A Torah Scroll's Journey
By Jeff Chebot
Torah is the bedrock of Jewish identity and what truly sets us, as Jews, apart as a unique people among the fellowship of humanity. It is the teaching of Torah, for Torah, literally, means "teaching," that has challenged and enriched us, as a people, for hundreds of generations. It would be a fair assertion to say that all of the wealth of teaching of our people, in fact, derives ultimately from the sacred parchment scroll, containing the Five Books of Moses, which we treasure and traditionally refer to as the Torah.
In 5773, 2012-13, our Or Hadash community was faced with the imminent loss of one of our two sifrei Torah, since the owner of the scroll in question, on long term loan, had requested its return. With only one Torah scroll, it is difficult for a Jewish congregation to function ritually. Considering the condition of the remaining Torah scroll, which was smaller and inferior to the departing scroll, and the exorbitant cost of a scroll, Or Hadash seemed to be in critical need of a remedy.
Sometimes, to paraphrase an old anonymous proverb, one person's loss is another's gain. Can, however, one person's loss be both a gain for the other and, in a sense, a gain for the one who has lost? To make this abstraction concrete, there is the example of the Jewish community of Fall River, Massachusetts, helping Or Hadash overcome its Torah scroll deficiency.
Fall River, in the early through mid-twentieth century, boasted a robust Jewish community, which helped drive the local economy through the operation of garment manufacturing contractors in former textile mills, retail merchandising, and professional services. When the Jewish children of my generation went off to college and settled down, by and large, they abandoned the Fall River area, leaving an aging and shrinking Jewish demographic.
Against this backdrop, Fall River's Orthodox Congregation Adas Israel, by the turn of the twenty-first century, was finding it difficult to sustain the operation of its shul building, a handsome modern structure opened around 1960 in the desirable Highlands section of the city. Adas Israel had, at the time, in its heyday, amalgamated several Fall River neighborhood synagogues, originating as early as the late nineteenth century. By 2011, however, Adas Israel's dwindling membership had made its position untenable.
Enter Temple Beth El, Fall River's Conservative congregation, chartered in the 1920s, which had housed a magnificent domed Byzantine sanctuary since 1927. Although Beth El, too, faced severe membership losses and adverse demographics, its situation was not nearly as dire as that of Adas Israel. Out of largesse, and in solidarity with their Orthodox kin, the Beth El community extended the use of their facilities to Adas Israel so that the latter could continue to function.
I'm proud to say that my dad, Bill, Beth El treasurer and former president, was one of the primary advocates for extending a welcoming hand to the hard-pressed Orthodox neighbors. Everyone in the Fall River Jewish community knows and respects my father as a fair-minded and tireless worker for the welfare of that community. I believe that his advocacy was key to Adas Israel finding its new home in 2012.
Nearly every day, for the past fifteen years, and until the recent passing of my dear mom, Hummy, I'd spoken with my parents, usually by phone returning from work. So Bill was acutely aware of the Torah scroll dilemma at Or Hadash, as I was aware of the sad, inevitable decline of the Fall River Jewish community. I also learned that both Adas Israel and Beth El possessed a surfeit of sifrei Torah, amassed over the years, and well in excess of the needs of their respective communities. There was the possibility that one of these two venerable congregations might come to the assistance of Or Hadash.
In early 2013, my dad alerted me to the possibility that Adas Israel might be in a position to lend or donate one of their sifrei Torah to us. He also cautioned me, however, that the scroll that Adas Israel had in mind was possessed of a broken etz chayyim (shaft). I was undaunted, so my dad offered to introduce me to Jeff Weissman, the president of Adas Israel.
In February 2013, I arranged to meet with Cliff Lander, Adas Israel's vice president, since Jeff Weissman was away on the appointed weekend. The purpose was to inspect the scroll and report back to Rabbi Josh at Or Hadash. Bill, my dad, accompanied me. To my pleasant surprise, I learned, upon meeting Cliff, that Adas Israel had decided to donate to Or Hadash an intact scroll, instead of the one with the broken etz.
