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Simsbury synagogue begins restoration of Czech Holocaust Torah

By Stacey Dresner

SIMSBURY – In 1973, Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation-Emek Shalom (FVJC) in Simsbury received a Torah on permanent loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London.

Before last Simchat Torah, many FVJC members probably had no idea of Torah #752’s rich history.

Scribed in the mid-1700s with a blend of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Kabbalistic letters, the Torah belonged to the Klaus Synagogue in Prague for nearly 200 years.

During World War II, the Torah, along with more than 1,500 others from throughout Czechoslovakia, was catalogued and stored at the Central Synagogue in Prague for safekeeping.

After the war, an art dealer discovered these “Holocaust scrolls” in Prague and, in 1964, the Westminster Synagogue in London purchased them from the Czechoslovakian government in a bid to preserve them. The Memorial Scrolls Trust was formed to make sure the Torahs found their way to synagogues and other Jewish organizations that would take care of them.

“They dispersed the Torahs to congregations that were willing to take them, and it ended up that we got one of the Torahs from the Klaus synagogue in Prague,” said Paula Schwartz, FVJC past president.

For some years, this special scroll – Torah #752 or “The Czech Torah” was taken out and used only for b’nai mitzvah at the Simsbury synagogue, but more recently has not been used as it has become more fragile and worn.

Now the Czech Torah will be restored as part of Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation’s “Year of the Torah.”

The Year of the Torah “means that the FVJC community has made a commitment to integrate Torah into the fabric of every thing we do this year,” said Rabbi Rebekah Goldman Mag. “Not only are we trying to raise enough funds to restore our Holocaust scroll, but we are also trying to insure that we learn more about what Torah has to teach us and implement it in every aspect of our lives.”

Last Simchat Torah, FVJC began a fundraising campaign for the restoration of the Torah as well as to educate the entire community about the process. The congregation hopes to raise some $54,000 to repair the Czech Torah as well as the congregation’s other Torahs, and to climatize the Ark so that the Torahs can be better preserved.

(FVJC has another Czech scroll, # 1412, which it received in 1996. It is too damaged to be used, but will be housed in the climatized ark to preserve it as well. Another Torah from the Klaus Synagogue is not kosher and is on display at Florida International University, and a Haftarah scroll from the synagogue in Prague is at a temple in Las Vegas.)

Campaign co-chair Ruth Goldblatt says she feels a personal connection with her congregation’s Czech scroll.

“Some of my family is from Czechoslovakia and I have always been fascinated by it. Both of my sons were bar mitzvahed using that Torah and I was bat mitzvahed out of the Torah. It has been in our congregation for 44 years so many generations of kids and adults have ‘had their hands on’ that Torah… We decided it would be really meaningful to restore this Torah because it hadn’t been used in a little while and it needed a lot of love.”

Schwartz and Greenblatt have planned a series of events to be held over the next few months as part of The Year of the Torah.

“Coffee House 752” on Saturday, Jan. 27 will kick off the project with a “Torah Restoration and Pledge Night” – an evening of food, music and the screening of a video about the history of all of the Czech Torahs. Lois Roman of the Memorial Scrolls Trust will be a special guest.

On Feb. 7, the sofer, Rabbi Kevin Hale, will come to FVJC to instruct religious school students about calligraphy and what goes into scribing a Torah, and will have dinner and meet with the congregation’s teens. That evening he will address the congregation’s adults about the Memorial Scrolls Trust and the history of Czech scroll at a program co-sponsored by the FVJC Sisterhood, and Greater Hartford Jewish Historical Society. FVJC received a grant from Alfred and Helen Weisel Educational Fund from the Jewish Community Foundation. The event is open to the public.

“Our object is not only to involve members of our own congregation, but any family that wants to come and be a part of this,” said Schwartz, who is co-chair of the effort, along with Ruth Goldblatt. “We are hoping we will make enough money so that we can restore it so that we can use it on a weekly basis.”

Hale, who lives in Leeds, Mass., is one of only nine scribes authorized to restore the Czech Torahs. Upon his first examination he found the Torah #752 to be restorable so that it can be used regularly at synagogue services.

“In that sense it is in better condition than most of the hundred or so MST scrolls I have examined or repaired,” he explained. “Some are in such delicate condition that even if repaired so that they are technically kosher, they can only be read on occasion. Others, like the second scroll entrusted to FVJC, are for all practical purposes damaged beyond repair.  A Torah that is pasul – no longer kosher or fit for public reading – is no less a sacred sefer torah, and is so treated as any Torah with the greatest love and respect, up to including how it might be stored away or even buried.”

Hale added that many of the scrolls that came from Prague were repaired before they were distributed to synagogues.

“I believe this was one that was repaired, and so to a great extent the repairs to lettering, stitching, tears in parchment, cleaning, etc., are the effects of 55 years of aging on a Torah that is well over 200 years old.”

Hale will preside at three scribing sessions during the spring where congregants, as well as Jews from around the community will be able to participate with him in the scribing process. These scribing days will include some education, photos of participants taking part in the scribing process and compiling impressions in a memory book.

“It is fulfillment of the 613th commandment, ‘And Now Write This Song for Yourselves and Teach it to the Children of Israel’ to write a single one of the letters in the song we know as the Torah scroll,” said Hale. “Writing all 304,805 is a fulfillment, and I prefer to imagine a time in the life of our people when each of us had the space in our lives to write an entire Torah… but even having a letter written on one’s behalf by a trained scribe is considered a fulfillment… And in this case, it is only scribes authorised by the Trust who may do the actual writing on an MST scroll. Some scribes invite congregants to grasp the quill, or the wrist of the scribe, but I will invite congregants to physically connect as they are comfortable with me, or my shoulder, my tallit, or simply to stand in close proximity to the hand that is writing their letter.”

Schwartz said that when the Torah is completely restored, the plan is to invite the entire community to celebrate on Simchat Torah, Sunday, Sept. 30.

“Our hope is that in September when we rededicate this Torah, we will invite other congregations that have Holocaust Torahs to bring them and have them be part of the celebration.”

And while it will be a celebration, it will also serve as a reminder of the many Jewish communities that were lost during the Holocaust.

“If we don’t save them from deterioration, we aren’t just losing a functional Torah scroll to read from, we lose a precious piece of our people’s history,” Rabbi Mag said. “We call them Holocaust Torahs but really they are Holocaust Survivor Scrolls. They act as witnesses and speak the truth of what our people went through – our own story of survival.”

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