Czech scrolls anniversary draws worldly crowd

By Simon Rocker, February 17, 2014
Scrolly good show: Some of the historic Czech Sifrei Torah brought to the commemorative service

Scrolly good show: Some of the historic Czech Sifrei Torah brought to the commemorative service

They are places where you might not even suspect there would be a Jewish community: Succasunna, New Jersey; Munster, Indiana; Peabody, Massachusetts; Tyler, Texas.

But they all have one thing in common - their synagogues house one of the scrolls from an historic collection of Czech Sifrei Torah salvaged from the Nazis.

Representatives from San Antonio, Texas, Boston and Vancouver communities were among 250 people at a special service on Sunday to commemorate the arrival of the scrolls 50 years ago from Czechoslovakia to London's Westminster Synagogue.

To the strains of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, 50 of the scrolls from the 1,564 that came to London were carried into the synagogue in the opening procession.

Some were no smaller than a baby, others towered above the heads of the men and women who bore them.

Fifty Torahs were paraded into the synagogue

After the Second World War, the scrolls had languished unused until the cash-strapped Communist authorities agreed to their sale. Rabbi Thomas Salamon, the Czech-born rabbi of Westminster Synagogue, said he had not even been aware of their existence until he came to London to study for the rabbinate.

Since then, the Memorial Scrolls Trust has repaired, restored and sent out more than 1,400 scrolls across the world.

British congregations that have received them range from Hampstead Garden Synagogue (United) and New North London (Masorti) to Maidenhead (Reform) and the new Gloucestershire Liberal Community.

Many synagogues use their Czech scroll for bar- and batmitzvahs, such as Temple Israel Ner Tamid, in Mayfield Heights, Ohio.

Its founding rabbi, Frederick Eisenberg - who came to London for the service with the community's president, Gerald Strom - was taught by Rabbi Leo Baeck, who survived internment in the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovokia.

"Our scroll is from Klasterec nad Orlici and we found that there are other congregations who have a Torah from the same city," Mr Strom said. "We are looking to make connections with them."

Trust chair Evelyn Friedlander said the commemoration was "not a memorial service. These scrolls are living things, bringing new Jewish life wherever they have gone around the globe."

Californian rabbi Moshe Druin - one of the scribes who has helped to restore the Torahs - urged congregations to teach their children about the origins of their scroll. "You are the voice of the Torah," he said.

Guests included the world's only husband and wife scribes, Avielah Barclay and Marc Michaels from London, who have also worked on them.

Rabbi Salamon launched a $3 million (£1.8 million) appeal to secure the future of the trust, whose plans include a travelling exhibition.

Its role, he said, was "to educate new generations, work against prejudice, inspire new Jewish life and rediscover lost Jewish communities".

Last updated: 11:45am, February 17 2014