While Simhat Torah is a joyous occasion for Jews of all streams, this year's celebration strikes a particularly resonant chord with Nishmat, the Jeanie Schottenstein Center for advanced Torah study for women. Thanks to the efforts of one of its devoted students, Nishmat has now gained the status of being a synagogue as well. And that is thanks to a 150-year-old Torah scroll that was dedicated to the institution last month.
Although the origins of that Torah are not known, its history can be traced back to at least the 1950s, says Sally Hashkes, the driving force behind the saga of the scroll.
In the early 1950s, a group of men, led by Rabbi Noah Rosenbloom and Saul Nack, established a synagogue in New York called Bnei Israel Jewish Center (BIJC) in King's Highway, Brooklyn. One of the founding members was Sally's future husband, Dr. Henry Hashkes. In fact, the couple was married in that shul in 1958.
The pair made aliya from Far Rockaway, New York, in 1969 and settled in Jerusalem. The BIJC flourished in the capable hands of Rabbi Rosenbloom and synagogue president Nack, a lawyer and legal assistant to the King's County Supreme Court.
"Then the neighborhood changed. People moved away, and there was no longer a minyan [quorum of 10 men]," says Sally Hashkes.
Under the circumstances, Nack began to rent out the premises to educational enterprises over the years. The money that the property earned from the rent, he sent to Israel to support various projects. One of those projects was the construction of a synagogue in the community of Even Shmuel (near Kiryat Gat), fitted with all the furnishings from the BIJC. He sent everything to Israel from the shul in Brooklyn, from the stained glass windows and memorial plaques to the lace tablecloth.
Nack, who died in Florida in 2001, had been so modest about his other philanthropic activities such as financial support for Yeshivat Har Etzion and Ulpana Bnei Akiva Tzfira, that Hashkes only found out about them when, two years ago, she was invited to attend a hachnasat Sefer Torah (Torah scroll dedication ceremony) donated by the BIJC to the Migdal Oz women's seminary in Gush Etzion.
A Torah enthusiast since her days at Brooklyn College, Hashkes had attended the Teachers Institute for Women run by Yeshiva University. Pursuing that passion in Israel, she studied at Nishmat for years when it was located in Bayit Vagan. "We go into such depth. It is such a great opportunity to learn," says the mother of four and grandmother of 13. "It is a deep spiritual source for many women," which includes Israelis, Americans, Ethiopians and Europeans.
Recently Rabbanit Chana Henkin, the founder and dean of Nishmat, moved the center to Rehov Berel Locker in the Pat neighborhood. Henkin, who organized outreach programs in the Pat community to connect the people with the activities of Nishmat, such as public Purim celebrations, had confided to Hashkes her dream of having an Ashkenazi synagogue in Nishmat's new beit midrash. All that was lacking was a Torah scroll.
After the Migdal Oz ceremony, Hashkes came up with the idea for a Torah scroll. Realizing there might be another BIJC Torah besides the one that had been donated to Migdal Oz, she contacted Frieda Nack - the widow of Saul Nack - in Fort Lauderdale. Eager to have a possible Torah scroll to be used again after 35 years, she took an active part in the quest.
After a two-year search, they tracked down the scroll, which had been stored in the home of Rabbi Rosenbloom, who had died in 2007.
Through the efforts of Hashkes in Jerusalem, Nack in Florida and her son Daniel in Chicago, the BIJC scroll was retrieved. It was checked by a scribe in New York and packed by the scribe and a rabbi to be sent to Israel. Accompanying it on its El Al flight were Frieda and Daniel Nack, who didn't want to miss the opportunity to participate in the Torah dedication ceremony.
The Hashkeses were at the airport to greet them. They took the Nacks to the Plaza Hotel, and the Torah went to the Hashkes home to be unpacked.
"The Torah came in a gorgeous me'il," says Hashkes. "It has a red velvet cover with gold fringes." To match the cover, gold-plated finials adorned with pomegranates were purchased by Daniel Nack. The cover also bears the word "Israel" in silver with blue stones. To house the Torah there is a new ark, thanks to the Nacks.
The hachnasat Sefer Torah, which took place on September 15, was a joyful celebration. The Pat neighborhood came out in droves, with throngs of people walking or dancing behind the music wagon. As Daniel Nack carried the scroll, he and the entourage were pelted with candies by Nishmat students, neighbors and passersby.
The neighboring Sephardi synagogue Heichal David was so pleased to have another shul nearby that not only did the members join in the festivities, but the shul donated one of its scrolls to Nishmat.
The day was magical, says Hashkes, "seeing young and old, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, religious and non-religious swept up in the joy of a Torah making its way to a new home, joining together all Israel and cementing together the Pat community with Nishmat."
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