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Robber uses synagogue van for getaway

The vehicle, sporting Stars of David and a rooftop ad, wasn't the best choice. Rabbi sees a Yom Kippur lesson.

October 12, 2008|Jacqueline L. Salmon | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The bank robber was looking to steal a getaway car and had a choice of two minivans, parked next to each other outside Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld's house here. One was a nondescript silver Toyota Sienna. The other was an old Dodge Caravan decorated with Stars of David and sporting a rooftop ad for a synagogue.

Guess which one the robber took.

"I don't know what he was thinking," said a mystified Herzfeld, rabbi of Ohev Sholom synagogue. "He thought he would blend right in?"

Police say the robber used the synagogue's van when he held up a Commerce Bank in suburban Clinton, Md., on Sept. 2. The 15-year-old vehicle, a former taxi donated to the Orthodox synagogue by the owner of a cab company, had been used as a cruising advertisement for the house of worship by its energetic young rabbi, known for his offbeat promotional ideas.

Aside from the Stars of David and contact information for the synagogue on the doors, the former taxi's giant rooftop cruising light had been draped with an ad for the synagogue along with a photo of a shofar, a ram's horn that Jews have used since biblical times. On the rear of the vehicle was the invitation: "Join Us on the High Way."

"I think he took it literally," said Herzfeld, who sermonized about the theft at a packed service marking the start of Yom Kippur, the holiest time on the Jewish calendar, when Jews repent for their sins.

According to a Prince George's County, Md., police spokesman, a man wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap held up the bank shortly after the van was stolen from in front of Herzfeld's home, a few blocks from Ohev Sholom. At the bank, the thief passed a note to a teller implying he had a weapon and escaped in the minivan.

The robber hasn't been caught. The van was discovered Sept. 22 in a ditch a few miles from the bank, its motor shot. The only item missing was the rooftop cruising light with the shofar.

The "Jewmobile," as some members of the synagogue called it, hadn't been popular with everyone at Ohev Sholom. When members asked Herzfeld whether he was embarrassed to drive it through the streets of Washington, he would reply that he was proud of his congregation and wanted to attract more people to services.

In his sermon, Herzfeld said the thief missed the symbolism of the shofar, which is blown at Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services as a potent symbol of the season of remorse and forgiveness.

"The shofar on the van was a message to repent, to come to synagogue and pray," Herzfeld told his congregation. "Yet he didn't hear the shofar; he stole the shofar."

Jews, who spend part of the Yom Kippur prayer service recounting the litany of potential sins committed over the past year, can take a lesson from the thief, Herzfeld said.

"The truth is that on Yom Kippur we are reminded that we are all thieves," he told them. "When we sin, we are violating our purpose on this earth."

Spiritual lessons aside, Herzfeld is taking no chances when the next synagogue car is decorated.

He's adding the commandment: "Thou Shalt Not Steal."

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