The journey of a Torah scroll

The Young Israel Movement dedicated its 200th restored Torah, rescued from the Holocaust, to the IDF.

Torah dedication 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Torah dedication 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Providing Torah scrolls for the army is one of the large-scale undertakings of The National Council of Young Israel, a mainstream Orthodox body, and the International Young Israel Movement’s Israel region.
Last month its members dedicated a restored Torah scroll at the Sirkin army base near Petah Tikva. It was the 200th scroll donated to the IDF by Young Israel, and the first of a series of Torah scrolls that were rescued from the Holocaust.
The Nazis confiscated thousands of Torah scrolls from synagogues across Europe. It is impossible to guess how many more were destroyed or violated. I found one in my parents’ home town in Poland that had been used as a carpet runner in a textile factory.
Of the masses of scrolls looted and confiscated by the Nazis from some 350 synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia, close to 2,000 were stored in the Jewish Museum in Prague, where they remained till 1948, and were then transferred by the Communist regime to the Michle synagogue where they were crudely stacked and more or less abandoned.
Under the rule of Communism the Czech state authorities maintained the cemetery in Prague’s old Jewish quarter and turned the surviving synagogue buildings into mini museums.
Somewhere along the line it became known that Jewish ritual objects were in storage at the Michle synagogue, and when the situation was investigated 1,564 scrolls and 400 Torah binders were discovered.
In 1963, the Czech government allowed Eric Estorick, a London art collector, to acquire the scrolls and the binders, which he did with the help of philanthropist Ralph Yablon, who financed the acquisition.
The scrolls were brought to London in 1964, and were given a temporary home at the Westminster Synagogue where the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust was established. Some of these scrolls form part of a permanent exhibition at the Westminster Synagogue, while others, after being repaired, were distributed on permanent loan to congregations and Jewish institutions around the world.
Each scroll has a number and a brass plaque. In addition, each is accompanied by a certificate detailing its place of origin.
In more recent years 300 Torah scrolls, together with a vast quantity of Hebrew and Yiddish books, were discovered in a church in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, known to pre-Holocaust Jews as Vilna, “the Jerusalem of the north.” Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who was then the chief rabbi of Israel and is himself a Holocaust survivor, asked that the scrolls be transferred to Israel. Opinion in Lithuania was divided. Some parliamentarians believed that the scrolls were part of Lithuania’s national heritage, and as such should remain in the country’s national library to which they had been transferred from the church. Others said that after all the suffering that the Jews had endured they should be allowed to take possession of objects that were holy to them.
The scrolls were transferred in January 2002 to an Israeli delegation headed by Lau and Rabbi Michael Melchior, who was then deputy foreign minister.
Melchior said at the time that a museum was not a place for a Torah, and that each Torah deserved to be part of Jewish life.
In the interim, individual scrolls and small collections of scrolls were found in various parts of Europe where Jewish communities had been decimated or completely destroyed by the Nazis.
Over the past two or three years, Torah scrolls that survived the Holocaust in Romania have also become available for use in synagogues in Israel and around the globe. They are sent for examination to the Jerusalem-based Menorah Foundation, whose scholars determine whether they are suitable for use or whether they need to be restored.
It was one of these scrolls that was presented by Young Israel to the Sirkin army base.
The presentation was perhaps more meaningful than previous presentations not only because it was a scroll rescued from the Holocaust, but because it was in memory of Ruby Davidman, a staunch second-generation Young Israel activist who had died a year earlier and whose grandson Amit is a soldier serving at Sirkin.
Davidman, originally from New York and a graduate of Yeshiva University, was one of the initiators some dozen years ago of Young Israel’s Redeem a Torah campaign.
An ardent Zionist from his childhood, Davidman, while a student at Yeshiva University in 1948, helped to smuggle guns to the nascent State of Israel, Young Israel said.
Davidman, his wife, Phyllis, and their three children, Lenny, Cindy and Jonathan, moved from New York to Beersheba in the summer of 1971.
Davidman immediately became active in the community and formed a Young Israel congregation.
After two years, the family moved to Jerusalem, where he remained until his death.
Davidman had enormous pride in the brave young soldiers of the IDF, and considered each and every one of them to be a hero, said his family and friends.
