Two Torah scrolls and other religious objects were stolen and the Aron Kodesh vandalized at the Chabad of the Beaches shul in Long Beach over the weekend.
The incident occurred as the congregation was prepared to celebrate the first Rosh Hashanah in its new home on Walnut Street, a spacious, well-lit facility with plenty of room for both davening and children to play.
While a suspect was arrested and some objects were recovered by police, the Torah scrolls remained missing on Wednesday.
Repairs will be made and and services will take place as planned when the new year begins on Labor Day, but the vandalism and theft two weeks before the High Holy Days will leave a stain on the memory of the congregation and the season will be tinged “with a little bit of darkness,” Rabbi Eli Goodman, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, told at a press conference on the boardwalk on Monday.
On Shabbat afternoon, Aug. 23, the new shul, where carpets were still being laid in preparation for the holidays, was attacked. Two Torahs and their crowns, yads and silver adornments were stolen and two other Torahs tossed to the floor. The Aron Kodesh was broken, one of its doors ripped off.
A suspect, identified by Long Beach Police Commissioner Ron Walsh as a 23-year-old homeless man, was arrested. Walsh said the individual has an extensive arrest record across the country but none in Long Beach. He declined to discuss the arrests.
The man was taken to Nassau County Medical Center in East Meadow for medical evaluation. He was arraigned at his bedside on Monday, charged with burglary, grand larceny and other offenses. Walsh said he did not consider the act a hate crime but added, “We are not convinced he acted alone. We are open to all possibilities.” He declined to elaborate.
Walsh said that before police received a call about the vandalism at the synagogue, they received other calls about a naked man on the beach carrying what looked like a fishing pole or a spear. The man was also seen wearing a prayer shawl while coming out of the water. Police said the man was arrested on Saturday on charges of indecent exposure.
Soon after the arrest, police learned of the vandalism and thefts at Chabad of the Beaches and a police investigation linked the suspect to the break-in. What looked like a fishing rod, Walsh said, turned out to be a yad, a Torah pointer.
Walsh said some other items, including crowns, were found on the beach near Lindell Boulevard, approximately where the suspect was seen naked on Saturday. He was re-arrested on the new and more serious charges.
Police said the suspect is refusing to tell them what he did with the items that have not been found, and it is possible they were thrown into the sea. As a result, police have been conducting a thorough search on land and asking beachgoers to report any sightings of the stolen items.
“We have scoured every backyard, every garbage pail, every bush in a grid along this entire neighborhood,” Walsh said.
On Monday, just before the press conference on the boardwalk, three police officers could be seen walking the beach, searching for items stolen from the synagogue.
Two sets of press conferences were held Monday. In the morning, in Lido Beach, Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin and Councilman Bruce Blakeman, the Republican candidate for county executive, said they will lead “a coastline patrol” in search for the religious items that Long Beach police say were thrown onto the beach and possibly into the ocean after the break-in.
In the afternoon, County Executive Laura Curran, the Democrat running for a second term, state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Long Beach Democrat running for county district attorney, state Senator Denise Ford, a Republican from Long Beach, and Walsh stood at a podium at Lindell Boulevard and the boardwalk. Each group was joined by Rabbi Goodman.
“We have a First Amendment,” Curran said. “Our houses of worship have to be protected.”
Kaminsky, who said he attends services at the Chabad, found the incident “very troubling.”
“Today, we rally around the Chabad,” he said.
“My heart breaks for the many families who call the Chabad of the Beaches their spiritual home, and I want them to know the Town of Hempstead stands with them during this sad hour,” Town Supervisor Don Clavin said. “These shorefront safety patrols led by the Town will help aid in the search of the many sacred items taken during this incident and raise awareness amongst the general public to remain vigilant as the recovery mission continues.”
Rabbi Goodman thanked the police, the city of Long Beach, and the community for their support. He said the Torahs had been used “for many, many generations. We would like to get them back.”
He is asking for help in seeking funding to replace the stolen Torahs, which cost between $50,000 to $60,000 each, and make other repairs. As of Wednesday evening, nearly $17,000 had been raised on a Go Fund Me page (gofund.me/614d8383).
The Chabad of the Beaches offers religious observances on the beach as well as inside the synagogue. “For those who want to be inside, we will make it happen,” Goodman said.
Police are asking anyone with information about the Torahs to call the Long Beach Police Department Detective Division at 516-705-7320
The Rockaway Nassau Safety Patrol (516-858-7300) said it was working with the NYPD Special Operations unit in case the scrolls wash up within the confines of New York City. RNSP said a $25,000 reward had been posted.
James Bernstein is editor of the Long Beach Herald.