Where Have All the Torahs Gone? The Journey of the Seven Kulanu Torah Scrolls (2015)

image: Daneel and several members of Bnei Avraham Community in São Paulo (Photo courtesy of Daneel Schaechter)

Daneel and several members of Bnei Avraham Community in São Paulo
Photo courtesy of Daneel Schaechter

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer in his book, Pepper, Silk and Ivory, describes the search for the thirteen missing Torah scrolls from the Kaifeng community in China. He writes: “The mystery surrounding some of the thirteen Torah scrolls from the Kaifeng synagogue continues. One Torah scroll was reported to have been used to make trousers for some Chinese ladies, there are rumors that another Chinese Torah scroll from Kaifeng may be hidden in the mosque in Kaifeng.... Knowing that Southern Methodist University's questions about the Torah in their library finally were answered allows us to hope that the remaining questions about all of the Chinese Torah scrolls from the synagogue in Kaifeng will have answers someday, too.” (Rabbi Marvin Tokayer and Ellen Rodman; Pepper, Silk and Ivory; p.75)

Inspired by Rabbi Tokayer's search for the Kaifeng Torah scrolls, I felt the need to tell the story of the seven Torah scrolls that I have been involved with distributing throughout the world to Kulanu's returning, emerging and isolated Jewish communities so that, for the record, no one can ask with uncertainty, “Where have all the Torah scrolls gone?”

There are two parts to this story: Two Torah scrolls were donated to Kulanu by Congregation Sons of Israel, Astoria, Queens, after they merged with Congregation Adath Israel, and kept in storage for years by Rabbi Joseph Prouser in the Little Neck Jewish Center, also in Queens. Five Torah scrolls were donated to Kulanu by Congregation Kehillat Jeshurun (CKJ) in New York after their accidental four alarm fire on July 11, 2011. The Torahs we received from CKJ were water-damaged to different degrees in the fire. They were in the CKJ genizah (the place in synagogues where holy writings and scriptures are placed to be buried since they are no longer useful). Rabbi Elie Weinstock, assistant rabbi to CKJ, donated the five Torahs as well as a pair of tefillin to us.

One issue which needs to be put on the table before I share this story concerns whether a community that has not undergone conversion be given a Torah at all. This is a debatable question as there are halachic issues and implications involved. As with all halachic questions, there are many opinions, including “of course not” and “of course yes” and everything in between. In the final analysis, Kulanu has taken the stance that emerging, returning and isolated communities should receive Torah scrolls for educational purposes, communal growth and understanding, and communal respectability and acceptance.

First a word on Torahs that are pasul, or what I prefer to call ‘Torah scrolls that need correction.’ Predating my time on the Kulanu board, the general consensus was that if we give away Torahs, then we must give them in perfectly-corrected states. This was a great expense which we could not really afford and helps explain part of the reason that the Torah scrolls in Little Neck Jewish Center remained untouched and not distributed for years.

image: Serge Etele receiving the Torah in Cameroon)

Serge Etele receiving the Torah in Cameroon
(Photo by Aron Charles Kono)

A few things changed this. First, I joined the board and maintained that Jewish communities throughout time and space have had to deal with their Torah scrolls that needed correction. Some have danced with them on Simchat Torah, others have kissed them and let the letters penetrate their souls, while some have buried them in the cemeteries. Yet others have felt it was better to read from a Torah scroll that needed correction than to read from a printed book. I contended that it is up to each community to decide what they would do with their Torah scrolls; as long as we were honest and not misleading, and told them the truth, then it would not be a problem.

Second, we began to price sofrim (those who know scribal arts and correct the Torah scrolls). They vary in price and what seemed to be more eye-opening was that the opinions of what constituted a “kosher Torah scroll” varied from scribe to scribe. In the end, we used Rabbi Yehuda Klapman, a Chabad sofer from Brooklyn, New York, to correct two of our scrolls because his price was reasonable.

And finally, once word got out that an Orthodox synagogue of prominence, Congregation Kehillat Jeshurun (CKJ), located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, donated their Torah scrolls to Kulanu to distribute among Kulanu's returning, emerging and isolated communities around the world, the discussion ended.

On December 12, 2013, I went to Congregation Kehillat Jeshurun to pick up five of the Torahs. It was a horribly rainy, wintry day in New York City so the transfer from the synagogue to my car happened without much fanfare, save for a few women who were picking up their children by the entrance of the shul who were so excited to watch the transfer. Five Torahs wrapped in tallitot were squeezed into the back seat of my Honda Fit and strapped in. Nervously, I drove back to my home on Staten Island with the Jewish treasures in the back seat. The Torah scrolls were going to be temporarily housed (until their distribution) at Temple Emanu-El of Staten Island, New York, where my husband, Gerald Sussman, is the rabbi.

