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That was only the beginning.
From their Jerusalem hotel, my mother and aunt called the synagogue every day for a week, asking for Finkelstein and pleading for an update on the Torah search. They were rarely connected with him directly, and when they were, he reiterated that he had no information.
(Reached by the Forward for this story, Finkelstein said that he did not recall the specifics of his initial conversation with my mother and her sister. He said that he attempted to match a photo of my family’s Torah with the scrolls in the Great Synagogue to no avail, and that he also gave information about the Torah to Hechal Shlomo. Hechal Shlomo did not return requests for comment from the Forward.)
Upon her return to the United States, my aunt continued the inquiry, exchanging dozens of emails with Finkelstein, Zalli Jaffe, a synagogue vice president and attorney, and Asher Schapiro, chairman of the board, about their attempts to locate the Torah. The emails add up to 18 printed pages at most recent count.
The back-and-forth became demoralizing and, at times, infuriating. The confusion was further heightened by the fact that no one individual was taking ownership of the Torah search: Sometimes Schapiro, sometimes Finkelstein, sometimes Jaffe — really, who was in charge over there?
At one point, Schapiro enacted a show of sympathy in an email, explaining that his own family also lost a Torah saved from the war when it was later loaned to a hotel for a bar mitzvah. I wondered: Does the chairman of the board really want to draw a parallel between the Great Synagogue and, say, the Marriott? Shall we assume that one of the largest synagogues in Jerusalem places no more import on the safekeeping of a Torah than a hotel?
This past summer, I learned that Finkelstein, known in America as George Finkelstein, had resigned from his post at the Great Synagogue after the Forward reported that he had been dogged by allegations of sexual abuse over decades. The claims began when he was an administrator at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan. The Forward also found that in 2009, a man filed a complaint with the Jerusalem police alleging that Finkelstein had behaved inappropriately by wrestling with him in the rabbi’s home and at the Great Synagogue. The police dropped the case in 2010 for lack of evidence. Needless to say, the allegations against Finkelstein made my family even more skeptical about the trustworthiness of the Great Synagogue.