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A Torah of Their Own

Hebrew high school’s new Torah completes a family’s personal story

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – This story begins with tefillin and ends, 75 years later, with a Torah scroll.  Sometime in early 1939, just before the Nazis occupied his native Prague, Abraham Leichtberg boarded an illegal ship bound for Palestine. A letter received from a friend back home indicated that Leichtberg’s name had appeared on a round-up list three days after his escape.

A follower of Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Leichtberg had no immigration papers, only a few basic belongings and his tefillin. As the boat dropped anchor off the coast of Netanya in the middle of the night, Leichtberg jumped into the water to swim and wade the rest of the way to shore, carrying only the tefillin. By now, the British soldiers on shore had started shooting toward the noises in the water. Holding his precious possession in one hand over his head, Leichtberg used his other hand to paddle to land, both man and tefillin arriving safe and sound.

He married Miriam, had two sons, Sam and Josh, and moved the family to Queens in 1958. In 2009, Sam brought his parents to an assisted living facility in West Hartford, the town where he had raised two children with his wife, Judy.

The tefillin story was a mainstay of the Leichtberg family lore. “After my parents had come to West Hartford, my father said to me, out of the blue, ‘After we’re gone, you’ll write a Sefer Torah for us, in our memory,’” Sam recalls. “I was not expecting that kind of discussion: you don’t want to talk about your parents’ leaving. But I said OK. My father was very proud of having saved the tefillin. I understood that he was trying to take the next step from tefillin, which contains a small part of the Torah, to the full Torah.” Abraham died in 2010.

Miriam Leichtberg had talked for years about memorializing her own family, some of whom had perished in the Holocaust, others who had died in Israel. Before she died in 2011, Sam promised to follow through on his father’s request, and dedicate the Torah scroll to both parents and their families.

Sam and Judy Leichtberg

Sam and Judy Leichtberg

When the year of mourning was over, Sam and Judy discussed an appropriate home for the new Torah. They approached the Hebrew High School of New England (HHNE) in West Hartford, where their two granddaughters, Meira and Tova Goldfischer, are students. The Leichtbergs and HHNE leaders put together a campaign, inviting the Jewish community to sponsor any part of the project, thereby fulfilling the 613th mitzvah – writing one’s own Torah scroll.

“HHNE does not currently own a sefer Torah of its own; this will be our first,” says head of school Rabbi Daniel Loew. “As an institution dedicated to Jewish education and to the continuity of Torah study, having our own sefer Torah is very meaningful.”

Sam worked with a scribe in New York to find one in Israel who was ready to begin the project in May. “We wanted a sofer to write the Torah in Israel, because we’re doing this in memory of my parents and they were intensely longing to be in Israel,” Leichtberg says. “They both intellectually recognized that leaving Israel and coming to America had its pluses, but emotionally felt they’d lost something and always had a desire to go back.”

A book of donors and supporters will be housed in the HHNE sanctuary. The Leichtbergs hope that the document will serve as an inspiration for current and future generations of students. “Years from now, they will always know that the community came together to complete an important project, an example of how they can grow up to be committed Jews and leaders in their community,” Sam says.

The Torah should be completed sometime next May, with a dedication ceremony tentatively scheduled for Lag B’Omer on May 18. The event will also coincide with the 10th anniversary of head of school Rabbi Daniel Loew, who plans to leave his position at the end of the academic year.

“This was a very difficult decision for my wife Chanie and I,” Loew says. “We feel that now is a good time to transition and to look for our next opportunity as a family. However, we are sad to leave HHNE and the West Hartford community. Being at HHNE for the last 10 years has been the most rewarding thing that I have done in my professional life and I am grateful to have been part of such an exemplary institution.”

(Editor’s note: The Ledger will feature a full story on Rabbi Loew in the spring.)

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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