A congregation can exist without a building and it can exist without a rabbi, but it cannot exist without a Torah, according to Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Congregation Beit Simcha in Tucson.
When Beit Simcha opened its doors last October, it had its Torah — one steeped in a rich history.
The synagogue recently acquired one of the historic Czech Memorial Scrolls from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. It’s one of 1,564 Torahs representing the hundreds of Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia that were erased during the Holocaust.
“All of us at Congregation Beit Simcha are incredibly touched to have been permanently lent a Torah that was saved from destruction during the Holocaust,” Congregation Beit Simcha President Craig Sumberg said. “It gives that much more meaning to our experience when we read from the scroll each week.”
Cohon, who was the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Tucson for 19 years, recently became the senior rabbi for Beit Simcha and wanted a Torah that felt significant for his new congregation, but could still be used for services. He turned to the Czech Memorial Scrolls because he was well acquainted with them and their history.
In 1939, the Nazis invaded Bohemia and Moravia in what was then Czechoslovakia, and took over Jewish businesses and properties. They also closed down all synagogues and confiscated any and all religious items, holding them in 40 different warehouses across Czechoslovakia.
The Memorial Scrolls Trust’s website includes information from a 1930 census that states at the time there were more than 100,000 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia, and more than 350,000 in all of Czechoslovakia. Today in the Czech Republic, there are only about 4,000 Jews. The Memorial Scrolls Trust’s website also notes there were 350 synagogues in the area, 60 of which were destroyed.
After World War II, the rise of Communism in 1948 stifled remaining Jewish communal life in Czechoslovakia. Many of the synagogues remained closed for decades and nearly 2,000 Torah scrolls from all over Bohemia and Moravia were sent to an abandoned synagogue in a small town outside of Prague called Michle, where 1,564 of them managed to survive.
The scrolls stayed in Michle until 1964, when Rabbi Harold Reinhart of Westminster Synagogue in London and a few congregants purchased them from the Czechoslovakian government, which at the time was adopting an atheist policy and was actively trying to sell religious objects.
In London, a team of scribes looked over each of the scrolls to determine which ones were readable and repairable. Some of them could not be repaired, but are still valued as religious objects. After the Torahs were examined and repaired, the Memorial Scrolls Trust charity was set up and the scrolls have subsequently been allocated to communities and organizations around the world. The scrolls are never sold or donated, but are permanently on loan. Communities that close or merge with other Czech scroll-holders are obliged to return their scroll to the Trust. There are Torah scrolls from the Memorial Trust all over the world now.
Reinhart was Cohon’s great uncle and knew the story of the scrolls and had always felt that they had great importance, saying, “it’s much more personal for us than just any great or ancient text, because this is an old text that we can feel so personally involved with.”
Cohon knew that some of the scrolls were still available for loan, but he wasn’t sure if any were usable for the congregation. Luckily, he learned that a scroll recently had been returned to the Trust, so Cohon and his son, Boaz, went to London last fall and retrieved it in person because it couldn’t be shipped.
Transporting such an important and delicate object proved to be more difficult than Cohon expected. He discovered there weren’t many bags or suitcases that could carry a Torah scroll without possibly damaging it. He eventually had to settle on a bag designed to carry snowboards to hold the Torah on its voyage to Tucson.
On Feb. 9, Congregation Beit Simcha celebrated the scroll with Cohon’s parents, who helped to fund the trip
Cohon said he is unsure where exactly in Bohemia and Moravia the scroll is originally from and admitted he probably never will know. But he said it is powerful being near it, and housing the scroll in Congregation Beit Simcha’s ark makes him feel as if he is a part of something much larger.
“We’re bringing to life a Jewish community that’s been destroyed and we’re doing so in a new Jewish community that’s just been founded,” Cohon said. “None of us knew any of the people in that community, but that scroll was there for their High Holiday services and their weddings and it was a part of their life.”JN