Chapter 11

Part V — Coming To America

Chapter 11

ornamented The War in Europe ended in the Spring of 1945. The towns and villages that dotted the Czech countryside were still there but there were no longer any Jews living in them. The Torah scrolls along with other religious objects –binders, pointers, covers, etc. –remained stored in the Jewish Museum in Prague where they were kept as a memorial to the vanished communities.

The collection was maintained by the government, but in the years after the war, with Europe trying to rebuild itself after the years of bombing and destruction, this collection of Judaica was not given high priority. It was soon realized that the scrolls would eventually deteriorate if they remained rolled up and unused.

Eighteen years after the end of the War, in 1963, a British art dealer, Mr. Eric Estorick, was able to arrange for the scrolls to be acquired by a London businessman and philanthropist, Mr. Ralph Yablon. There was an understanding between the Czech state authorities and the interested British parties that the scrolls were to be entrusted only to a noncommercial body. Through the generosity of Ralph Yablon, the scrolls were acquired and the Westminster Synagogue in London was nominated to receive them. The Synagogue accepted the offer of the scrolls, and on February 7, 1964 the scrolls, which had been carefully packed and shipped from Prague, arrived at Kent House, Westminster Synagogue in London. The Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust was established and a committee was formed to work with them. The initial tasks were to carefully unpack, inspect, sort and number the scrolls. One of the Torah Scrolls from Sedlcany was given the number No. 1285.

London ScrollsAll of the scrolls were evaluated and graded in terms of their condition. Some were in very good condition and could still be used, while others needed extensive repair. Even many of those that were damaged could be made usable if some necessary repairs were done. Others that were beyond repair would serve for commemorative use as sacred memorials.

Almost all of the scrolls showed some evidence of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Some were blood-stained, some were charred or water damaged and a few were wrapped in personal clothing or in a tallit –a prayer shawl– for protection. Each scroll was affixed with a brass tablet with a number corresponding to the number on a certificate which describes the origin of the Scroll and any information known about its origins and history. It was the aim of the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust that these scrolls be distributed on permanent loan to Synagogues needing Torah scrolls.

Over the course of the next several decades nearly all of the scrolls were repaired as best they could. Requests began to come in to the Trust from all over the world from synagogues who needed torah scrolls. Year after year, more scrolls would be repaired and requests would be evaluated. Congregations all over the world wrote to the Trust requesting a scroll for study or commemorative or ritual use. Not all of the scrolls were in good enough condition to be consideredkosher, or perfect enough for use during sacred rituals, but they could nevertheless have utilitarian value.

David Brand, restoring scrollsIn August of 1993, Mr. Leon Cowan af Manchester, England was getting ready for a trip to America to visit his daughter Shelley Chadwick and her family — Michael Chadwick and their daughter (Leon’s grandchild), Annamalka. Leon had planned his trip so that he would be arriving in time for the High Holidays. According to arrangements that had been made previously with Mrs. Ruth Schaffer of the Czech Memorial Scrolls Committee, Leon had in his possession Torah Scroll Number 1265. Leon’s other son-in-law who lived London had been given the scroll to carry to Manchester several weeks earlier. He took it to Leon’s synagogue, where the scroll was kept until the day of Leon’s flight. Leon boarded a flight from Manchester and arrived in New York where he passed through customs. He boarded another flight to San Francisco International Airport, still carrying the Scroll in his arms. He was greeted at the airport in San Francisco by a small group of people from Woodacre who were anxiously awaiting his arrival.

The Woodacre community had been in correspondence with the Czech Memorial Scrolls trust for more than a year. They had learned about the Trust from Mr. Henry Gordon of Florida, who was the father of one of the Congregation’s members, Harriet Kossman, who lived in Bolinas, California. Gershon Mitchel, also a member of the Congregation and a friend of Harriet’s, wrote to Henry who was able to provide the name and address of the Trust at Westminster Synagogue in London.