The next task was to decide which communities were going to get them. I approached Kulanu’s board members, of which I am one, and asked them to submit names of communities which they knew about that either needed or requested a Torah scroll. The conditions were that the community had the ability to read from it and store it properly and safely. Coincidentally or beshert, depending on your point of view, we received an email from someone in the Dominican Republic who was looking to procure a Torah scroll. It was a new community that we had never dealt with before. The board came up with Madagascar, Nigeria, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Brazil and Zimbabwe and, of course, the Dominican Republic if it fit the requirements.

This is the story of how these seven Torahs were distributed, who brought them, and how they were carried on planes, as well as how the celebrations of Hachnasat Sefer Torahs (receiving the Torahs) took place. Of the two that were corrected because the price was reasonable and/or private donors donated money, one went to Nigeria and the other is stored in Israel in the home of Dr. Jack Zeller, a founder of Kulanu, who is presenting it to the Lemba community on the opening of the synagogue in Mapakomhere, Zimbabwe. The construction is being partly funded by Kulanu.

Stored in my home were old Torah covers from a local Staten Island synagogue known as the Wright Street shul. It had closed many years ago and was sold to a church. Some of the Torah scrolls were dressed in these old velvet covers with heavy embroidery that came in many rich colors of deep red, golden yellow and blue.

The quotations in this story come from emails sent to me by the people who carried these Torahs to their destinations. I had asked them the following questions: How did you transport the Torah scrolls? How did the communities receive it? What were your feelings in doing it? Was there anything else that was noteworthy that I should include in the telling of the story?

Chronologically, the first Torah, one that was stored in the Little Neck Jewish Center for many years and corrected by Rabbi Yehuda Klapman, was taken to Israel by Ilene and Charlie Greinsky in August 2011. They are friends of my husband and mine who were going to Israel for one of their many visits.

In his email, Charlie wrote, “We carried the Torah scroll in a tallis onto the airplane and placed it in the overhead bin. It certainly was a thrilling and moving experience. This was only second in a religious/spiritual sense of our many trips to Israel. Our nephew's bar mitzvah at the height of the second Intifada of July/August 2001 ranks number one as it was family...Carrying the Torah scroll off the plane made us think of the thousands of years we as a people have survived. Our thoughts and words to each other were of amazement that we were bringing our faith through our homeland (Israel) to new lands (Zimbabwe) just as Moses led us. We thought of our parents (all deceased then) and how proud they would be of our mission…People in the walkway of the plane and on our way to meet our contact, Jack Zeller, kissed our Torah scroll, all classes of Jews from ultra-Orthodox to the secular. We felt so proud of being Jewish and the small part we were playing in the delivery of this Torah to the next generation of our people.”

image: Yehonatan Elazar from the Dominican Republic receiving the Torah for his community <br/>in a ceremony under the chupa at the home of Harriet Bograd in New York (Photo by Castillo Castro)

Yehonatan Elazar from the Dominican Republic receiving the Torah for his community
in a ceremony under the chupa at the home of Harriet Bograd in New York
(Photo by Castillo Castro)

The second Torah was given to Rabbi Yehonatan Elazar-DeMota of Beth Midrash Nidhe Israel, located in the Domincan Republic, on July 2, 2013 at the home of Harriet Bograd, President of Kulanu, in a grand celebration. My husband, Rabbi Gerald Sussman, and I transported the Torah, again in the backseat of my Honda Fit, to Harriet's home on the Upper West Side of New York. A group of Hispanic friends from Cuba, Columbia, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, either in the process of conversion to Judaism or having already been converted, sang and danced with the Torah that was presented to Yehonatan Elazar under a chuppah made of a kente cloth tallit from Ghana.

Yehonatan explained, “I transported the Sefer Torah on the overhead bin on a direct flight from New York to Santo Domingo on JetBlue. Once I arrived to the Beth Midrash, I inspected the entire scroll and began performing repairs by retouching the non-legible letters. About two weeks later, we met on a Shabbat and had a guest from Israel who witnessed our celebration with the Torah. Today, we meet to read the Torah mainly on the holidays, and on some Shabbatot and some fast days. The Torah is used between two of my communities: the capital and La Romana.”

The third Torah was brought to the Beth Yeshourun community in the town of Sa'a in Cameroon by a friend of Kulanu who wants to remain anonymous. Harriet Bograd and I met him in a kosher South Indian restaurant in New York City on his way to Cameroon and handed him the Torah.

