Over 70 years ago, under the watchful eye of Nazi soldiers, Jewish curators began the process of sorting, cataloging, and maintaining stolen Torah scrolls in a dusty Prague warehouse. By the end of World War II, the Nazis had pilfered over 1,500 Czech Torahs which were never returned to their communities. When the collection was made part of Prague’s State Jewish Museum, improper care led to the scrolls falling into decay. In 1963, London’s Westminster Synagogue purchased the scrolls from the Czech Republic and began distributing them to Jewish synagogues, universities, and organizations across the world. By the end of the decade, Santa Barbara’s Congregation B’nai B’rith had its own Torah from Pribram, Czechoslovakia.
For the past 30 years, the Pribram Torah has only been used on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Its delicate state has made extensive use dangerous. On October 30, however, Congregation B’nai B’rith will hold the first letter-writing session for its “Living Torah” project in celebration of the restoration of the 200-year-old document. With a $36 donation, congregants will be able to rewrite a Hebrew letter on the scroll, completing one of the 613 mitzvahs — literally “commandments” but commonly understood as “good deeds” — outlined in the Torah. The writing sessions will occur through April 2012, when the scroll will be complete.
Rabbi Steve Cohen of B’nai B’rith says he hopes the reconstruction will allow the congregation to use the Torah more often, though “obviously it is still a special Torah that will only be used for special occasions.”
The restoration is being led by Sofer Neil Yerman, one of the only two U.S. scribes authorized to work on these historic scrolls by the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust. A sofer generally acts as a writer and calligrapher for many Jewish documents but specializes in Torahs. Yerman, whose career spans 25 years, also creates one-of-a-kind documents for life-cycle events, family trees, and bar and bat mitzvahs. His work emphasizes community involvement as a way to promote physical and spiritual appreciation of the Torah. He is currently in residence at Sinai Free Synagogue in Mt. Vernon, NY.
The restoration is being funded by a donation made by the family of Alex Stein, a Czech Holocaust survivor. “This project would have meant so much to our father,” says son Mike Stein. “Our family heritage is from Brno, not too far from Pribram. We thought it would be a fitting tribute in my father’s memory to restore this Torah so that it may be used for future generations.”
“This event has already deepened our congregation’s relationship with the scroll and the Torah’s teachings,” says Rabbi Cohen. “Coming out of this, I think we will also discover a deeper connection and understanding of the plight of the Czech Jews whom this scroll was taken from.”