentimental value or religious significance of the pieces, some of which date back 60 years or so. He said the silver was all donated over the years by congregants as a way of honoring loved ones; the families who dedicated the items are still being notified.
"The monetary loss pales in comparison to the emotional loss," noted Friedrich.
While he said the synagogue is looking to replace some of the lost items in the next few months, Friedrich has "some hope it will be recovered."
Levitsky said police have checked a few pawnshops in Philadelphia in search of the missing items, which have also been registered on the Art Loss Register, an international, independent, stolen-art-and-religious-items database, so that even 20 years from now, if one of the items shows up, it could be identified and returned.
The religious materials were all comprised of "pretty fine-grade silver," said Friedrich, but considering that some of the items were engraved, "there is not a lot of value for resale," though, theoretically, they could be melted down.
Friedrich commented that since there was no vandalism or damage done in the arks, whoever committed the theft was "somebody who is very desperate." He added that the burglar — or burglars — "knew we weren't using these arks" at the time and had "some knowledge of how we operate."
Friedrich noted that, even though the arks were known to be locked and secured during the period when the theft probably occurred, the synagogue will be beefing up its security measures, including installing a new system that will take a photo each time the ark is opened, to "ensure such a loss in the future is less likely."
He also said, all things considered, the synagogue is "fortunate that this is the extent of our loss," and that none of Torahs were damaged.
Anyone with information is asked to call police at 215-885-1600, Ext. 452. A reward is being offered in the case.