Torah returns after 45-years in prison

BY DAVID BAUGHER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Even 45 years later, Bernard Lipnick will never forget the man he never got the chance to meet.

In 1964, an inmate named Gerald incarcerated at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo., had requested a Torah be provided at the facility for services. The prison chaplain, however, was dubious and asked Gerald to prove his seriousness.

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“He did,” Lipnick remembered, “by building an ark. It was a beautiful ark as I recall.”

It was an ark that would, thanks to Congregation B’nai Amoona’s donation of one of its scrolls, house a Torah for the next four and a half decades. But like Moses, who would never set foot in the promised land, Gerald would never see his ark used. He was transferred to another facility before the donation.

“I’ve never been able to track him down,” Lipnick said of the man whose last name he never learned.

Gerald’s story is one of many that Lipnick, B’nai Amoona’s rabbi emeritus, will recall at an upcoming ceremony Oct. 10, to welcome back that very same Torah, which was returned to the congregation earlier this year due to a lack of Jewish inmates at the correctional institution located about 200 miles southwest of St. Louis. Lipnick said it was clear by the condition of the scroll, which required only minor repairs before being deemed fit for service, that the prison had taken good care of it.

Lipnick’s presence at Saturday’s ceremony is especially meaningful since he is the only surviving member of the original presentation committee from 1964, which included the assistant rabbi, the president of the congregation and the executive director. The group traveled to Springfield to hand over the scroll and attend its first service there, an event Lipnick recalls vividly.

“No one looked any different than you or me,” he said. “It was soon forgotten that we were dealing with prisoners. They were just ordinary human beings, Jews who wanted to observe their faith. It was a lovely experience.”

However, Lipnick said that the most emotional happening took place before the delegation even left St. Louis. He recalled that the congregation’s shamash, Isadore Katz, whose duties included taking care of B’nai Amoona’s Torahs, knew the backgrounds of the scrolls and had a personal relationship with each one. Katz even took pains to rotate them into regular usage so as not to show preference to one over another.

“The moving moment was when we took the scroll from his ark and he said goodbye to it,” Lipnick said. “I’ll never forget that. It was a very, very touching thing.”

Despite its distance, the congregation did keep tabs on the Torah as the years rolled by. Lipnick said one congregant, a traveling salesman, would always make a point to check in on it when in the area and report its condition back to the rabbi. Still, like Katz, most at B’nai Amoona felt the scroll’s move to Springfield really was “goodbye.”

“When you give something to someone on permanent loan, the word ‘loan’ is subservient to the word ‘permanent,'” he said. “I never expected to see it again.”

But on Shemini Atzeret, he won’t be the only one to see it. The entire congregation is invited to be on hand when the Torah will be reintroduced into rotation for services. Lipnick estimates that B’nai Amoona has about a dozen scrolls. The returning Torah will be unveiled with a new crown, mantle and yad courtesy of Dr. Ron and Martha Gersten in memory of Martha’s parents Ben and Dorothy Gold and her sister Lois Esther Gold.

Carnie Shalom Rose, senior rabbi of the congregation said that he had not even been aware the congregation had a Torah on loan when he assumed his duties in 2005. He noted that its return is very significant.

“My sense is that there is something very special about this Torah,” he said. “It has been sent to some pretty dark places to bring illumination and it seems to me that this Torah was meant to be used for that purpose going forward.”

In that respect, Rose hinted that the Torah’s traveling days may not be over.

“On one level, it’s great that it is being returned to us,” he said. “On another level, I can’t wait for us to put it out on loan again.”