Sometimes, if you are lucky in your life, an unlikely encounter will leave you so deeply moved that you will take action. So it was after my recent trip to London and a visit with Jeffrey Ohrenstein, current Chairman of the Memorial Scrolls Trust at Westminster Synagogue in Knightsbridge, London. The original purpose of my trip overseas was completely personal, to visit my daughter, but while I was there, an old friend of mine, who was unable to travel, asked if I could do her a favor and visit an office in the city to investigate the origin of two scrolls housed in her synagogue. I liken her request to a visit to the Kotel in Jerusalem; friends or family will ask you to tuck a little note in a crack because they cannot go themselves. In this case, my friend asked me to be a detective, stop by the office and find out anything I could about the origin of their very old scrolls.
Before I left on my trip, I was celebrating the holidays as a new member of Temple Sinai in the beautiful, newly redecorated sanctuary. There I was, singing and waving my flags for Simchat Torah when suddenly a look of utter amazement struck me. The music stopped and another Czech scroll was solemnly paraded around the sanctuary. We had one, too? In the span of three months, I had gone from never having heard of Czech Memorial Scrolls to embarking on a journey to investigate three.
After much correspondence and some formal introductions, I was able to secure a private meeting with Jeffrey Ohrenstein who had just returned from a trip to the Czech Republic to place a scroll back in its original home. I went to the meeting with low expectations and ended up staying for most of the day, enjoying a history lesson on the Jews of Bohemia, stories of Jeffrey’s personal interactions with the scrolls, and learning about the congregations who are tending to them today.
These Torah scrolls are survivors of the Shoah and silent witnesses to the atrocities that befell 6 million Jews in Europe less that 100 years ago.
Following on the heels of no less than three miracles, Temple Sinai has the honor of protecting scroll number 656. It was hidden in plain sight during WWII, escaping all of the atrocities which befell its original users. Its last known congregation was the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, but it may have been sent there from other parts of Bohemia. The Pinkas Synagogue still stands today and houses part of the Prague Jewish Museum’s collection. The scroll was written in 1880, which makes it almost 140 years old!
The Memorial Scrolls Trust, MST, which is situated within the Westminster Synagogue in London, is a very small operation with a very big heart. They want to ensure that the scrolls, on long-term loan to congregations such as ours, are used for education, prayer, and as a bridge for interfaith understanding. There are 1000 other scrolls in the US, 450 in the NY metro area. They are currently working on updating their database and reconnecting with the 1300 scrolls that have been placed around the world.
As we grab a cappuccino at the café, chatting about politics, exercise at the JCC or follow our careers as doctors, lawyers, and business people, do we realize how similar our lives are today to those of the established Jews in Europe prior to WWII? Many were assimilated, secular, educated and professional, married to non-Jews and living in beautiful apartments and homes with jewelry, artwork and luxury. What would you do if suddenly all that was simply taken from you? There was no escape, no food and no ability to protect yourself or your family.
This is why each and everyone of us needs to think about the humble Czech Memorial Scroll sitting in our ark, its covering decorated with the yellow star of David and marked with a humble catalog number, as if echoing the numbers on the wrists of our European ancestors not even 80 years ago.
In 2019, MST is planning to have a mass reunion of the scrolls and their congregational caregivers in NYC. We plan to attend to honor the history of the scrolls and remember their original users. In addition, we at Temple Sinai should think about other ways to honor the scroll and its history, such as a rededication ceremony, or even a congregational trip to Prague to learn about Jewish history.
Sometimes when you least expect it, a project falls in your lap. That is the time to say “Heneini.” I am here. Rabbi Millstein has asked us to examine our “why.” For the time being, this is mine.
The Memorial Scroll’s Role at Temple Sinai
Temple Sinai’s memorial scroll plays an important part in many of Temple Sinai’s events and rituals. The scroll is given pride of place in our ark, where it rests at the center of our other scrolls. The most important part it plays is in our b’nei mitzvah process. On the Saturday morning of a student’s bar or bat mitzvah, the family gathers with Rabbi Millstein and Cantor Nitza before the service. Rabbi Millstein tells the family the story of how the scroll came to be at Temple Sinai, and the student chants the first verse of that morning’s parsha from the scroll. Then the Rabbi and Cantor lead the family in Shechechyanu.