Two WWII-era Torahs returned after 26-year loan

Greg Yawitz, President of Congregation Shaare Emeth, and Laurie and Wayne Ault, former president of the now-closed B’nai Torah congregation in St. Charles, prepare a Torah for transport. Like several synagogues in St. Louis, B’nai Torah was loaned a Torah rescued from World War II-era Europe. On Sunday, it was returned to the London-based Memorial Scrolls Trust. Another Torah, which had been loaned to the now-closed B’nai El Congregation, was also returned. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

In addition to marking the last Friday night services of 2015, last weekend also marked the final days in St. Louis for two historic Torah scrolls that have called the Gateway City home for more than a quarter century.

“I found it extremely meaningful holding this important piece of our history,” said Greg Yawitz, “knowing that it was going from a good place here at Shaare Emeth back to its caretakers and then would be lent out to Jews in need somewhere.”

Yawitz, president of Congregation Shaare Emeth, was there to witness the handover of the two Torahs, which were on long-term loan in the area from the London-based Memorial Scrolls Trust. That organization was formed to preserve hundreds of the holy documents, which survived the destruction visited upon European Jewish communities during World War II. Some 1,400 synagogues worldwide now hold a borrowed scroll from the group.

The scrolls given back Sunday during a solemn moment at the bimah came from two area congregations that no longer possess standalone physical locations. B’nai Torah closed its doors in St. Charles County in 2014 and combined its membership with Shaare Emeth. B’nai El put its building up for sale in 2012 and moved onto the campus of Shaare Emeth the following year. 

Yawitz said B’nai El received its Torah from the trust in 1984. It is unclear when B’nai Torah received its scroll but the congregation acquired it sometime shortly after it was founded that same year, according to a 2009 Jewish Light article.

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The scrolls have been housed temporarily at Shaare Emeth since it became connected with both institutions. Yawitz said that returning the scrolls was in keeping with the trust’s attempts to meet demand for the sought-after Torahs. In fact, Shaare Emeth, which owns 14 Torahs, already has a different Holocaust Torah of its own on loan from the group for several decades.

“It would be selfish of us to keep three when people are in need of them around the world,” he said. Shaare Emeth’s Holocaust scroll, which it still retains, is not unfurled weekly; however, it is put into use during Yom HaShoah remembrances and for bar and bat mitzvahs involving children with relatives who have a connection to WWII or the Holocaust.

That includes Goldstein’s own sons who read from the Torah for their ceremonies. The rabbi’s father was born at Bergen-Belsen after the concentration camp was turned into a facility for displaced persons.

“We have a number of families who make that same request to use that scroll,” she said. “It actually has a cover that was designed and created by one of our members who was a Holocaust survivor. She has since passed away.”

She said she is gratified to see the other two Torahs moving on to their next destination after a trip back to London.

“They will be given to other communities that have been requesting them,” she said.

Yawitz and Goldstein said several other Holocaust Torahs from the group are still in St. Louis at various congregations. A list on the synagogue’s website appears to be incomplete and neither Yawitz nor Goldstein were sure exactly how many are still in the area.

Yawitz said the two departing Torahs were made a part of Friday’s services.

“As part of the procession of the Torah, we used the two Holocaust scrolls that were going to be returned as sort of a ceremonial goodbye to them,” he said.

The handover occurred two days later with membership from both B’nai Torah and B’nai El present for the event though there was no formal ceremony.

Rabbi Andrea Goldstein said that