Torah survives ordeal, finding a home in Md.

November 02, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,

Today, a fledgling Jewish congregation in Baltimore County will rededicate sacred Torah scrolls, originally inscribed in czarist Russia and rescued decades later from the communist Soviet Union by a rabbi persecuted for his faith.

The rabbi stored the scrolls at his home in London for nearly 40 years. Now his 29-year-old son, Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen, leader of the Chabad Center in Owings Mills, has brought what is considered the most precious article of Jewish life to America to the congregation he founded nearly four years ago. Until today, the center has relied on a borrowed Torah.

"These scrolls were written before the Russian Revolution and have outlived communism, Lenin, Stalin, pogroms and torture," said Katsenelenbogen, who has seen as many as 300 gather in the Chabad shopping center location for services. "There is nothing of them left, but the Torah is here to tell the same eternal story and to teach us wonderful lessons. The scrolls will have a new life in our center."

Written in Hebrew with a quill on parchment by a certified scribe, the Torah - consisting of the first five books of the Old Testament - is brought out every Saturday for readings of a set portion of the Hebrew text.

"I will be able to share its story as we read and learn from it each Shabbat and Jewish holiday," Katsenelenbogen said.

His father, Rabbi Moshe Katsenelenbogen, 77, who lives in London, told his son that he had "no greater way to show the power and strength of the Torah, than by donating it to a synagogue that continues to share the love and joys of Judaism."

Their rabbi's personal connection to this Torah has inspired the congregation.

"He is doing exactly what his father meant for him to do and bringing Jews closer to God," said John Welfeld, a member of the congregation. "He welcomes everyone to this center."

Another member, Lee Goldschmidt, donated more than $5,000 to have the parchment repaired and restored. Stitched into the rich fabric that covers the Torah are words of dedication to Goldschmidt's parents and wife. Another donor was so impressed with the story that he gave a silver crown to encircle the wooden spools that hold the Torah.

The rabbi does not consider the adornments excessive.

"These scrolls are our connection to God, and we want to show them in the most beautiful way possible," Nochum Katsenelenbogen said.

The scroll's more than 90-year history is intimately entwined with that of the Katsenelenbogen family. When Moshe Katsenelenbogen left Russia in 1971, a custom's agent wrote "Torah" atop the document listing the few possessions he carried. A few years earlier, the rabbi, twice exiled to a Siberian prison for his faith, had watched in horror as Russian police ransacked a small synagogue in Leningrad. At risk to his life, he stole into the locked building and rescued the Torah.

"Had he been caught, it would have meant a bullet," said his son. After storing the parchment scrolls at his home in London for the past 37 years, Moshe Katsenelenbogen donated them to his son's congregation.

"That these scrolls are coming back to life and being used again is my father's greatest gift," Nochum Katsenelenbogen said. "He gave them to us so that they would remain in the heart and soul of every Jew."

Health concerns prevented the elder rabbi from traveling to Maryland for the dedication, but he has sent his sentiments, said his son.

"There will be dancing and food, and he is with us," said Katsenelenbogen. "This is him celebrating with us."

The celebration comes after nearly a lifetime of struggle to preserve the faith, amid persecution that claimed Moshe Katsenelenbogen's parents. In 1937, when Moshe was 6, his father, Michael, was shot by Stalinists. His mother, Sarah, remained active in the Jewish underground, meticulously forging documents that saved many Jews from the oppressive regime. She was eventually captured and died in prison in 1949.

Moshe Katsenelenbogen was 19 when he was sent to a Siberian prison for refusing to divulge information about the underground. He remained in jail for three years. He was jailed again in the 1960s for more than four years, basically "for his efforts to keep Judaism alive," said his son.

"He was jailed for the heinous crime of bringing a love of Judaism to his fellows," the son said.

For the dedication, Moshe Katsenelenbogen wrote to his son.

"What a pleasure and what an honor it is to donate this Torah to a Chabad House and outreach center being run by my son," he wrote. "Sitting on those wooden planks in the cold and miserable jail, eating sardines and hard bread, who would have believed that this could actually happen?"

His son added, "No one then could stretch the imagination so far as to imagine these scrolls would come to America."

The dedication ceremony is scheduled for 2 p.m. today at the Chabad Center of Owings Mills, 11299 Owings Mills Blvd. at Crondall Lane. Information: 410-356-5156.

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