Intricate deal yields priceless Jewish scroll

January 31, 1995|By Newsday

NEW YORK -- Cal Kleinman arrived at Kennedy Airport clutching what he called a gift of God. Next month, he will give a gift of life.

It is a straight swap for Mr. Kleinman, president of Bennett X-Ray Technologies in Copiague, N.Y.: an $85,000 mammography machine for a priceless, 300-year-old Torah that for 50 years had been in the basement of a drugstore in a small town less than a mile from the Auschwitz concentration camp. The town desperately needed the medical equipment, but had no way to pay for it. The only thing it had to offer were 18 Torah scrolls that had lain unnoticed since the defeat of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.

Through a complex network of deals and negotiations , the first Torah scroll arrived in New York yesterday. It came via Rome, Chicago and Cincinnati. Its permanent home will be Temple Beth Torah in Melville, N.Y.

"This is a moment of spiritual healing that is also a moment of physical healing," said Rabbi Marc Gelman, of Temple Beth Torah, who awaited Mr. Kleinman's arrival yesterday from Cincinnati with his partner on "The God Squad," a nationally syndicated interdenominational cable television show, Monsignor Tom Hartman.

"The spiritual is the return of the Jewish scrolls to the Jewish community," Mr. Gelman said. "The physical is the giving of the mammography equipment to the town in Poland."

Through negotiations with town and religious leaders and with the help of a few chance connections, the link between Mr. Kleinman and the town was made. Mr. Kleinman jumped at the chance to help the developing country and to gain the Torahs, prayer scrolls containing the first five books of the Old Testament, for his temple. When the town receives the Contour machine, it will send the remaining 17 Torah scrolls to the temple.

That process should be relatively simple, Mr. Gelman said, but getting the first one required some diplomatic wheeling and dealing. Because of the Polish bureaucracy and the difficulty of establishing ownership of the scrolls, Mr. Gelman said, it would have been impossible to take them out of Poland.

That's where the Catholic Church came to the rescue.

"There are two priests in Warsaw who were able to declare this Torah a sacred icon of the Catholic Church," Mr. Gelman said. "As such, they were able to take them from the country in diplomatic pouches."

Of course, it didn't hurt that Pope John Paul II is Polish. So, suitably, when the scroll arrived at JFK Airport yesterday, it was wrapped in a white satin shroud that the pope had blessed and given to Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Cardinal Bernardin gave the shroud to Mr. Kleinman in a gesture of unity. The scroll was first flown to Chicago to be blessed by the cardinal, then to the University of Cincinnati, where its authenticity was verified.

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