Paying It Forward – the Journey of TRT’s First Torah Scroll

 by Ellen Finkelstein

Late one Shabbat night in April, my husband Neal and I decided to watch a recording of the evening service from Central Synagogue in New York City. The sermon was given, via Zoom, by a rabbi in Paris, France. I remembered that TRT’s original Torah had been passed along to a congregation in Paris and I wondered if this rabbi’s congregation was where our Torah had gone. I asked Rabbi Weber, who said no, it had gone to another congregation in Paris. And so began my search … where had our Torah gone and where was it now? With some detective work and help along the way, I set out to trace the Torah’s journey. Here is its story.

Temple Rodeph Torah began with a meeting of a group of families in October, 1979. The congregation was incorporated in early 1980. The Torah came to TRT with the help of Rabbi Daniel Freelander of the UAHC (now the Union for Reform Judaism). In 1980, Temple Beth Am in Middletown, NY, was closing and TRT became the recipient of its Torah, along with other assorted items … prayer books, a kitchen sink, two 6 feet tall menorahs, two display cases and six dozen juice glasses. According to Rabbi Weber, we eventually got rid of the menorahs and display cases but his family used the juice glasses until the last one broke!

Temple members Rich Herzog, Irv Freilich, Jon Klein and Steve Silverman drove up to Middletown to pick up the Torah, Rich and Jon in a rented truck and Irv and Steve in Irv’s car. They recall that after the Torah and the other items were loaded into the truck, they headed back to New Jersey. They came to a barrier arm and somehow, Rich came too close to the barrier. He couldn’t reverse because Irv’s car was right behind the truck. He drove the truck forward but the barrier came down on the hood of Irv’s car, leaving a significant dent! But Rich, Jon, Irv and Steve got the Torah to its new home in New Jersey, where it was kept mostly at the home of Barbara and Jon Klein, then in Rabbi Weber’s home when he joined the congregation in 1984, finally moving into our sanctuary in 1989.

Temple Rodeph Torah had possession of the Torah from its arrival in 1980 until 1994. By that time, congregants Phil and Zenia Miller had donated a Holocaust Torah to TRT and we also had a new Torah written for us by a Torah scribe. According to Rabbi Weber, “when TRT started the process of writing our own Torah scroll, a group of people started talking about having three scrolls. I said that personally I didn’t love the idea of a scroll just sitting in the Ark for most of the year; that’s like having a teacher you love, but never study with. Then someone said, ‘What if we gave the original scroll to another new congregation?’ Honestly, from that moment it seemed like an obvious answer to everyone there.” In that moment, Temple Rodeph Torah created the mission of this Torah … it was to be passed on to startup congregations that had no Torah. Rabbi Weber shared that he believes this is a point of pride for TRT and completely in keeping with the character of our congregation. It was time to pay it forward …

The next destination on the Torah’s journey was Paris, France. A small congregation called Kehilat Gesher, led by Rabbi Tom Cohen, was the recipient. It was brought from TRT to Paris by Rabbi Cliff Kulwin, then the Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Rabbi Kulwin, who attended the dedication ceremony for our new Torah in 1994, wrapped the traveling Torah in plastic bags and headed to the airport and on to Paris.

I reached out to Rabbi Cohen, who shared the next chapter of the Torah’s journey with me. In Rabbi Cohen’s own words, “We basically had the Torah for around seven years – seven years of High Holy Days, seven cycles of the weekly Torah readings. We had dozens of young men and women become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah with that text. And because we did not yet have a physical home in those early years, that Torah helped establish a custom whereby each future Bar or Bat Mitzvah would take the Torah home for the week preceding their Shabbat. It became meaningful to everyone to have that ‘special guest’ in their home. Even when we started to rent our first ‘home’ and as we are building our new center, we still maintain the custom of having every B’nai Mitzvah family receive a ‘special guest’ in their home.” After seven years, it was time for Kehilat Gesher to acquire its own Torah. Rabbi Cohen reminded his congregation of the Torah’s mission: to pass it along. He recalls that at a meeting of the European Region for Progressive Judaism, a group of delegates from Denmark said, “Some of you don’t have a place for your meetings.Others don’t have a rabbi or liberal prayer books in the native language. We don’t even have a Sefer Torah”. At that moment, the delegates from Kehilat Gesher offered the Torah to the congregation in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was time to pay it forward …

And so the journey continued. In 2002, Rabbi Cohen brought the Torah to a congregation called Shir Hatzafon in Copenhagen. Rabbi Cohen recalls that at the airport, the agent at the counter asked him what was in his bag. When Rabbi Cohen said it was a Torah and the agent didn’t know what that was, another agent said, “It is the five books of Moses which the Jews use in their churches. He is carrying something holy. Place him in a seat without anyone on either side of him.” So the Torah flew from Paris to Copenhagen in its own seat!