Mr. Anonymous wrote, “It was supposed to be carry-on, but they actually wouldn't let me do it that way at the last minute. Gasp! So I told the guy it was extremely fragile, put it in a very long duffel bag, and padded it with clothes and other soft materials. Thank G-d it got there OK--not a scratch. We took it to the village in the trunk of the car, unwrapped it before coming up the road to Serge's house (the leader of the community), and he walked up to meet the community with it. They sang and were very joyous. It was a beautiful moment.”

image: Ashrey of Madagascar (Photo by Yakov Zamir)

Ashrey of Madagascar
(Photo by Yakov Zamir)

The fourth Torah was brought to Madagascar by Yakov Zamir, also known as Peter Terry. Yakov, a professional opera singer and a convert to Judaism himself, contacted Kulanu asking about our Jewish connections in Madagascar as he was going there to live for a while with his new Malagasy wife. Yakov offered to teach about Judaism. Having spent eight years in Israel on an attempted aliyah with his first wife and having sung with the Beit Knesset HaGadol choir in Jerusalem, I thought he was the perfect volunteer to help organize and develop the emerging Jewish community in Madagascar.

On his way to Madagascar, Yakov stopped at a friend's house in Woodmere, Long Island, New York, where my husband and I met him for the first time and gave him the Torah scroll. This time we tried something new. We bubble-wrapped the Torah and put it in a large duffel bag which he carried. This seemed to be the best and most sensible solution. We did not know at the time that it did not meet standard dimensions. Despite this, the airlines allowed him to check it in as extra baggage. Yakov said that it was much too long and fat to be stowed above his seat so it went with baggage. The elders of the community came to his apartment a few days after he arrived in Antananarivo, picked up the Sefer Torah and took some photographs with each of those present. Yakov reported that they were very happy. It is now housed in the only synagogue in the capital city of Madagascar. Yakov said, “I felt honored to present the Sefer Torah to this community. It represented their first step towards international recognition as Jews.”

The fifth Torah went to Abuja, Nigeria. Volunteer David Tobis had led an energetic fundraising effort to repair and transport this Torah. Rabbi Barry Dolinger from Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence, Rhode Island, explained the process, writing “I picked up the Torah from Judith Manelis, past editor of the Kulanu Magazine and retired board member, and her husband; they had been storing the Torah in their apartment. We were flying to Abuja, Nigeria, by way of Paris on Air France. After carefully wrapping the Torah in layers of bubble-wrap to protect it and placing it in a garment bag, I approached the check-in counter at Air France. I told the guard that, though it exceeded the travel dimensions for carry-on luggage, we were hoping the airline would let us carry the Torah on the airplane due to its financial but also religious value. I told him that it was a scroll containing the Five Books of Moses, known as a Sefer Torah, written in the ancient scribal tradition on parchment. He jokingly asked if we had heard of the invention of the printing press, as books are much lighter and easier to transport. I then explained that this was an ancient religious tradition. The agent then contacted his superior, who arrived to speak with us. ‘I'm sorry, but we don't make exceptions,’ the superior complained. Then, the original agent, Mohammed, spoke up, ‘Sir, these are my Jewish cousins, and I was hoping you would do them a favor, not just for them but for me. It's important to me.’ ‘Well, alright, I guess we can find some space and do you the favor,’ the supervisor replied. Phew. Then, just as we finished checking in our luggage, Mohammed inquired: ‘You two are Orthodox Jews, the kind that oppose the State of Israel right?’ ‘It's complicated,’ I replied. We are, in fact, Orthodox Jews, but support the state. ‘Have a good day!’ And we ran off.

Rabbi Barry Dolinger on his way to Nigeria   (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Barry Dolinger)

Rabbi Barry Dolinger on his way to Nigeria
(Photo courtesy of Rabbi Barry Dolinger )

“Next, we brought the Torah through security. The security guards were quite respectful, fearing that any kind of insult to the object would be both insensitive and perhaps a bad omen. We were asked to unwrap the Torah, though, as the scan had yielded biological material (presumably the parchment). After a heavy effort to unwrap and rewrap the Torah, it was on to the airplane.

“On the first leg of the trip, we were actually able to fit the Sefer Torah in the overhead compartment, to our pleasant surprise. After disembarking, we again had to check the Torah through French security for the second leg of our trip from Paris to Abuja. They were more comfortable with the Torah, actually, and had fewer questions. There was no room on the airplane, however, and we were not sure what we would be able to do. Kindly, one of the stewardesses cleared out her locker and allowed us to use it to store the Torah during the flight. To be honest, we were quite nervous at first about how we would transport the Torah. We were, however, extremely and pleasantly surprised with how incredibly deferential, kind, and respectful everyone was throughout the entire process.