One pleasant surprise followed another, as I inspected the parchment and lettering, finding that they were in very good condition, comparable to the scroll being surrendered by Or Hadash. Then another surprise: The white mantel was emblazoned with the names of Sol and Belle Lefkowitz, in their memory, Sol having been one of the leaders of Adas Israel during its consolidation and relocation to its 1960 site. In fact, one of Sol's grandsons had been a close neighbor, friend, and classmate of mine since he and I had been about three. What a small world of circles that close in unexpected places!
My wife Gerri and I traveled to New England again in April 2013, for the formal delivery of the Torah. We were met by Jeff Weissman, who led us to the scroll, where we snapped a few photos and expressed our profound gratitude to Jeff and Adas Israel on behalf of Or Hadash. Jeff joked that, at age 72, he was a youngster by the standards of his congregation. He positively confirmed that the beautiful scroll was a gift to Or Hadash for all time, not a loan. We then lovingly lay the scroll on the back seat of our Camry, covered it with a blanket, and secured it with seat belts and shoulder harnesses, all with the same affection usually reserved for one's young children.
What followed was an unusual journey, to say the least. At a meeting in Acushnet, Massachusetts, I displayed the scroll to my non-Jewish high school reunion committee mates. I was touched by their reverence. They had never before seen a Torah scroll up close. The remainder of the trek home to Wyncote for Gerri and me via I-95 was mildly unnerving. We'd never before transported a Torah across state lines. Though the precious cargo was literally "under wraps," every service area stop during the 300 mile, six and one half hour ride was fraught with anxiety. Certainly, consideration of the forty-year journey of a set of law tablets through forbidding wilderness over three thousand years ago helped to place matters into perspective.
Our community formally welcomed the Adas Israel sefer Torah into its midst with a gala celebration on May 5, 2013. The festivities were doubly significant since we also observed the introduction of a second new sefer Torah to assume residence at Or Hadash, thanks to the deeply appreciated efforts of Scott Crespy. Scott was able to secure the additional scroll on permanent loan from the Abramson Center for Jewish Life in North Wales, Pennsylvania.
Under Rabbi Josh's leadership, the Or Hadash community experienced an unprecedented event in its history, with the introduction of not one, but two, sifrei Torah. The Adas Israel scroll processed through the neighboring streets accompanied by a sizable and enthusiastic throng of members. At the Wordsworth Academy parking lot, we were met by Rabbi Josh, Scott, and an equally exuberant group of Or Hadashers arriving from the Abramson center.
Together, we arrived at the Or Hadash lot, and sang and danced with our new sifrei Torah. It was an inter-generational and truly inspirational moment, embraced by the entire Or Hadash family. After our party, Rabbi Josh led us into the sanctuary, where our president, Lani Moss, read a stirring message of thanks, while we stood with the new scrolls beneath a chupah. We were all then invited to sign a dedicatory message, expertly calligraphed by Gail Morrison-Hall, and to eat cake sculpted in the form of a Torah scroll. I suppose that could be taken as a metaphor for eating of the Tree of Life.
For me, the day was especially significant, as I had donned my fathers' tallit. It was embroidered on its collar with a silver atarah that had belonged to my great grandfather, Jacob Ostroff, for whom I'm named. Jacob had been a member of one of Adas Israel's antecedent Orthodox shuls, and had welcomed Jewish immigrants to Fall River as a HIAS agent in the first decade of the twentieth century, providing both temporary lodging in his home and interest-free loans. And so, another circle was closed.
One might say, sadly, that the Adas Israel community had experienced a loss, with the attrition of its membership and the giving away of its scroll. In actuality, though, Adas Israel gained by the honor of gifting the single most significant symbol and component in the life of a synagogue.
The journeys of the Adas Israel and Abramsom scrolls represented the collective good will of individuals and communities in Fall River, North Wales, and Fort Washington. Indeed, the word of Torah, in a vacuum, is meaningless without the cherished appreciation of a community striving to grapple with its nuances. Likewise, the journey of these two sifrei Torah can only be understood as the product of a community of effort. My memory of our welcoming of Torah into Or Hadash continues to inspire.