Enter Congregation Shir Hatzafon in Copenhagen, Denmark. I was able to connect with Rabbi Sandra Kviat and Arthur Buchman, who is the Chairman of Shir Hatzafon. Buchman recalls that Rabbi Cohen, who was carrying the Torah in a gym bag, made the Danish congregation aware of the obligation to pass the Torah on when they acquired a scroll of their own. Shir Hatzafon meets in the Unitarian House in Copenhagen, which they rent for once-a-month Shabbat services. They have two rabbis, Rabbi Kviat and Rabbi Tirzah Ben-David. The Torah could not be stored at the Unitarian House, so it was brought back and forth from services to members’ homes – still in a gym bag! In Buchman’s words, “We are grateful to have had the use of this wonderful scroll for so many years.” A few years ago, Rabbi Allen Bennett was able to secure a permanent Torah scroll for Shir Hatzafon from his former congregation, Temple Israel in Alameda, Calif. And so, in 2015, it was time to pay it forward …

The current guardian congregation of TRT’s original Torah scroll is Crouch End Chavurah, a liberal congregation in London that formed in 2008. The congregation is led by Rabbi Sandra Kviat, who is also one of the rabbis at Shir Hatzafon in Copenhagen. Rabbi Kviat shared a wonderful tradition that is observed at Crouch End Chavurah. The congregation has no ark so a cover was made to use when the scroll is resting on the table.The cover is decorated with a Tree of Life and a growing foliage of leaves. Bar or Bat Mitzvah students provide a piece of cloth that is meaningful to them. A member of the congregation forms the cloth into a leaf and sews it onto the Tree of Life. Rabbi Kviat asked Temple Rodeph Torah to send her a piece of cloth that is meaningful to our congregation and she will have it made into a leaf for the Crouch End Chavurah’s Tree of Life table cover. A Rock Shabbat T-shirt, from which a leaf will be designed, has been sent to London. We look forward to joining our congregation to theirs in this special way.

It was wonderful to learn not only that our Torah continues to be passed along according to its mission, but also that the clergy and congregants of Kehilat Gesher, Shir Hatzafon and Crouch End Chavurah have all cherished both its presence and its purpose.

The detective work I did to uncover the story of our Torah’s journey would not have been possible without the help and participation of many other people, both at TRT and elsewhere. Thanks go to the following people without whom this story would be incomplete:

TRT Rabbi Emeritus Don Weber worked as my partner in the many layers of detective work required to see this project to fruition.

TRT founding members Irv and Judy Freilich, Barbara Klein, and Rich, Maxine and Jen Herzog shared their historical knowledge and memories with me.

TRT members Shelley and Marc Willner helped me to connect with Rabbi Kviat and aided in the search for the name of the Middletown congregation.

TRT member Laurie Kaufman supplied (and washed!) the tee shirt that has been sent to London.

Temple Sinai in Middletown, NY, researched their local history to discover the name of Temple Beth Am.

Rabbi Tom Cohen (Kehilat Gesher in Paris), Rabbi Sandra Kviat (Shir Hatzafon in Copenhagen and Crouch End Chavurah in London) and Arthur Buchman (Shir Hatzafon in Copenhagen) shared their wonderful stories and their love for our shared Torah.

Rabbi Allen Bennett (Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel in Alameda, Calif, and former Advising Rabbi to Shir Hatzafon) connected me through Rabbi Weber to Shir Hatzafon.

We hope that Crouch End Chavurah continues its meaningful relationship with this very special Torah scroll until the time comes to pay it forward once again. We at Temple Rodeph Torah look forward to hearing about the next chapter of our shared Torah’s journey.