A letter of inquiry was written to London. Prior to agreeing to provide the new Woodacre Congregation with a torah scroll, however, the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust needed to have information about the congregation and assurances that the scroll would be properly used and cared for. They also wanted to be sure that the Woodacre Congregation knew that the scroll was not a kosher torah and that therefore, according to Jewish law, the scroll could not be used for sacramental purposes. Nevertheless, a scroll might be provided for its historical, educational and commemorative value. In addition, a donation of $1500 was requested from the congregation to assist the Trust to continue its work. At that time, in mid-1993, the congregation’s annual dues were only $40 a year for families and $25 for individuals. This provided enough money to print and mail the monthly Newsletter, to buy some prayerbooks, and to rent space in the San Geronimo Valley Community Center for the High Holidays. There was very little money in the congregregation’s treasury — only $1400 in its savings account and a little over $100 in the checking. Nevertheless, it was agreed that every effort would be made to try to raise the money to acquire the scroll. On July 20, 1993 a letter was written to the trust in London to ask if they might take a down payment with the assurance that the remainder of the money would be forthcoming. The Trust in London, while appreciating the financial circumstances of the newly formed Congregation, however requested the full $1500 donation before they would agree to provide a torah scroll. This was understandable: they wanted to be sure that one of their treasured scrolls, scrolls that had been through so much, would go to a stable home where it could be properly cared for and cherished.

The Congregation was determined to do everything it could to acquire a torah scroll and agreed that they would try to raise the necessary funds so that the Torah would arrive in Woodacre in time for the High Holidays. A notice went out in the Congregation’s newsletter and within a month, more than $1200 had been contributed by 24 people connected with the Congregation, including a major donation of $500 from a woman in Connecticut, (the mother of one of the Congregation’s members) and a large donation of $150 from a non-Jewish man from Woodacre, the former husband of one of its members. For the remainder, a loan of $500 was offered by one of the members of the Congregation. On August 6, 1993 a check in the amount of $1500 was mailed to Ms. Ruth Shaffer, Trustee and Joint Chairman of the Memorial Scrolls Trust at Kent House, Westminster Synagogue in London. By the time the High Holidays were over, an additional 16 people had made contributions to the Torah Fund and sufficient funds had been raised to repay the loan.

The letter of transmittal that came with the Torah from London to the Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley reads as follows: “This Scroll is of emotional and sentimental consideration and is used in Synagogues for religious and educational purposes.” What does it mean that the Torah is “not a kosher Torah?” In order for a torah to be kosher, acceptable in accordance with Jewish law for use in Jewish rituals and ceremonies, it must be letter-perfect. There can be no ink smudges, each letter must be perfectly clear, none of the ink can be flaked off the parchment, and there can be no letters missing. The Woodacre Torah is more than 150 years old. Some letters are faded, some sections of the parchment have been stitched together from what appear to be other scrolls. It is beautiful. It is not perfect. In 1997 the Woodacre Torah Scroll was examined by a scribe from Los Angeles who cleaned the parchment and restitched some of the panels. But in his opinion it would take as much money to repair the scroll, to make it kosher, as it would to commission a new scroll to be made. It was his advice that it might therefore be a better “investment” for the Congregation to order a new scroll rather than to repair the old one.

It is Jewish practice that a Torah scroll or other books of prayer that are not longer in use should be buried in the ground. The Woodacre Torah, Torah Scroll #1285, which after more than 150 years came to Woodacre by way of Sedlcany, Prague, and London, despite its age and condition, somehow managed to survive and was not buried. It lived through generations of Jewish life in Bohemia and survived the worst devastation of Jewish history.

The Woodacre Torah now has a new life in its new Congregation. It has been assigned on Permanent Loan to the Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley by the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust. It is studied by youngsters preparing for their B’nai Mizvoth and it is loved and honored by all of the members of the Jewish Congregation of the San Geronimo Valley. An ark for it was constructed by Daryl Grossman. The ark was fitted with rich fabric by Elaine Woldorsky and Janet Hughes. A magnificent dress of velvet and satin for it was created by Virginia Levine which she hand-embroidered. A beautiful needlepoint cover was sewn by Betty Chorna. Each time the Torah is lovingly taken from its ark, its cover removed and the old parchment unrolled, each time we read the letters inscribed on this old Torah Scroll, we remember all of the Jews who came before us in our community and read from this very same scroll to tell our ancient stories. Even if one day a new Sefer Torah should come to our Congregation, Scroll No. 1285 will continue to hold its place of highest honor.