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July 23rd, 2011
01:00 AM ET

New York synagogue restores Torah that survived confiscation by Nazis

The Torah from Kolin, in the former Czechoslovakia.

By Philip Rosenbaum, Matthew Moskowitz and Jonathan O’Beirne, CNN

New York (CNN) - Help wanted: Someone who can sit in one place for hours on end, has the hand-eye coordination of a brain surgeon, a yogi’s power of concentration, a linguist’s knack for languages – especially ancient Hebrew – and a monk’s ability to work alone in contemplative silence, all while avoiding impure thoughts.

The hypothetical job posting, which you’re not likely to see in the classifieds, is for a sofer, or Torah scribe.

Every day, scribes around the world spend painstaking hours writing new Torahs – which contain the first five books of the Bible – by hand and restoring damaged or old ones that show the natural ravages of time that could make the scrolls unusable for services.

Such was the case for a Torah at Manetto Hill Jewish Center in Plainview, New York. Until recently, the Torah sat in disrepair in a showcase in the suburban Long Island synagogue after the congregation adopted it in 1974.

It is one of 1,564 Torahs from the former Czechoslovakia that made it out of the ashes of the Holocaust into Jewish hands, in the form of the Westminster Synagogue in London. From there, the Torahs were distributed to synagogues around the world.

During World War II, the Nazis confiscated this Torah, also known as number 559, from a synagogue in Kolin, about 35 miles east of Prague. The Nazis were known to confiscate sacred items.

The town’s Jewish community was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, where most were killed.

Rabbi Yochanan Salazar, a scribe with Sofer on Site, a North Miami Beach, Florida-based organization, restored the Kolin Torah, which he calls a “survivor of the Holocaust.”

He cleaned some sections that had been damaged and completely rewrote other parts.

For Salazar, the restoration carried deep personal meaning. His grandfather was the only one from his mother’s side of the family in Poland to survive the Holocaust. Salazar was born in Ecuador and moved to the United States as a teenager.

“I’m able to take this Torah and to re-use it and say, ‘I’m not giving up on my heritage,’” Salazar said. “‘I’m not giving up on who I am, I’m not breaking that chain of our tradition, of our history.’”

Based on font style, type of parchment and other revealing details, Salazar estimates the Kolin Torah is at least 200 years old.

“Each time the Torah is used, not only is it a living part of our community, it is a testament to the continuity of Jewish life and the failure of Hitler’s Final Solution,’” David Ross Senter, Manetto Hill’s rabbi, wrote on the synagogue’s website.

Over the years, many Torahs from Holocaust-torn Europe were stashed in damp storage rooms, where they suffered damage.

“If there is anything that prevents the Torah from being used, we restore it back to its valid status under Jewish law,” said Salazar, who works with a quill and black ink.

The quill must be made from a kosher bird, such as a goose, turkey, or other animal so that the words in the Torah “will be in your mouth,” Salazar said. “Therefore it must be something that has to be allowed in your mouth.”

Jews believe that the Torah was handed down from God. It contains the Pentateuch, which begins with Genesis and ends with Deuteronomy.

Handwritten on the skin of a kosher animal, such as a cow, goat or lamb, the long scroll has two wooden rollers on each end. Each text contains nearly 305,000 letters, more than 79,000 words and 5,845 sentences, according to a video on Sofer on Site’s website.

Holes or other defects in the parchment are patched with white glue and Salazar uses soft tissues to remove dust and high-polymer erasers that don’t leave much residue.

“You really only have one chance to get it right,” with a very old and delicate Torah, Salazar said.

“Once you write that letter, you don’t have another opportunity to correct it,” said Salazar, who was trained as an electronic engineer and who became a sofer in 2004. “Every letter is written carefully and slowly.”

If a mistake is made in writing a Hebrew letter, the sofer must wait for the ink to dry and scrape it off. If a shadow remains, it is not considered ink and may be written over. Restoring the Kolin Torah took about six months and cost about $14,000.

Most errors can be fixed. But a few, such as if the scribe were to forget to sanctify God’s name aloud while writing it and can no longer remember where the reference was, require that the Torah be buried.

Nothing of the sort has happened to Salazar, who, like any scribe, makes mistakes. He could not recall any slips of the hand while restoring the Kolin Torah.

The Kolin Torah was re-dedicated at Manetto Hill, a Conservative synagogue, on May 1, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It will appear on the synagogue’s podium for use during high holidays, bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings.

