Isaac Leider, of the New York ZAKA Rescue and Recovery Organization, waded through waist-deep toxic floodwaters yesterday with six Torah scrolls from Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in New Orleans. A few of the Torah scrolls are believed to be more than 250 years old.
“Out of six, only two are possibly restorable,” Leider said, as he sat in an inflatable rescue boat with the Torah scrolls he recovered. “I’m glad that we did this, but I’m terribly saddened. It’s hard to see them in this condition.” The scrolls are blackened from the toxic water and severely damaged.
Leider, who spent five years with ZAKA’s search-and-rescue squad in Israel, arrived in New Orleans last week to ensure that the bodies of Jews killed by Hurricane Katrina are treated in accordance with Jewish religious law.
In the operation to rescue the Torah scrolls, Leider was joined by members of the National Guard and other volunteers who were brought by ZAKA in a private helicopter from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. The helicopter landed a few blocks away from the synagogue, and an inflatable boat was used to transport ZAKA volunteers to Congregation Beth Israel.
Since the Israel-based charity organization, ZAKA, is strapped for cash, Agudath Israel of America partially funded the operation.
Upon opening the ark, Mr. Leider burst into tears as he removed the Torah scrolls, all of them drenched. The scrolls were subsequently handed over to representatives of the synagogue in Baton Rouge.