Of his many achievements through Young Israel, what meant the most to him was the IDF Torah scrolls project. He had previously started a Purim packages for the IDF project, but the dedication of Torah scrolls gave him infinitely more pleasure. in total, 187 scrolls were presented to the IDF in his lifetime, and only four days prior to his death, he was planning two more Torah dedication projects.
Because he was one of the pioneers of the project, and because he was so ardently committed to it, Young Israel has renamed it the Ruby Davidson Redeem a Torah project.
Two busloads of Davidson’s relatives, friends and Young Israel colleagues went from Jerusalem to Sirkin for the dedication ceremony, happily joining with soldiers both observant and non-observant in singing and dancing under a bridal canopy from the entrance to the base synagogue, some hoisting others on their shoulders in spontaneous enthusiasm.
One of the soldiers brought a Sephardi-style Torah case with a scroll inside from the synagogue to meet the dancers, so that the ceremony became one of Sephardi-Ashkenazi unification.
The soldiers were very pleased to receive an additional scroll, explaining that they needed it when they went out into the field, especially when fighting terrorists.
“The more Torah scrolls we have, the more we can take to the battlefield to guard us in times of war,” said one soldier.
Before they reached the synagogue, another soldier playing a saxophone joined them, giving more impetus to the dancing.
IDF Chief Chaplain Brig.-Gen. Rafi Peretz, who made a special point of attending and joining in the dancing, noted the significance of the symbolism of a Torah scroll rescued from the ashes of the Holocaust being used by the soldiers of the IDF.
Scrolls that had previously been presented came from the United States, culled mostly from congregations that had died out or were on the verge of doing so.
For people of limited means, who cannot afford to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to charity, the Redeem a Torah project is an opportunity to make an important contribution for a minimal donation.
According to Daniel “Mush” Meyer, the executive director of Young Israel in Israel, the cost of restoring a Torah scroll and providing a mantle is in the realm of $12,000. Last year, he said, a family had celebrated a 50th wedding anniversary by donating a Torah scroll. More recently Rabbi Jay Karzen and his wife Ruby, celebrated the 25th anniversary of their arrival in Israel by donating a Torah scroll to an IDF base outside Alon Shvut, in Gush Etzion.
Quite often, a family who cannot raise $12,000 will put down whatever they can afford and relatives and friends will contribute the rest.
The whole concept of being able to contribute to the restoration of a Torah scroll that will be used by untold numbers of Israeli soldiers is a very exciting prospect to a lot of people.
Rozanne Polansky and her husband, Joe, together with the Tryfus family donated a Torah scroll last year. Polansky said that she had been very moved by a soldier who had said to her: “Yesterday I was sad. Today I’m happy because we have our own Torah scroll and we don’t have to borrow one, which we always did before.” If that’s all it took to make a soldier happy, she said, “I’m delighted to bring many more over.”
Lenny Davidman underscored that a large share of the credit for the success of the project belongs to Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel in the US, and to Lt-Col. (res.) Rabbi Yedidya Atlas of the IDF Ground Forces Command, who is originally from the US, and is the key liaison between Young Israel and the IDF. By coincidence, he and Davidman studied together in yeshiva 40 years ago, when they were both newly arrived in Israel.
Lerner has traveled the length and breadth of the US rescuing Torah scrolls that are no longer in use. Some of these scrolls were originally brought to the US from Europe. Lerner specially came to Israel for the dedication ceremony as did Shlomo Mostofsky, president of NCYI who said that the Redeem a Torah project was one of the most satisfying programs with which he had ever been involved.
At a previous dedication ceremony he recalled, one of the speakers was a general who pointed to his gun and said: “This is not the weapon. You brought the weapon. The strongest weapon is the Torah.”
Speaking in similar vein, Sirkin base commander Lt.-Col. Saar Abadji observed that there is a general tendency to take many things for granted. “We danced with the Torah and placed it in the ark in the synagogue. That’s a fairly trivial process. But if you take into account how many people were involved with a single Torah scroll, with writing it, with rescuing it, with bringing it here…. Our encounters with something of significance is usually at toward the end, but we should remember how things developed along the way.
“We place a lot of emphasis on every holy site, but we should remember that what makes a place holy, whether a synagogue or a battlefield, is people. Look at how an event like this has united people in such a simple way, regardless of who they are or what backgrounds they come from.”