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Hatch joins Jewish rabbis in seeking return of sacred texts held by Russia

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch reaffirmed his commitment this week to securing the return of sacred Jewish texts from the Russian government.

"Much like Utah's early settlers, our Jewish brothers and sisters are a record-keeping people who cherish the word of God and look to holy scripture as a source of identity and inspiration. As a person of faith myself, I was moved by their earnest desire to reclaim these religious records for the benefit of future generations," Hatch said in a statement provided by his office.

The texts, referred to as the Schneerson collection, are the "spiritual crown jewel of Chabad," an orthodox movement within Judaism, according to Rabbi Chaim Cunin, one of the men who met with Hatch. The collection includes approximately 12,000 Jewish holy books and 25,000 handwritten documents, such as letters.

"Many of the books of commentary include notes from rabbis. They annotated the margins with personal thoughts and teachings," Rabbi Cunin said. "The documents include the stories and struggles of people who, in some cases, only exist on these pages."

The Chabad community first lost part of the Schneerson collection a century ago, when books and documents were seized by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. Then additional documents were taken by the Nazis during World War II when members of the Chabad community fled Poland for their own safety.

In the 1980s, Jewish leaders discovered that missing pieces of the collection were being held by the Russian government. They've been working since then to secure their return.

These documents are "of immense and indescribable spiritual significance," said Rabbi Cunin, who serves as CEO of Chabad of California.

Hatch has been aware of the Schneerson collection since the early 1990s, when he joined with his 99 fellow senators to call for their release. Another application was made to Russian leaders in February 2005, but, so far, only eight volumes have been returned — one to then-Vice President Al Gore during his 1993 trip to Russia and seven more to then-President Bill Clinton on another official visit.

The collection has been embroiled in an international legal dispute since 2004, according to a 2013 account in Tablet Magazine, a publication of Jewish news and culture. The article explains a major cause of the impasse is that American and Russian officials have divergent opinions on why ownership of the collection matters.

"The Russians aren’t so worried about losing precious Jewish manuscripts, but rather about setting a legal precedent for returning nationalized Soviet property at large," wrote Avital Chizhik.

At a meeting Monday, Hatch signed a third unanimous request from the Senate to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the return of the sacred letters. He also finalized a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, which asks for the State Department's support in these efforts.

"I write to ask for your help in conveying this letter, and the two previous letters to which it refers, to President Putin, and in securing the return of this collection of religious works to Chabad, its rightful owners," Hatch wrote to Tillerson.

The senator said his work with and on behalf of the Jewish community is especially important after recent incidents of vandalism and religious discrimination aimed at these believers in the United States.

"Amid a wave of rising anti-Semitism, showing solidarity with our Jewish friends is more important now than ever before," Hatch noted.

The rabbis blessed and hung a mezuzah, an important symbol of the Jewish community, next to the door frame of Hatch's office, sharing their gratitude for his long-term support.

"Our spirits are really high right now," Rabbi Cunin said, noting that he's glad Hatch and others have recognized the significance of the missing sacred texts.

"This affects not just every Chabad rabbi and community member, but also every Jew," he said. "This is a plea for historical justice."