By Cindy Mindell
SOUTHINGTON – Last month, the congregants of Gishrei Shalom Jewish Congregation (GSJC) prepared an unusual package for overnight delivery to North Miami Beach, Fla. – a Torah scroll dating back to the 17th century. This is only the most recent leg in the scroll’s 350-year-long journey from the former Czechoslovakia to London, England to New Jersey to Connecticut. But if all goes well, the scroll will come back to stay with the Southington congregation.
Founded in 1984, the Southington congregation had been operating for nearly 30 years with a single Torah scroll, which began to show signs of wear after numerous b’nai mitzvah, holiday celebrations, and study sessions. Rabbi Shelley Kovar Becker suggested that the congregation become shomrim (guardians) of a “saved scroll” from the Memorial Scrolls Trust, as her previous congregation had done. GSJC learned about the collection, housed in London, England, and the individual saved scrolls in the repository, and then applied to “adopt” a Czech scroll. In May 2012, when the application was approved, Becker and a small group of congregants traveled to Temple Shalom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, N.J., the Trust’s east coast repository.
There, they selected a scroll recovered after World War II from the destroyed Czech Jewish communities of Caslav and Golcuv-Jenikov, southeast of Prague. As shomrim, the congregation pledged not only to restore the Torah scroll, but also to research and compile a list of the Jews deported from Caslav and Golcuv-Jenikov during the Holocaust so as to say kaddish for them.
GSJC had hoped to keep the scroll in the synagogue’s ark, take it out for the hakafah at each service, and read from it, even though it was not kosher. But, while working with the North Miami Beach-based organization Sofer on Site — an organization designated by the trust to oversee the repair of the saved scrolls — the congregation learned that the scroll was too fragile to be used and would need extensive repair and cleaning. The parchment is ripped in many places and its stitching is coming apart. Earlier repairs must be redone and many letters have faded and must be rewritten.
The scroll was also discovered to be a compilation of pieces from three or four different eras, dating back to the 1680s and likely repaired after sustaining damage during pogroms in the late 1800s and after World War II. The unknown 17th-century scribe had taken special care with the letters pey and fey, embellishing them with a distinctive curlicue.
GSJC Board member Sue Kleinman organized a committee and the congregation raised $10,000 over the next two years for the repair and cleaning of the scroll. In addition, in March 2013, silver rimonim were donated for the scroll by Sonny and Marsha Rickless in honor of the bar mitzvah of their grandson, Michael Sandulli. A yad for the scroll was presented by the congregation to Rabbi Shelley Kovar Becker at Shabbat services in May 2014, inscribed in memory of her father, Lester J. Kovar.
Once the money had been raised, the congregation hosted a festive send-off the scrolls to Sofer on Site for its eventual repair.
“Though the day was bittersweet – saying good-bye – we are excited to fulfill the commandment of each Jew writing a Torah in his or her lifetime in this way, bringing this scroll back to its proper condition,” says Becker.
On Shabbat Chanukah, the rabbi spoke about the holiday and the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, linking those events to the rededication of the saved scroll. She read the children’s book, I Am a Holocaust Torah, about the Memorial Scrolls Trust as told from the perspective of a saved Czech scroll. The congregation sang and danced with the scroll.
To prepare the scroll for shipping, congregants cut the threads holding the parchment to its wooden rollers. While the Torah was being swathed in a tallit and bubble wrap for shipping, adults and children made cards with messages and prayers for the scroll’s safe delivery, repair, and return. The congregation then said kaddish for the Jews from Caslav and Golcuv-Jenikov who perished in the Holocaust.
Gisrei Shalom hopes to welcome back the Torah scroll in the spring, hopefully in time for a Yom Hashoah commemoration program.
For Kleinman and her husband, Ronald, the project has been especially meaningful, as Ronald’s parents escaped Austria in 1939 and lost their parents in Auschwitz.
“How many times does somebody get the chance to do something like this in their life?” she says. “This Torah was not supposed to exist and neither were we.”
For more information about the campaign to repair this Holocaust Torah scroll visit gofundme.com/holocausttorahfund.
CAP: Martin Becker prepares the Gishrei Shalom Holocaust Torah for its trip to Florida, where it will be repaired. Becker is the husband of Rabbi Shelley Kovar Becker, spiritual leader of the Southington congregation.