At least three New Jersey synagogues have been victimized by check thefts in the past year, in a spree that some worry may have been carried out by two or more Jews who specifically target Jewish institutions and private homes.
Two Livingston shuls, Congregation Etz Chaim and Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center, and one in West Orange, Congregation Ohr Torah, were struck in recent months when thieves removed envelopes from mailboxes outside their doors.
“We had about $30,000 in checks stolen from our mailbox,” Michael Diamond, a board member of Ohr Torah, wrote in an e-mail to NJ Jewish News. “This seems to be a widespread problem, and people need to be aware that there are risks and precautions that need to be taken.”
According to Diamond, local police departments, the FBI, and federal postal inspectors are investigating the thefts. No law enforcement agencies returned NJJN’s phone calls.
In Rockland County, NY, this past July, Ramapo police arrested two Brooklyn males in what Diamond and others hope could be a breakthrough in solving the local thefts, which were first observed in March and continued for several months. The men were alleged to have taken mail from a mailbox of a private residence and to have had 100 pieces of stolen mail in their possession. A police report said they were in possession of larger checks that were to be sent to Israel by courier. No reports of local thefts have been reported since the arrests.
Ohr Torah president Ed Croman said the checks taken from his synagogue were fraudulently endorsed and cashed at various banks and check-cashing outlets in the tristate area. “Some of them made their way to Israel. I think the money may go there,” Croman told NJJN.
Croman said he has learned from a private detective that the thieves, operating out of Brooklyn and Israel, have also targeted homes in affluent Jewish neighborhoods.
“We’ve been told by a private detective that these criminals knock on doors and go into people’s houses claiming to be in need of charity,” he said. “They gain access to houses and then case the joint, then send people back later to steal.”
Etz Chaim president Wayne Zuckerman told NJJN his synagogue lost “in the plus or minus of $10,000” over the course of a four- or five-month spree ending in the late spring. His members first discovered the thefts “around February or March, when people started realizing their checks did not clear. We are now in a more secure situation,” he said without elaboration.
Ohr Torah members have also taken new precautions. “We have since moved to a post office box,” Diamond said.
Diamond said Suburban Torah Center was also victimized, but no one from that synagogue returned calls before press time.
‘Most troubling aspect’
The thefts were first detected in March, when officials at Ohr Torah discovered that a rent check from a synagogue tenant, the children’s play group Gymboree, was missing from its mailbox.
“Shortly thereafter we found that a lot of checks that had been mailed to us were stolen,” said Croman. “We didn’t know by whom, and we didn’t even know if it was an outside job. But as things unfolded, it turned out things were happening at other synagogues.”
Word began spreading through the community by word of mouth.
“We have someone in our shul who said his brother’s shul in Long Island had the same problem,” said Diamond.
The local victims said they believe the thieves have also struck in Passaic, Staten Island, and Rockland County.
One break in the case may have come on July 26, when police in Ramapo stopped a minivan.
They were responding to a report that the two men inside “had just taken mail from a mailbox of a private residence in the village of Wesley Hills,” according to a Ramapo Police Department news release.
Inside the van were what police described as “over 100 pieces of mail that had been opened, along with checks that had been removed from the mail.”
Police said the suspects “were also in possession of metal cooking tongs with double stick tape on the ends. The tongs were used to retrieve mail they could not reach by hand.”
The suspects are 26-year-old Eliya Aqva and 32-year-old Sharon Benshusahan. Both men have addresses on New York Avenue in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Each was charged with two misdemeanors, criminal possession of stolen property, and possession of burglar’s tools and a trespassing violation.
In addition, Aqva is accused of driving without a license. The two men will face a hearing at the municipal court in Monsey, NY, on Dec. 9.
According to the Ramapo Police release, “The two suspects would take the smaller denomination checks to be deposited in various accounts or cashed directly. The larger denomination checks were going to be sent to Israel by courier where they would be cashed.”
“The most troubling aspect is that this crime ring seems to be Jewish,” wrote Diamond in his e-mail. “The two that were arrested were Jews from Brooklyn” with kipot in their mug shots, he added.