Historic Torah scroll bound for N.C.

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The sacred Hebrew text used by the congregation of the formerTemple B’nai Shalom in Brookhaven has been stored in the altarthere for more than 40 years, but now the scroll is continuing on ajourney begun on the eve of World War II.

The temple’s scripture is a Holocaust Torah, originally used bythe Pinchas Synagogue in Prague before being captured by the Naziswhen Germany annexed Czechoslovakia in 1938. It has been onpermanent loan to the temple from the London-based Czech MemorialScrolls Trust since 1967.

With the temple’s deconsecration last month, the scroll will nowpass on to another congregation in Raleigh, N.C.

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“It’s like a closure, a passing on of tradition, especially withthe fact we have this Holocaust Torah that has so many memories,”said Wesson’s Dr. Steve Liverman, a longtime facilitator of theTemple B’nai Shalom who will drive the Torah to North Carolina nextweek.

According to the online Czech Torah Network, the temple’s Torahwas one of thousands of such scrolls confiscated by the Germans informer Czechoslovakia, from the regions of Bohemia and Moravia. Thescrolls and thousands of other items of Jewish heritage weresorted, catalogued and stored in ceiling-high stacks in synagoguesin Michle, a suburb of Prague, waiting to be displayed in a plannedmuseum that would have documented the extinction of the Jews. Themuseum was to be set up after the war when Hitler’s Thousand-YearReich ruled Europe.

It never happened, of course. The German Army was destroyed fromtwo sides and its conquered territories reclaimed. Czechoslovakia,minus some eastern territory held by the Soviet Union, wasre-established after the war

The mountain of scrolls continued to sit in the synagogue longafter the war ended, however. The State Jewish Museum took over thebuilding and the artifacts, but parchment scrolls need to beunfolded occasionally to keep them from deterorating, and themuseum’s staff could not handle the task.

It would be another 19 years, in 1963, before the scrolls wererescued. London art dealer Eric Estorick arranged for historianChimen Abramsky to inspect the scrolls and begin distributing them.In 1964, a train carried 1,564 Torahs from Prague to London in fiverailway cars, the largest ever shipment of Jewish scrolls. Thescrolls were stored in London’s Westminister Synagogue under thecare of the newly formed Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust.

Three years later, the scroll that would belong to the TempleB’nai Shalom for the next 42 years crossed the Atlantic and came toBrookhaven.

Liverman said the Torah, which contains the Five Books of Moses(the first five gospels in the Bible’s Old Testament) handwrittenin Hebrew, was originally authored sometime in the 1800s. It wasused at the temple alongside a smaller Torah, written in the 1890sby Rabbi Lewinthall.

“This is a very holy object,” Liverman said. “It was writtensometime during the 19th century, so you can imagine all the peoplewho have had their hands on this, and read from this, Torah – whatit was like to be captured from the synagogue and then rescued,brought to a place where people all over the world can use it andlearn from it.”

Liverman said the Holocaust Torah was scheduled to return to theCzech Memorial Scrolls Trust upon the temple’s deconsecration, butthe Jackson-based Goldring/Woldenber Institute for Southern JewishLife – which helped with the deconsecration process – informed himabout the North Carolina congregation.

The scroll will be passed to the Temple Beth Or, which plans touse it in a long-term worship and study program, operated throughHeartspace Spiritual Resources, Inc., a non-profit organizationaiming to provide multi-faith religious, spiritual, charitable andeducational services. The temple already has one HolocaustTorah.

“We’re thrilled to be able to have the privilege of having thescroll in our community and to have it available to use byHeartspace for multi-faith learning,” said Racchel Jurovics, anassociate rabbi with the Temple Beth Or who lives in a Raleighneighborhood called Brookhaven. “I think the scroll can lookforward to having a considerable impact on the Jewish community andbeyond. People will learn its story and be able to use it throughthe work Heartspace is doing.”

Shortly after Liverman delivers the Torah to its newcongregation, Jurovics said it would be taken to the Czech Republicfor a reunion, and efforts would be made to find out a more preciseorigin for the scroll and support the re-emergence of Jewish lifein that country. Almost the entire Jewish population of formerCzechoslovakia was wiped out during World War II, and very few Jewsworship there today. The CIA World Factbook does not list Judiasmas one of the Czech Republic’s major religions – in fact, 59percent of the population is marked “unaffiliated.”

If a Jewish congregation does arise in the Czech Republic,Jurovics said Holocaust Torah guardians have a duty to return thescrolls to those worshippers.

“We feel we’re holding the memory of all of those lostcommunities,” she said.