A written account of faith, survival

Judaism: A rescued Torah that survived a Holocaust fire in Poland has a new home at Columbia Jewish Congregation.

May 21, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Years after facing destruction during the Holocaust, a Torah parchment scroll inscribed with Hebrew scripture has been saved once again - this time from the perils of mold and moisture in a musty basement in Poland.

The restored Torah will return to use at Columbia Jewish Congregation, which will celebrate its arrival Sunday at a dedication ceremony called a siyyum.

"This is one way that Jewish community life lives on," said Rabbi Menachem Youlus, co-founder of the Wheaton-based Save a Torah Foundation. "We re-empower that Jewish community that was lost and give it new life."

Rabbi Sonya Starr of the Columbia synagogue said that larger congregations usually have two or more Torahs, which contain the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Having more than one scroll allows texts to be read from different places on holidays.

The Columbia congregation, founded in 1970, owned two Torah scrolls, but they were missing words or letters and were therefore no longer considered kosher. As a result, for the past 17 years, the community borrowed a Torah from the congregation of Cantor Jan Morrison's father in Minnesota.

But last fall, the congregation asked that the Torah be returned. Rather than commission a scribe to create a new one, Morrison said, the congregation's board stipulated that its next scroll be a "rescued" Torah - one that had survived destruction during the atrocities committed during the mass persecution of the Jews in Europe.

"It's a pretty mindful congregation, and a pretty ecologically minded congregation," said Morrison, who has been a member for 25 years and its cantor for 12.

Acquiring a rescued Torah also allows the Columbia community to connect with those who worshipped in the past - continuing a tradition of passing Torahs down from generation to generation in a congregation, Starr said.

The Torah was procured by Youlus, a master scribe, who recently formally formed the Save A Torah Foundation. Since 1985, he and his family have traveled around the world searching for these forgotten scrolls.

So far, he said, the group has rescued more than 300 Torahs, and Youlus estimates that between 2,300 and 2,400 remain lost in Eastern Europe.

He has found them hidden everywhere - attics, basements and even in mass graves. One rescued Torah was found at Auschwitz and another was found in an Egyptian warehouse, he said.

The Columbia Jewish Congregation's Torah, was written nearly 80 years ago for a group of Hassidic Jews in a region called Congress, in Poland. During the war, the Nazis entered the hamlet where the Hassidic community lived, outside of Piotrkow, a town in central Poland, killed at least half of the community and set fire to many of the buildings, including the synagogue. A man who was not a Jew rescued the Torah from the burning synagogue, put it in a sack and hid it in his basement.

Years later, the Torah was found in the basement by the man's son, Youlus said.

The scribe discovered the scroll by coincidence. He was in the area to rescue a different Torah when the son noticed his yarmulke and said he might have something in which Youlus would be interested.

After finding a scroll, Youlus said, he negotiates with its current owner. "Then we have to find who owned it," he said. Youlus said the group offers the Torah to the original owners, minus the cost of restoration. If they no longer want it, the group buys the rights to the Torah and seeks to find it a new home.

Reconditioning a Torah, like writing an original one, is an art and a science. Morrison, the cantor, compared the writing style as similar to the illuminated Bibles created by monasteries in medieval Europe.

Youlus and his fellow scribes first roll a scanner and digital camera over a rescued Torah to record its condition. They then use chemicals to clean it of mold and other dirt that may have accumulated over years of unprotected storage.

Several scribes then verify the text. In the past, some Torahs may have been written from memory, he said. However, if a Torah is missing one letter, it is not kosher, Youlus said.

"We actually have to make sure it was right to begin with," Youlus said.

The many sheets of parchment are made from the skin of calves, sheep, lambs or deer. Goose or turkey feathers are used as quills, and the sealant is made from eggs, Youlus said.

"Everything that goes into a Torah scroll has to come from something kosher," Youlus said.

Usually Torahs last from 100 to 120 years. Given the repairs made to CJC's new scroll, however, "this particular Torah should be able to last between 80 and 100 years more," Youlus said.

Starr agreed that this Torah was an excellent fit for CJC because the congregation is committed to interfaith dialogue, and the Torah was saved by someone who was not Jewish.

Nearly 40 percent of the scroll for CJC required patching, and the stitching needed work, Youlus said. The rollers were also replaced.

The Columbia congregation raised more than $15,000 - enough to purchase the restored Torah, replace the rollers on the borrowed scroll it was returning to Minnesota and repair several other scrolls they also owned.

As the Columbia synagogue gathers Sunday, the congregation and guests will march with the Torah from Oakland Mills High School to Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, where the group worships. Members will hold a chuppah, the ceremonial canopy used during weddings, over the scroll as they walk.

"It is almost as if the community is marrying the Torah," Starr said.

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