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Rabbi goes on search to recover holy texts

NEW ORLEANS -- Satisfied that most of his congregants were safe, the rabbi began to worry about the Torahs.

Rabbi Yisroel Shiff of Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans hoped that his Orthodox synagogue's holy scrolls would come through Hurricane Katrina undamaged. But if not, he wanted them buried in the appropriate manner.

''We bury them with honor, as we would someone we care about -- the Torah is the life's blood of our community," Shiff said.

The rabbi, who evacuated to Tennessee before Katrina hit, knew that the temple near the shores of Lake Pontchartrain had been flooded. But, he said, ''we believe in miracles. Maybe the water didn't reach the scrolls."

He called Rabbi Isaac Leider, who had spent five years in Israel with the search-and-rescue squad Zak'a performing sacramental cleanup duties at the site of bus bombings and other disasters. Leider, who also volunteered his services at the World Trade Center and the TWA Flight 800 crash site, now works with a Jewish ambulance service in New York City and New Jersey.

He had come to New Orleans to make sure that the bodies of any Jews who died as a result of Hurricane Katrina were treated according to religious law. But he also focused on the task of retrieving the congregation's holy scrolls.

Shiff said at least one of the Torahs had been there when he attended the synagogue as a child -- he doesn't know exactly how old the scrolls are.

''We had them appraised and were told our scrolls are much older than 100 years," he said. ''They must have come from Europe. The congregation is 101 years old, and they have been with them at least that long."

Often, Torahs are the most valuable artifacts of a Jewish congregation. A new Torah scroll can cost $50,000. Older scrolls -- and many are hundreds of years old -- often are worth much more.

But their value is not based on the material.

''The Torah is the basis of the Jewish religion," Leider said. ''Last week, we were saving lives, but once that was done, this became just as important."

The Torah tells the story of Moses as he led the Jews out of Egypt. The text, which Christians know as the first five books of the Old Testament, also holds the most important laws of the Jewish faith.

''The Torah is not stored in a computer file; we don't copy them on copy machines," said Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an association of several hundred Orthodox congregations that sponsored Leider's recovery efforts. ''They are only written by the most devout and knowledgeable scribes."

And when they are damaged beyond repair -- by fire or flood, for example -- they must be buried according to Jewish tradition.

Congregation Beth Israel is on the northern edge of the city, a few blocks from Lake Pontchartrain; it sits between two canals.

Leider and the rescue team climbed aboard a pair of rubber rafts with outboard motors and started toward the synagogue through flooded streets, barred in places by brambles and rusting cars.

The synagogue was still swamped by 4 feet of water. Wearing waist-high rubber waders and a yarmulke, Leider followed the rescue squad into the synagogue and made his way to the sanctuary. The wooden door swung open, slowed by the water.

The rabbi waded to the front of the hall and opened the ark that held six Torah scrolls. He also found a white prayer shawl and the silver adornments for the scrolls. He cradled them in his arms and made his way toward the rafts.

''Out of six, only two are restorable," Leider said. ''I'm glad that we did this, but I'm disappointed. It's bad to see them in this condition."

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