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Historic Torahs on loan around Southern California reunited in Fullerton for anniversary



Torah scrolls, once belonging to Jewish temples throughout Czechoslovakia, were reunited at Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton as the synagogue celebrated its 60th anniversary.

On loan to 19 Southern California temples, the scrolls were displayed after a ceremony that offered congregants from each synagogue messages about hope, history, and heartache.

The one-day event also commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, which serves as the guardian to more than 1,500 Czech Torahs that survived the Nazi occupation of the region and later the shuttering of synagogues under regimes that stifled the Jewish faith.

“What a wonderful celebration to share,” Jeffrey Ohrenstein, a London resident and chairman of the Trust, said at Sunday’s event showcasing the collection.

In 1964, the scrolls, each containing five handwritten books of the Hebrew bible, were donated to the Westminster Synagogue in London where the Trust was formed.

“Since then we have been distributing (them) to communities, organizations and synagogues around the world,” Ohrenstein said. “We’ve allocated some 1,400 scrolls to 1,300 communities and 1,000 of those are in North America.”

The Fullerton temple has three such scrolls, but only one of them is “kosher,” or in perfect condition to be used in an official manner, Temple Beth Tikvah Assistant Rabbi Miriam Van Raalte said.

Most of the Czech Torahs are from the 18th and 19th centuries, she said, “But there are some that are much older.”

“The use of these scrolls, either for reading in public or for using symbolically for show, evokes memories of Jewish history, the struggle for survival, and the continuity of the Jewish people,” said Van Raalte. “We let the congregation know that this is a scroll that faced extinction.”

During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the scrolls and other Jewish artifacts were taken to the Jewish Museum in Prague, which had been established in 1906 and became a warehouse of treasures collected by the Germans. The vast inventory “was catalogued by Jews who were deported to concentration camps once the work was finished,” according to the Trust. “Unfortunately very few of them survived.”

Ohrenstein told the story of an art dealer who was looking to buy a gift for his wife nearly two decades after World War II. The dealer was brought to a destroyed synagogue outside of Prague. There he was shown a damp warehouse “full of Torah” scrolls.

Philanthropist Ralph Yablon bought the scrolls after learning of their existence from the art dealer. He then donated them to the Westminster Synagogue in London.

The synagogue’s rabbi addressed dozens of congregants at Temple Beth Tikvah via recorded video on Sunday.

Following the ceremony, the gathered Torahs were displayed on long bridge tables. People looked closely at the Hebrew lettering and gently ran their fingers over the worn wooden dowels holding the scrolls. The wooden pieces are call the atzei chayim, meaning “tree of life.”

Pedro and Laura Alamilla of Downey visited with their three children.

As they observed the Torahs, they were overcome with emotion, Pedro Alamilla saying, “We’re at a loss for words.”

Source: Orange County Register

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