The Chabad community in Long Beach had just moved into a renovated facility last year before the High Holy Days when a man broke into its synagogue, ransacked the sanctuary and stole two Torahs.
The sacred scrolls had been in the community for decades and were used for hundreds of religious rituals, including bar and bat mitzvahs that were landmarks in people’s lives.
“We were shellshocked,” recalled Rabbi Eli Goodman, who heads Chabad of the Beaches. “It was a great tragedy.”
A massive hunt for the Torahs, which even included deep sea divers from the Nassau County Police Department searching the Atlantic Ocean, turned up nothing.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Two Torahs stolen from Chabad of the Beaches in Long Beach last year were never found.
- The community has commissioned two new ones and one is currently in use.
- On this Yom Kippur, they're focused on forgiveness and renewal, according to the rabbi.
But now, as the Chabad marks Yom Kippur services starting Tuesday evening, the holiest day of the year on the Jewish calendar is a moment of renewed celebration.
The synagogue has commissioned the writing of two Torahs to replace the stolen ones, and the first of the holy books is now ready.
The faithful were to use it Tuesday evening as they commenced the Day of Atonement, the most solemn and important day of the year. For 25 hours, through Wednesday an hour after sunset, they and other Jewish people throughout Long Island and the world abstain from eating, drinking and other comforts.
They will also engage in prayer and intense self-reflection. The holy day will end with a “triumphal blast” of a shofar, or ram’s horn.
At Chabad of the Beaches, the services will include deep gratitude for the new Torah — and a second one they hope will arrive from Israel in the coming months.
“It will be a powerful moment,” Goodman said this week. “People are happy that we didn’t take a step back, but we actually wrote a beautiful Torah.”
The theme of forgiveness also looms large for the congregation, he said, as that along with self-reflection are some of the main concepts of Yom Kippur.
“It is a time for us to forgive,” Goodman said. “At the same time it is for God to forgive.”
In August 2021, just before Rosh Hashanah, a man police identified as Hunter McElrath, then 23, was found on the beach naked, holding a spear and wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl stolen from Chabad of the Beaches.
McElrath was charged with felony burglary, criminal mischief and grand larceny for ransacking the temple. He also stole several silver crowns that are placed on the Torah.
McElrath pleaded guilty on Dec. 21, with a condition of six months incarceration, five years probation, waiver of appeal and a Stay Away Order of Protection, according to the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office. However, he did not show up for sentencing on Feb. 22, and a warrant is out for his arrest.
Police last year said McElrath appeared to be in mental distress.
After the theft, there was an outpouring of goodwill, Goodman said. Some 150 volunteers from the tristate area, brought together by a Jewish organization, joined the search for the Torahs for two days, he said. Priests and leaders from other religions offered their support, too.
The solidarity “gave us a sense of comfort during those difficult times,” he said.
Today, the congregation has repaired the synagogue and added new security measures, such as a security gate around the ark where the Torahs are kept.
The first new Torah was written in the United States, while the second one is being written in Israel.
It is a painstaking process, done by hand on parchment, and it must follow hundreds of rules, Goodman said. A professional scribe is hired for the work, which involves about 300,000 letters.
Some congregants were able to participate, writing a few of the letters in Hebrew at the beginning and the end of the Torah.
The stolen Torah “is a sacred thing and also it can never be replaced,” Goodman said. “There were families that had personal celebrations using that specific Torah.”
But “we’re not dwelling on the past. We are moving forward,” he added. “And that is the message of Yom Kippur.”