holding Torah 298.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Members of Netanya's Pe'er Yisrael synagogue and hundreds of local residents welcomed the latest addition to their community on the day before Rosh Hashana as a procession of singing, dancing participants ushered in a Torah scroll written in Europe before World War II and recently donated by a dwindling US Jewish community.
The scroll was originally read in the Great Synagogue of Vienna that was destroyed during the war, and previously belonged to the Beth Jacob synagogue in Astoria, Long Island, which closed seven years ago.
"The Torah serves as a connection between Jews from all over the world who follow the same Bible, regardless of the land they live in or hail from," Rabbi David Schluss, the chief Sephardi rabbi of Netanya, said in his address.
Pe'er Yisrael members Zev and Sara Itzkowitz, who served as the last rabbi and rabbanit of the Beth Jacob community, were instrumental in bringing the scroll to Israel. Astoria was once home to tens of thousands of Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors. By the time the Itzkowitzes came to Beth Jacob, its members were old, and the dynamics of the community were changing. On a good Shabbat there were 20 to 25 members in attendance instead of the hundreds that once filled the prayer hall.
Itzkowitz, who received his rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University, says that he and his wife put their heart, soul, and tears into trying to renew the membership.
"We had community outreach programs, invited guests and speakers for Shabbat, and tried to give the congregants a listening ear," recalls Sara Itzkowitz.
Despite their efforts, the synagogue finally closed its doors in 1998, after 70 years of community service.
While seeing the synagogue close was a blow, it provided Itzkowitz an opportunity to realize an aspiration. Eighteen months later, he and his family made aliya.
"Living in Israel had always been my dream, but I had placed it on the back burner in order to complete my studies. I also wanted to serve in the US Air Force reserves as a chaplaincy candidate to give back something to the country that had been very good to me, my family, and people."
In Israel, Itzkowitz began working as a computer programmer, while his wife continued with her profession as a psychologist. Yet they maintained close connections with their former congregation and knew that the synagogue's trustees placed its Torah scrolls in special storage facilities and were looking for communities to adopt them.
Before the Pe'er Yisrael congregation moved into new quarters in the Zevulun school in the Amalia neighborhood a few months ago, the congregants decided that they need another Sefer Torah. Itzkowitz set about making the match.
He contacted Beth Jacob's president, Betty Korb, about the possibility of donating one of the scrolls from Astoria to the thriving Pe'er Yisrael community in Israel. Sal Cervantes, a member of Beth Jacob, told Itzkowitz that other synagogues had expressed a preference for Beth Jacob's newer Torahs but that an older, previously used one was available.
"This was exactly what we wanted," says Ben Pashkoff, a member of Pe'er Yisrael who arranged for the scroll to be personally escorted to Israel.
The Pe'er Yisrael community comprises Jews from countries as disparate as the US, the former Soviet Union, India, and Ethiopia.
"We are a congregation whose members have a history, have traveled great distances to make aliya, and appreciate the history of lives in the Diaspora. My wife and I made aliya from Houston, Texas, where my family lived for seven generations and my grandfather was one of the first rabbis in 1864. We have one member, Eliezer Henscher, whose mother prayed in the Great Synagogue in Vienna where the Torah came from," adds Pashkoff.
The Torah has now completed its journey. Itzkowitz has put in a special request to be the first to read from it.
"It is our privilege to welcome the Sefer Torah to our community in Israel. It has made a long journey through many perils to be united with Israel, its home and love," says Sara Itzkowitz.
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