One suburban synagogue is set to dedicate a 160-year-old Torah scroll written in Iraq, and another just acquired two new scrolls that don’t have as exotic a pedigree but still represent a new beginning for both the scrolls and the congregation. Members of a third synagogue recently visited the region of the Czech Republic that gave birth to three of their Torahs.
In falling so close to Shavuot, the festival that celebrates God’s giving the Torah to the Jewish people, these developments highlight the varied connections congregations have with the Torahs they honor and read each week.
“This Torah will be an extraordinary addition to our congregation’s spiritual treasures and links us with a remarkable part of our Jewish history spanning millennia,” Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom of Congregation Adath Jeshurun wrote to his congregation, referring to the synagogue’s newest scroll. It was written in Iraq circa 1850 and is being dedicated May 18 in honor of the Brown family, members of the congregation.
That dedication, taking place the Shabbat following Shavuot, will be the final part of the shul’s “Pageant of Torah” celebration that will last for several days and will include an erev Shavuot study session and a Confirmation service on May 14.
The public reading of the Torah scroll stands at the center of Jewish worship, and scrolls are the most valuable and sacred objects in a synagogue’s possession. Usually, the celebration of the physical scrolls is most closely associated with the holiday of Simchat Torah, which takes place in the fall, when scrolls are paraded around the sanctuary.
But Rosenbloom said it makes perfect sense to tie the dedication of the scroll to the date marking the anniversary of the revelation at Mount Sinai.
In an article on the synagogue’s website, Rosenbloom wrote that the scroll — written on deerskin rather than the more typical cowhide — came from a small town about 80 miles south of Baghdad, near the tomb of the prophet Ezekiel. After the majority of Jews had left in the years following Israel’s independence in 1948, a Muslim caretaker watched over the synagogue. In 1971, he helped a French Jew smuggle the scroll to Paris, wrote Rosenbloom.
Eventually, the Torah made its way to a small Iraqi synagogue in Jerusalem. When the congregation closed, no one claimed the scroll, so it wound up in the hands of a dealer and it was later purchased by the Elkins Park synagogue. Adath Jeshurun has many scrolls and wasn’t necessarily looking for a new one, but was enticed by the historic value of the object, Rosenbloom said.
Larry and Lynne Brown helped pay for a new, Sephardic- style case for the scroll.
“The scroll is symbolic of so many streams of Jewish life which are ultimately united through devotion to the Torah itself,” the rabbi wrote.
Or Hadash, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Fort Washington celebrating its 30th anniversary, has had two Torah scrolls, one that it owned and one that was on long-term loan from Suburban Jewish Community Center-B’nai Aaron, a Conservative shul in Havertown that closed several years ago.
Or Hadash was then asked to return the scroll.
Having just one wouldn’t cut it, so the search began to find another scroll, preferably one that wouldn’t set the synagogue back financially.
In fact, they got two. The Abramson Center for Jewish Life in North Wales is loaning one of its Torahs to the synagogue for an undefined period.
And member Jeff Chebot had contacted his father, who is active in a Conservative synagogue in Fall River, Mass., an industrial town with an aging and dwindling Jewish population. An Orthodox synagogue there, Adas Israel, is folding and merging with the Conservative synagogue and, after a couple of phone calls, Adas Israel offered to give one of its scrolls to Or Hadash outright.
On May 5, the congregation participated in a Torah march and dedication. Making reference to Shavuot, Rabbi Joshua Waxman staged a kind of wedding ceremony and asked members to sign a document indicating that they would honor the Torah.
“We are not only welcoming these Torah scrolls, we are also welcoming their words and messages and values into our hearts,” said Waxman.
For its part, Old York Road Temple-Beth Am for years has been the custodian of three Torah scrolls that were rescued from the Holocaust. They were part of a London-based collection of nearly 200 scrolls that were discovered after the war in Bohemia, Moravia and the greater Prague area.
Rabbi Robert Leib and his wife, Randy, led a group of 26 people, mostly members of his congregation, on an April 7-17 tour of Central Europe, with a focus on Jewish sites — and a desire to dig into their scrolls’ history.
With help, Leib was able to determine that the scrolls came from the towns of Tabor, Svetla and Louny. Two of the towns were destroyed in the war; only Louny still stands. The group, accompanied by the president of the Czech Jewish community, was able to arrange a meeting with the town’s mayor and visited the remains of its synagogue, which currently operates as a local government archive, as well as the historic Jewish cemetery.
Leib said that, once upon a time, it must have been “a quite lovely shul.”
But the synagogue might once again become a Jewish space. Shavuot, Leib said, is about revelation, and visiting the birthplace of his synagogue’s Torah scroll was nothing if not revelatory.
“The mayor informed us — perhaps as a noble gesture on the occasion of our visit — that the archives would eventually be removed from the Louny synagogue and that funds would be released for the rehabilitation of the building into a Jewish museum,” he said. “We left having felt that the purpose of our visit had finally been vindicated.”