2009-03-06 / Front Page

Man Claims Synagogue 'Stole' His Torahs

By Howard Schwach

A former Rockaway resident, who says he is nearing the end of his life and looking for a legacy, wants to give the unique torah scrolls his grandfather brought out of Russia in 1905 to his nephew. However, a local synagogue, to which he says the family "loaned" the scrolls more than 30 years ago, says that the one they have belongs to the congregation.

Jacob Vogel, who now lives in Manhattan, but who lived in Belle Harbor for much of his youth, says that his grandparents, fleeing the pogroms in their native land, took their ten children and the two torahs, their most valuable possessions, to America.

Vogel says that they loaned the two small torahs, one about 18 inches tall and the other a little larger, to Congregation Ohab Zedek on Beach 134 Street in about 1955.

In the early 1980s, he says, an agreement was signed that while the congregation could use the torahs, the family would retain the rights to the scrolls and would pay insurance and repair costs.

He says that the family's copy of the agreement was lost after his father, Hyman, passed away and his papers were discarded.

"I am the only one left from those ten children who came here from Russia in 1905, and I want to pass the family legacy on to my nephew," Vogel told The Wave. "We loaned them the torahs, and now they tell me that I can't have them back. That is not right."

"Rabbi Reiner, who led the congregation, knows about the loan, but the new, young rabbi won't even talk to me," he added.

Congregation officials, however, tell another story.

Joel Berkowitz, one of the congregation's presidents, says that he knows of one small torah, but that he has been with the synagogue since the 1980s and has never seen a second miniature torah.

After searching the synagogue's files, he says that there is no evidence that the one torah that exists was ever on loan.

"There is no paperwork that shows that it was loaned to us, that it is not our property," Berkowitz said. "Perhaps Mr. Vogel has the perception that it was loaned to us more than 50 years ago, but that may not be the reality. To say that a man has stolen your torah is the worst thing that one Jew can say about another. We would never do anything like that."

He added that the one miniature torah in their possession is unusable.

"Torahs have to be 100 percent," he said. "The small Safer Torah that was carried by rabbis as they went from town to town is in such disrepair that it cannot be made usable."

Why not then return it to Vogel?

"It has no monetary value," Berkowitz said, "but it has holiness value. I can't release it without paperwork showing that it belongs to Vogel or without the permission of the board of directors. We have no such paperwork."

Rabbi Jacob Reiner, who served the congregation from 1968 to 2002, and who is now its Rabbi Emeritus, told The Wave that he remembers the one unique torah, but has no knowledge of how it came to be in the ark.

"All I know," he said, "was that it was in the ark and that Hyman Vogel read from it on Thursdays and Saturdays. I never saw a paper that said that it was either loaned or given [to the congregation]."

"I haven't seen it in years," he added.

Vogel says that he is not sure of his next step. He is distraught that he cannot pass what he considers the family's torah on to his nephew.

"This is not right," he says. "This is not what a religious institution should be doing."

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