Interfaith effort propels Holocaust Torah restoration

BY DAVID BAUGHER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

During World War II, as the Nazis gutted, looted and desecrated their way through countless synagogues, German troops were also given a most unusual order — one that came down directly from the Fuhrer himself. Save the Torahs.

“It was not out of any humanitarian reason,” explained Jack Cohen, president of local congregation B’nai Torah (and a Jewish Light trustee). “When the war was over, he wanted to have a museum of ‘the extinct people’ — the Jews.”

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Adolf Hitler never got his museum but his perverse sense of posterity inadvertently rescued many Torahs from the flames of the Holocaust. The Nazis dumped about 1,500 scrolls in a basement in Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia, where, after the war, a philanthropist purchased them from the Communist government and formed an organization to restore the scrolls to a usable condition.

That’s where Cohen comes in. When he helped found St. Charles County’s only synagogue 25 years ago, the new temple needed a Torah. The Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust was the answer. A few months and a small fee later, B’nai Torah had one of the rescued Torahs.

“It was very significant because we knew what the history of it was,” Cohen said. “Here we were using a Torah that Hitler never intended to be used again by Jews.”

Now a quarter century later, that Torah needs rescuing once more. The problem came to light during a conversation with the congregation’s spiritual leader Larry Comensky.

“About five years ago, Larry said ‘Jack, we’ve got a big problem,'” Cohen recalled. “‘The letters are falling off of the parchment.'”

In order for a Torah to be considered kosher for use, every character must be intact. Further investigation revealed that repairs to the scroll could run as much as $15,000 or more, Cohen said, noting that the figure was more than the total amount of money that the synagogue, a small temple of about 40 families, had in its coffers.

In 2005 the congregation elected to use a Torah on a five-year loan from a Columbia, Mo., synagogue but as the date has drawn nearer to finally return that scroll, B’nai Torah found itself looking for a new solution. As the temple board struggled for an answer thoughts increasingly centered on the unrepaired Holocaust scroll that had served the congregation for two decades.

“Just letting the other Torah sit in a non-kosher condition was not the right thing for us to be doing,” Cohen said. “Columbia might renew but as the board said, the real purpose of a Torah is to use it.”

Cohen felt that the scroll might gain a second chance at life through fundraising and publicity.

“I suggested to the board that because it’s a Holocaust Torah, it’s possible that we could get support from the community if we could get word out about the restoration,” he said.

Spreading that word proved easier than imagined. In August, KSDK (Channel 5) news covered the temple’s predicament and a few donations began to come in but that was only the beginning.

“I happened to see the story on Channel 5,” said Mark Richman, a local entertainer who specializes in music from the “Rat Pack” era. “It just hit me right in the head and I said, ‘OK, Mark. Here’s something you can do to help people out and it’s going to cost you no money. It’s just going to cost you your talent and the gifts that God gave to you that you can share with others.'”

Richman will perform a benefit concert, emceed by Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman of Congregation Shaare Emeth, next month to bring in funds for the restoration. He said the Torah’s centrality to the Jewish faith made it an easy decision to do the show.

“As far as charity goes, I donate to this cause, donate to that cause, give a dollar here or a dollar there but there was never anything really big that I saw that I really wanted to believe in and support,” he said. “Charity often goes toward research and it’s all bundled up together. Here you are going to be able to see exactly where your money is going.”

The singer, who will perform hits from such greats as Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Tony Bennett, said the Nov. 15 event will be particularly special since it will take place on the same Clayton High School stage where he sang for the first time in 1963.

But Richman wasn’t the only one watching television the night KSDK’s story ran.

“I had been thinking of some things I could do for a mitzvah project,” said Lexie Winter, 12, of United Hebrew Congregation. “I didn’t want it to be something that every other kid had done.”

Then Lexie and her mom watched the Channel 5 news.

“We never came up with anything different. We always knew what we could fall back on but there just wasn’t anything that was like ‘yeah, let’s go do that,'” remembered Lexie’s mother, Julie. “It was just in that moment that she saw it and said, ‘Could I do that? Do you think I could help them?'”

The Winters, residents of Chesterfield, had never even heard of the small congregation across the Missouri River, but that didn’t stop Lexie from charging ahead with the idea. After meeting with officials at B’nai Torah, she soon found herself making a pitch for donations in front of fellow teens involved in the B’nai Tzedek Youth Philanthropy program run under the auspices of the Central Agency for Jewish Education and funded locally by the Kranzberg Family Foundation.

Lexie has termed her efforts the “We Care” movement. Participants are asked not just to give money but to enclose a personal note telling B’nai Torah why they chose to help.

Meanwhile, Julie Winter has been assisting her daughter in obtaining invitations to speak at various congregations in the area so she can present her idea to religious school students. That includes her own congregation where Cheryl Whatley, director of education, has already pledged financial support from the school.

“We’re building strong Jews who have a commitment to community, not just looking after the UH community but looking after the Jewish community,” Whatley said. “I think it’s a fabulous thing she’s doing. I’m impressed.”

She’s not the only one. UH’s senior rabbi Howard Kaplansky is also proud of the girl’s efforts. Ironically, it was Kaplansky, at Cohen’s request, who originally helped bring the scroll to St. Louis so many years ago when he was regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism). He noted that it was particularly appropriate that the school be involved since UH just had a new Torah commissioned not long ago.

“Through their own work and their own generosity, people like Lexie and the other kids in our school are not taking Torah for granted,” Kaplansky said. “They’re helping somebody else to have a Torah from which the generations of their congregation can read and learn.”

But as Richman and the Winter family move forward with their plans, the restoration effort has now spread beyond the Jewish community.

“When Jack presented it to us, particularly the fact that the Torahs had been saved for a museum of extinct people, it hit all of us because at times in all of our faith histories people have been persecuted,” said Ann Miller, chairperson of the Interfaith Partnership of St. Charles. “Besides the Torah being so important to the Jewish community, it’s also an historic document. It’s important to preserve such things.”

Miller, a Presbyterian, said that the Partnership decided to donate all monies collected from the group’s upcoming annual forum to the Torah repair drive. The forum, set for 7 p.m. on Nov. 5 at Community of Christ Worship Center, 2790 Hwy. K in O’Fallon, Mo., will focus on sacred texts as living documents. Admission is free but contributions are accepted.

“I thought it was a neat idea,” said Maqbool Ali Khan, a member of the Muslim Community of St. Charles and the Interfaith Partnership. “It’s a holy book and we should treat it respectfully.”

Khan, who came to know Cohen several years ago through the Partnership’s meetings, said that helping his friend’s temple was the right thing to do.

“When you look at the Bible, the Koran and the Torah they are all cousins,” he said. “They all have roots in the same place.”

For more information on B’nai Torah, call 636-279-6524 or to donate to the Torah restoration effort, contact Leonard Baer at 636-578-2759.