Scribe Kevin Hale restores Torahs with the Memorial Scrolls Trust. (Photo/Commandment 613)
Scribe Kevin Hale restores Torahs with the Memorial Scrolls Trust. (Photo/Commandment 613)

This 271-year-old Torah survived the Holocaust. Now it’s headed for a new home in Petaluma.

The community at B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma has been waiting nearly a year to formally welcome a Czech Torah scroll that’s been on a 271-year journey to the North Bay.

Created around 1750 in the town of Rokycany, Czechoslovakia, the Torah was moved to the capital of Prague in 1942, then to London in the early 1960s and then to Massachusetts in 1978. It survived the Holocaust and a communist coup before arriving via courier at Rabbi Ted Feldman’s home in Petaluma during Hanukkah 2020.

Though the Torah is now safely stored at B’nai Israel, its long voyage is not quite complete.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the congregation for the past year has been unable to give the Torah the in-person welcome it deserves. That will change on Dec. 5, the last night of Hanukkah, when the community will have a ceremony to install the Torah in a display in the B’nai Israel lobby, where it will be on permanent loan.

“It reminds us that memories of what happened in World War II are still with us,” Feldman said. “But even more important than that, the Torah is still alive, and we are, in some ways, giving continued life to this destroyed community of Jews from Czechoslovakia.”

The Torah is number 334 of the 1,564 scrolls saved in what is now the Czech Republic. In 1964, Ralph Yablon, a British lawyer, purchased all the Torahs and donated them to the London-based Westminster Synagogue, which established the Memorial Scrolls Trust and began loaning out the scrolls to Jewish communities, mostly in the United States and Canada.


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This particular scroll arrived in the United States in 1978, after Nathan and Ruth Richman, co-founders and members of Temple Beth Emunah in Brockton, Massachusetts, worked for two years to acquire the scrolls. Nathan Richman, who survived pogroms in what is now Ukraine, wrote in 1978 that receiving the scrolls was “living proof of the indestructibility of the Jewish spirit in spite of the destruction of the Jewish body.”

The Richmans are the parents of Naomi Richman, a longtime member and former president of B’nai Israel. When she was president 15 years ago, she sought a Czech Torah from the Memorial Scrolls Trust, but none was available. However, with Beth Emunah — the last remaining synagogue in Brockton — having sold its building due to a dwindling membership in recent years, the temple was no longer able to display the Torah, which was wrapped in the tallit of Naomi’s great-grandfather.

“This is living history as far as I’m concerned. This is what history is,” Richman said about acquiring the Torah. “The feeling when you hold the Torah on the left side of your body — it’s alive.”

Currently, the Torah is adorned with a concentration camp–themed cover (including a “Jude” yellow star) that came from Beth Emunah. Richman, however, said the cover should focus on the vibrancy of Judaism, not its attempted destruction, so she plans to replace it with her father’s tallit.

“My father was instrumental in getting this particular Torah here, so it makes sense that it’s his tallit,” she said.

The Torah scroll came with a concentration camp-themed cover, which B’nai Israel plans to replace.
The Torah scroll came with a concentration camp-themed cover, which B’nai Israel plans to replace.

This Torah joins more than a dozen Czech Holocaust Torahs that have found homes in the Greater Bay Area — at congregations such as Beth El in Berkeley, Emanu-El in San Francisco and Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. In 2017, Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City restored and returned a scroll to a revived Jewish community in Olomouc, Czech Republic, after having had it “on loan” for nearly 50 years.

These old Torahs, including the one at B’nai Israel, are not considered kosher for use in services, as the letters typically have faded and the pages often are damaged.

That being said, the Torahs were of a solid construction that helped them survive for hundreds of years, which indicates the relative prosperity of the old Czech Jewish communities, said Rabbi Kevin Hale, a scribe who restores Torahs with the Memorial Scrolls Trust.

“In that part of the world, life was pretty good there, so it’s an expensive way of preparing parchment that is very thin and very strong,” said Hale, who used to live and work in Berkeley and is the subject of a short documentary, “Commandment 613,” that played in the recent Sonoma County Virtual Jewish Film Festival. “In contrast, the sort of more common scrolls written in the shtetl, or somewhere in Poland circa 1900, tends to be on thicker parchment and also coated on the back with a limestone.”

B’nai Israel’s Dec. 5 ceremony, “A Community Gathering: Survival and Dedication,” will run from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. and will include an outdoor menorah lighting. Covid-19 protocols will be observed, and attendees are asked to bring proof of vaccination or a recent negative test. Free with advance registration at bnaiisrael.net, the event also can be viewed live via Zoom.

“For Jews everywhere, what ties us together as a community is our Torah,” Rabbi Feldman said. “So this Holocaust Torah represents part of that chain of tradition.”

Eliyahu Kamisher

Eliyahu Kamisher is a freelancer and J. contributor who has written for SFGATE, Los Angeles Magazine and The Appeal. He previously covered police and criminal justice for The Jerusalem Post.