Tuesday, October 26, 2010

(NEWS) Holocaust Torah Finds Shelter, Renewal At Northridge Synagogue

"A Reform congregation in Northridge and an Orthodox sofer (scribe) have joined forces to restore a rescued 360-year-old Czech Torah scroll, which has been with the synagogue since the 1970s. About 150 congregants at Temple Ahavat Shalom kicked off the synagogue’s Kolin Torah restoration project with song and prayer in a tribute to Jewish continuity on Oct. 10.

The Torah, which belonged originally to a synagogue in the Czechoslovakian town of Kolin before World War II, has played a role in every bar and bat mitzvah and High Holy Days service since arriving in Northridge, but due to its condition, no one there has ever read from it. The Torah’s recent deterioration sparked a decision by the synagogue’s senior staff to rescue it once again.

'It’s not ours,' Rabbi Barry Lutz told his congregation. 'It belongs to the people of Kolin. Our covenant with them is to keep this Torah alive.'

Kolin’s Jewish population of 480 was decimated during World War II, along with most of the 80,000 Jews from the areas of Moravia and Bohemia. Kolin was known in the Jewish world for its thriving yeshiva dating back to the 1700s and the child prodigy who became Rabbi Samuel ben Nathan Ha-Levi. Kolin’s Jews wound up in the Nazi camp known as Theresienstadt, or Terezin. Those who did not perish there were transported to Auschwitz.

After the war, the Kolin Torah was stored on crowded shelves with 1,500 other orphaned scrolls in the cold, damp and abandoned Michle Synagogue in suburban Prague.

In 1963, London art dealer Eric Estorick arranged for the purchase of these scrolls from the Czech government. He hired British Judaica expert Chimen Abramsky to examine their condition in Prague. Abramsky remembered years later how he had cried when seeing two scrolls wrapped in a woman’s garment and one tied with a belt from a child’s coat.

Ultimately, British philanthropist Ralph Yablon purchased the scrolls and had them transported to the Westminster Synagogue in London. They have since been out on permanent loan to Jewish communities around the world, including 1,000 scrolls in America.

'They were tattooed just like the people,' said Ahavat Shalom congregant Esther Saritzky, referring to the scrolls at Westminster Synagogue.

Saritzky and her late husband, Harvey, went to London in the 1970s to acquire one of the Torahs for the Northridge synagogue. She remembers seeing endless rows of them with imprinted numbers and some with blood stains.

Rabbi Solomon Kleinman, the synagogue’s rabbi at the time, asked her to search for a small scroll that could be held and carried by children.

Rabbi Moshe Druin, of Sofer on Site, told the congregation that the Kolin Torah’s diminutive size was proof that it was originally commissioned to be a 'community Torah,' which could be transferred from home to home.

This year, Lutz did some research on the Torah and found that his wife, Debbie Cohen Lutz, is a distant cousin of a prominent Viennese Jew named Samuel Oppenheim, who commissioned an ark for this very scroll some 300 years ago.

'Tonight we will open a magic door. The sofer will help us and we will become a part of the charmed circle of Torah lovers,' Rabbi Emeritus Kleinman said.

Druin assisted Kleinman, Saritzky, Sonia Liberman and Lia Warman — the latter two refugees from wartime Europe — to write the first few restored letters of the scroll in the Torah portion of Ki Tissa in the book of Exodus.

Members of the congregation will be sponsoring letters and verses and have a chance to hold the writing quill with Druin over the next few months. Some of the children will be dedicating letters to the children of the prewar Kolin synagogue who perished during the war.

'It’s very personal to me,' said Liberman, a Hebrew teacher at the synagogue and Holocaust survivor who was hidden by a Polish family.

Rabbi Druin encourages the congregation to find a particular passage in the Torah that resonates with them personally. Druin asked, 'Why not find a part of the Torah that’s uniquely yours?'

Lutz hopes to travel with the restored Torah and some of his congregation to Kolin next year. They plan to visit the old Kolin synagogue with Torah in hand.

According to Assistant Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik, 'Ideally we’d like to have it done by Yom HaShoah or the end of the Hebrew school year in June.'

Druin, who lives in Miami, will visit Northridge four times over the coming months and will repair the parchment and rewrite the letters both here and at home on the East Coast. 'It’s a living piece of history. We don’t want it to be an artifact,' Brynjegard-Bialik said." (source)

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