4 haredim arrested in theft ring $2 million of Judaica recovered

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TEL AVIV — A gang of haredi Israelis is suspected of stealing valuable Judaica, ritual objects and holy books from synagogues, museums and private collections across Europe, smuggling them into Israel and later reselling them.

Four suspects were arrested on Monday and Tuesday, a Tel Aviv police spokesperson said. Additional arrests are expected, he said, adding that at this point all the members of the gang appear to be Israelis.

Police found $2 million worth of stolen valuables in the Jerusalem home of one suspect, Aharon Stefanasky, 36, the spokesperson said.

The valuables included two pairs of rimonim, or Torah ornaments, stolen from the Montefiore Synagogue in Kent, England, on Feb. 15. The rimonim, worth $450, 000 and part of the Montefiore family's private collection, were made in Holland in the 18th century and in Italy in the 19th.

Tel Aviv police are in the process of identifying the other objects, which may have been stolen in Gibraltar, Belgium, France and other European countries, as well as in Israel. They intend to circulate photographs of the objects among European police forces.

Detectives began investigating the gang several days ago, in cooperation with the British police, after receiving information that the rimonim were here.

Last Thursday, two suspects allegedly tried to resell the Judaica to a local merchant.

On Monday, police staked out the store here where the sale was supposed to take place and arrested Yerahmiel Hershler, 45, of Bnei Brak, when he showed up with another set of rimonim.

Later that night, they arrested Stefansky and searched his home, finding millions of dollars worth of valuables that were suspected of being stolen and the Montefiore rimonim.

They also arrested Amnon Edri, 31, of Haifa, who had recently returned from a trip to Europe, on suspicion he plotted and carried out the thefts abroad.

Later in the day, a fourth suspect was arrested in the northern Israel.

The Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court Tuesday remanded Hershler until tomorrow and the other two until Sunday. The three all denied that knowing that the objects were stolen. Edri also denied being involved in theft or smuggling.

"The police have lots of material to investigate, because we have hidden nothing. Everything is kosher with us. If we were criminals then they wouldn't have anything to investigate, because we would have hidden everything," Stefansky said.

Hershler's attorney, Gil Dachoah, said that his client had simply taken some objects he was considering buying from Stefansky to Sotheby's for an appraisal. Hershler had not yet bought the objects and did not try to sell them, he said.

However, Judge David Rozin remanded the three, saying there was strong evidence to back up police suspicions that they were involved in varying degrees with "a gang that for several years has been stealing and dealing in Judaica that has financial value as well as historic, religious, and personal value."

In today's stolen art market, "pieces are stolen to order," Sotheby's spokeswoman Francis Barrow said.

"The fact that the pieces were recovered showed that the system really does work…their coming here resulted in these pieces being recovered," she explained.