Czech Torah Project at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda
~ בראשית ~
« naděje na návrat » (hope for return)*
The Torah scroll that we are restoring comes from Czechoslovakia where over 300,000 Jews lived prior to World War II. In 1942, members of the existing Jewish community in Prague brought a large collection of Judaica which included over 1,500 Torah scrolls to the Central Jewish Museum in Prague from synagogues and communities in Bohemia and Moravia that were destroyed at the hands of the Nazis. These members then « sorted, classified and catalogued [every artifact] and arranged the [Torah] scrolls in stacks reaching from the floor to the ceiling. » (The Czech Torah Network, A Holocaust Education Project, 2003, The Story of the Jewish Torahs of Czechoslovakia, Chapter One – The Trip from Prague to London, para. 2)
After the war, the Torah scrolls were moved to a synagogue in Michle, a district of Prague. The Czech Torah Network (2003, A Holocaust Education Project, The Story of the Jewish Torahs of Czechoslovakia, Chapter One – The Trip from Prague to London, para. 3) describes the impossibility of preserving the scrolls: « In order to keep parchment scrolls from perishing, they must be rolled from time to time. This was patently impossible to do with over 1,500 scrolls housed in desperately cramped quarters. And so the scrolls seemed condemned to slow decay. »
In 1963, London art dealer Eric Estorick was approached by Artia – the Czech government department which controlled the sale of art while he was in Prague, and was offered the opportunity to buy the scrolls. Estorick contacted one of his clients, Ralph Yablon, « prominent philanthropist...[and] founder member of Westminster Synagogue » who purchased all 1,564 scrolls and donated them to his synagogue. (Memorial Scrolls Trust, 2015, Trust Founders, Ralph Yablon, para. 1)
Allan Snow explains that our Torah was split off from that collection before it was brought to England. It was Rabbi Aaron Dov Zacks who brought the Torah to Allan`s attention.
Rabbi Aaron Dov Zacks is the Magiah (proof reader) who will be restoring the Czech Torah. He is the person who disposes our books and other religious items in a genizah where they are later buried. When he finds things which he believes might interest us, he will tell us. For example, he contacted us to send machzorim to Florida after the hurricane to help synagogues during the High Holy Days.
Rabbi Zacks came across this Torah and informed Allan Snow about it. Rabbi Zacks explained that the Torah was about 300 years old and had survived the Holocaust. He said it could be readily repaired at a reasonable price. Rabbi Zacks had obtained the Torah from a prominent family who had brought it to Canada but who was unable to repair it on their own. Allan explains that he was curious why Rabbi Zacks had contacted him. Rabbi Zacks replied that it was because he had had every confidence in our shul to procure it, repair it, use it and cherish it.
The restoration of the Torah is now under way. BEBY`s plans are to spend the year bringing the Torah back to life and to use it. We wish to use it in the services and as a teaching tool to everyone in our community. We are planning to hold workshops while the Torah is being repaired and we would like to give everyone of all ages an opportunity to be a part of the restoration process. As well, as part of our shul`s continued growth, we want to raise money for ritual repairs, education and educational programs.
This article is the first in a series of short photo essays where our community members can see and learn with us. If you are interested in being part of the journey of the Czech Torah Restoration Project at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda, please contact the shul office at 416 633 3838.
*« naděje na návrat » (the hope for return): The Czech Torah Network, A Holocaust Education Project, (2003, The Story of the Jewish Torahs of Czechoslovakia, Chapter One – The Trip from Prague to London, para. 2) states that, in storing the collection as the Jewish curators did, « one would like to believe that as the Torah scrolls and the other sacred objects, including some of great value and antiquity, passed through their hands, these martyrs took comfort in the hope that ultimately Hitler would fall and that the ceremonial objects, in some cases hundreds of years old, would be returned to the restored Jewish communities. » The Czech title of this photo and the imagery show how Beth Emeth Bais Yehud Hebrew Men of England is fulfilling that hope. The Torah, unrestored, is opened at Breishit on the podium in the Lerman Chapel. The slightly diffused figure of a Rabbi stands alone, in darkness, bathed only by the clear light of the Ner Tamid. In the background are three faded images of Jewish victims of the Shoah—one of whom was recorded to have survived. The yellow triangles, though, remain clear—poignant reminders of the persecution. The entire background is black and devoid of people. However, the Ner Tamid is sharp and in focus because it is the eternal light of Hashem and a symbol of eternal Jewish survival and rebirth.