Two Torah scrolls saved at Christchurch's Chabad House

Rabbi Shmuel Friedman was initially stopped, then helped by police as he attempted to reach the damaged building following the earthquake in NZ.

By HENRY BENJAMIN
March 4, 2011 01:11
3 minute read.
DETECTIVE CHRIS BELL rescues the Torah scrolls.

Christchurch Torah scrolls 311. (photo credit: J-Wire Jewish Australian and New Zealand News Serv)

CHRISTCHURCH – Police initially stopped Christchurch’s Chabad House Rabbi Shmuel Friedman when he tried to reach his stricken building following last week’s earthquake.

But when they heard why he wanted to reach the structure, they aided his mission – to recover two Torah scrolls.

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Accompanied by Israeli backpacker Noam Diamant, Friedman on Wednesday headed towards the city center to what is left of the Chabad House.

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Detective Chris Bell was manning a barricade and told the two hopefuls that there was no way he could let them into the central business district, as the entire area was cordoned off.

“I pleaded with him,” Friedman said. “I explained how the Torah was hand-written on special parchment and that it was the Jewish Bible and how much importance was attached to them.”

The detective took them in a police car to Chabad House.

Friedman said, “It was a five minute drive... but it was a horrifying experience. The entire block which houses Chabad House is red-tagged and will be totally demolished.

I didn’t recognize the street. When we reached the building, the detective told us that there was no way we could enter the building as it had been officially blocked from entry and was too dangerous. I pleaded with him again.”

Bell said nothing. He headed for his car, donned a safety helmet and work gloves and headed into the remains of the Chabad House. A few minutes later he emerged carrying both Torah scrolls under his arm.

“He looked like a fireman rescuing a baby from a blazing home. Thee two Torahs will form an integral part of the rebuilding of Chabad House in Christchurch,” Friedman said.

The rabbi was in the Chabad House with one Israeli backpacker when the earthquake hit last Tuesday.

“There are usually about 10 Israelis in Chabad House at any given time. They use it as a social and networking center and we are of course happy to accommodate them. It was a miracle there was only one with me at the time. I don’t know how would could have got 20 out,” he said.

The two men made it outside to a scene of panic that looked like a war zone.

“My initial reaction was to get to my apartment two blocks away where my wife, Tzippy, was at home with our 12-month-old baby Moshe. Our apartment is on the fourth floor but had not been damaged. I grabbed the two of them and headed to what I believed would be the safety of nearby Latimer Park. I then called all the Israelis whose numbers were registered on my phone and told them to head towards the same park. After about 15 minutes, more than 60 Israelis had joined us. I had asked the ones I knew to contact all their friends to head for the park also. The Israelis immediately started calling home to Israel to let their families know they were OK, and I gathered their official IDs to let the Israeli Embassy know who was accounted for,” he said.

Today, all the Israelis have left Christchurch, as have many of the cities 80 resident Jewish families, Friedman said. “Many of them have lost homes and businesses. We said prayers last weekend...but we did not have a minyan. This coming Shabbat we are again unlikely to have a minyan... but we have our Torahs and we will hold a service in someone’s home.”

Three Israeli backpackers died in the earthquake – Ofer Mizrahi, Ofer Levy and Gabi Ingel. Two others remain unaccounted for, but officials believe they may be traveling elsewhere in New Zealand.

“One of them I know contacts home only every couple of months and has been traveling for two years,” Friedman said.

In Christchurch itself, an Israeli disaster victim identification team continues the gruesome task of helping New Zealand authorities identify the remains of those who died. The death toll has reached 160 and a third of the city still has no water supply.


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