Our Holocaust Torah

Dec. 1, 2005

A letter from one of our founding members, that reflects on how the Congregation came to possess a very special Torah. Published as a part of the Torah Rededicaton Service in September of 1995.

In 1968 I read an item in Reform Judaism reporting the existence of the Czech Memorial Scrolls Committee. This Committee was, and still is, headquartered at the Westminster Synagogue in London, England. The mission of this body was the rescue and restoration of Torah scrolls from the synagogues in Czechoslovakia which had been desecrated by the Nazi hordes. It is also the mission of this body to make scrolls available, on permanent loan to Synagogues in the United States and other countries.

At that time I was President of Congregation Shalom, a newly founded synagogue, in Chelmsford, which did not own a Torah. For our services we had been using Toroth borrowed from other synagogues.

I was also traveling overseas frequently for my employer. One of my regular stops was London. When I arrived in London on my next trip, I telephoned the Westminster Synagogue and was able to make an appointment to see the Executive Secretary of the Czech Memorial Scrolls Committee, Mrs. Ruth Shaeffer. Fortunately, I was able to get an appointment during my stay in London.

Upon my arrival at the Westminster Synagogue, I was warmly greeted, given a mini tour of the Synagogue, followed by a tour of the third floor loft where some 1564 Torah Scrolls were housed. It was in this area that the scrolls were individually examined and evaluated as to the possibility of rehabilitating them to kosher status, suitable for sacred uses. Those scrolls which could not be restored were set aside for museums and synagogues for display.

I also had the opportunity to meet the Sofer (scribe) who had the task of restoring those scrolls which could be restored. He was a small man, wearing a gray Kapaute (caftan) and a large kippah. He spoke no English, only Yiddish and Hebrew. We were able to converse, albeit to a limited extent, in Yiddish. He was in the process of restoring a scroll. With a great deal of pride he took me over to a large window where he was working. He pointed out that the text he was working on was, “Zehr a shayne shrift”, A very beautiful job of lettering. I cannot put into appropriate words, the emotions I felt at that moment.

After my tour, I spoke with Mrs., Shaeffer about the permanent loan of a Czech Scroll for Congregation Shalom. I was informed that the loan was permanent as long as the scroll was in the possession of our congregation. We would be required to insure it appropriately and care for it as if we owned it. Should Congregation Shalom cease to exist as an entity, the scroll would revert back to the Committee.

When I returned to Chelmsford, I informed the board of my findings, and was instructed to make the necessary arrangements to obtain one of these priceless scrolls. This was done, and Torah Scroll # 1184, from the Strasnice Synagogue in Prague, was on its way to a new home at Congregation Shalom.

In early 1969, our Torah Scroll arrived at the customs warehouse at Logan Airport. It was packed in a large wooden crate insured for $2400. Based on the insured value, the Customs inspector attempted to collect duty. After he opened the crate, I was able to convince him that it was exempt from duty on two counts:

First: It was a religious artifact which was automatically exempt; and

Second: It was over 100 years old and qualified as an exempt antique

I finally loaded the Torah Scroll, without the crate, into my Rambler and took it home. Until we had our own building, our Torah lived at our house.

There is no doubt in my mind that this was the most significant event during my tenure as the first president of Congregation Shalom.