“Then we landed in Abuja; there were long lines and mandatory health screenings from World Health Organization officials as the Ebola epidemic was nearing its height. As we began to wait on the long lines, power to the airport went out (rolling blackouts in Nigeria for those who have electrical power are a regular experience). I then began an almost two hour process of trying to hold the Sefer Torah, not wanting to put it on the floor, as we waiting on the lines. Towards the end, my strength gave out, and I had to stand the Torah up against the wall.

“In Nigeria, the Igbo Jewish communities of the Abuja federal region and some from the Igboland joined in a joint celebration to welcome the Torah at Sar Habakuk's compound. That morning (it was a Thursday), several boys were called to the Torah during morning services in the synagogue, as they celebrated their turning bar mitzvah, and there was one bat mitzvah as well. With joy, enthusiasm, tears, and exuberance, they welcomed the Torah into the Aron Kodesh they had built for it.

“After services, a large ceremonial feast was made for the arrival of the Torah. This featured dancing and music, a cola nut ceremony (the traditional Igbo ceremony), and several speeches and presentations. I taught briefly about the sanctity of the Torah. Since there's a strong tendency among Nigerian communities to venerate ritual objects, I reminded them that the Torah is primarily to be read and studied (and of course honored), but not only or merely venerated as some kind of omen or relic. Significantly, Uriel Palti, the Israeli ambassador to Nigeria, and Professor Jeffrey Davidson, a professor at Queens University in Ontario, joined us for the Torah's reception. Ambassador Palti expressed great emotion, thanking the Igbo and Nigerians for their support of the State of Israel against terrorism, and sympathizing with their fight against corruption and the Boko Haram. He led in the singing of Hatikvah, Am Yisrael Chai, and then leined (read) the week's Torah portion (unscripted, without preparation), with tears in his eyes.

“Throughout the entire (surreal) experience, my wife and I felt joy and the contagious elation of the people. They were truly overjoyed in an overwhelming and whole sort of way, and it was a powerful reminder of the strength and beauty of our holy tradition.”

image: Rabbi Gerald Sussman, in Danite robes, and community members receiving the Torah  (Photo by Bonita Nathan Sussman)

Rabbi Gerald Sussman, in Danite robes, and community members receiving the Torah
(Photo by Bonita Nathan Sussman )

The sixth Torah went to Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. This is the Torah scroll that my husband and I carried to Abidjan in the summer of 2014. Professor Marla Brettschneider, of the University of New Hampshire, accompanied us on the journey to Cote d'Ivoire, Cameroon and Gabon.

The Torah scroll was very long, as they come in different sizes, and we had difficulty finding a duffel bag that could carry it properly. After searching in several stores we finally found one. We had no problems in transporting it because we checked it with the luggage. We had a twelve-hour stopover in Casablanca and were afraid to take it with us on the tour we had planned, so it stayed in baggage. Once we got to Abidjan and delivered it to Alexandre Zouko, the head of the community in Abidjan, he kept it all wrapped up in the room we had to daven (pray) in. We were shocked when we unwrapped it; one of the wooden roller arms had broken off! Oy! Alexandre promised to repair it. A big celebration of Hachnasat Sefer Torah followed. A lot of people attended including some of the Danites, people who consider themselves descendants of the tribe of Dan. We wore our Danite robes and carried the Sefer Torah in with much singing and dancing and joy. The videos of the celebrations are on Kulanu's YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/kulanuvideo).

The seventh Torah went to Bnei Avraham in Sao Paulo, Brazil, carried by Daneel Schaechter, a Kulanu board member. Daneel said, “It was well-wrapped in a duffel bag and checked on my American Airlines flight. The Torah-receiving service was phenomenal, extremely emotional, filled with singing and crying.” Daneel added, “…(it was) one of the most moving experiences (of my life)…There are so many unused Sifrei Torahs (Torah scrolls) in the world and so many communities who would never be able to afford one, even a pasul one (one that needs correction) means the world to them.”

In a way, my story ends like Rabbi Tokayer's. There is still another half of this story which remains a mystery and that is how did the seven Torah scrolls come to their respective congregations in the United States to begin with. Was one of them carried on shipboard by a pious Eastern European Jew who was coming to America to make a new life but at the same time bringing his traditions with him? Was one written by a sofer (scribe) in Poland before the Holocaust, not imagining the terrible fate which would sweep up both him and his community, leaving the Torah scroll sent to America as a witness to a vanished way of life? Perhaps a stretch, but could one of these Torahs be a lost scroll from China and no one had the expertise to determine if it had the unique characteristics of a Kaifeng Torah? That is a story for another time!

*Anyone who has access to a Torah that you would like to donate to a Jewish community which we work with, please contact Kulanu at www.kulanu.org/contact.