“We’re sort of like saying to ourselves and the souls of the departed, ‘You know we haven’t forgotten you. We know you’re there. We know you’re watching us. We know what you went through,’” Salazar said.

Every Torah holds 613 mitzvot, or commandments, governing prayer, food, dress, work, travel, treatment of animals, personal relations and more.

The final commandment says every Jew must write a Torah.

Scholars say that taking part in restoring one, as the members of Manetto Hill have done, counts just the same.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Judaism • New York

soundoff (156 Responses)
  1. Reality

    Saved only to be replaced by the "New Torah for Modern Minds":

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

    "Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument."

    "The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel – not one shard of pottery."
    ==========================================================================================
    ___________________________________________________________________________________________________

    July 24, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  2. DJMG

    This was a beautiful presentation. I wish that we could see, and hear, more about this Torah and about Rabbi Senter's synagogue restoring this Torah. For that matter there should be more presentations and information about the renewed lives of other Holocaust Torahs that exist in synagoues around the world!

    July 24, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  3. Beatrice

    It's tragic all these Americans with Jewish names mock Torah. Hope American education is working properly. No Torah, no America.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:25 am |
    • Random

      Don't worry. They separate ADHD and Dyslexic children and put them with the fully developmentally disabled in separate classrooms and schools. This allows them to have nice quite classrooms in which to test and sometimes teach in.
      (Note: It helps that they drug the disruptive ones that complain.)

      July 24, 2011 at 6:39 am |
  4. Beatrice

    Torah must be read and studied along with the New Testament Bible by all, not to be decorated and left alone. The meaning of Torah is revealed in the NT Bible.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:23 am |
  5. Joshua

    A story about Jewish survival and restoration, and out of the woodwork crawls so many Jew-haters, some disguised as supporters of Palestinians, but in fact just Jew-haters.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:23 am |
  6. Beatrice

    God created the world and mankind. But mankind rebelled and doomed themselves so God chose Jews to pass on the good and right principles to live by. But Jews would fail to keep them so He promised them the Savior Jesus. The holy God loves mankind and Jews, and the Divine Jesus would redeem them in the superior way than Moses' – the overall message of Torah.

    July 24, 2011 at 5:21 am |
    • Rose

      That would be the overall message of the New Testament, not the Torah. The Torah is the first five books...you know, the one where God gives us his laws and brings the Jews to the land of Israel. No speak of Jesus there.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  7. Yankees1

    @big man Like you have a clue of what u r writing about about. If any country in the world was continuously lobbing high explosive rockets into the civilian population of the USA (and suicide bombers) for as many yrs as the Palestinians have been doing this to Israel, that country would no longer exist. AND I WOULD BE WILLING TO BET YOU WOULD BE ONE OF THE FIRST PEOPLE SCREAMING FOR THAT COUNTRY'S COMPLETE AND UTTER DESTRUCTION!

    July 24, 2011 at 2:21 am |
  8. PhillUranus

    Burn it

    July 24, 2011 at 2:13 am |
  9. NO RELIGION MORE PEACE !

    there are more important things than this piece of paper..!!!

    July 24, 2011 at 1:41 am |
    • Trevor

      Hmmmm... Nope.

      July 24, 2011 at 2:39 am |
    • denim

      Sounds like you've got a reading comprehension problem. Try again.

      July 24, 2011 at 4:45 am |
  10. Fellow Libertarian

    Are we still on about the Nasties, as John Lennon called them? That's ancient history. Surely there is more modern faith news for us to ponder.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:36 am |
  11. BCA

    Religion sucks.

    July 24, 2011 at 1:29 am |
  12. Reality

    Saved only to be replaced by the "New Torah for Modern Minds":

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

    "Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument."

    "The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel – not one shard of pottery."
    ==========================================================================================

    July 23, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
    • Dan

      Probably, probably, probably...Based on, what? your desire for it to be so?

      Only two historians ever wrote about Hannibal crossing the Alps - and only two to three centuries afterward– but this you receive as absolute fact. But eye witnesses write in the Bible and it's "probably never happened."

      July 24, 2011 at 1:22 am |
    • Reality

      Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing”, "non-witnessing" from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

      The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.

      earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

      For added "pizzazz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "filicider".

      Current RCC problems:

      Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

      Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

      Current problems:
      Adulterous preachers, pedophiliac clerics, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology,

      July 24, 2011 at 7:22 am |
  13. md2205

    A Torah is not taken out to be read when there is a wedding. It is to be taken out and read also every Shabbos, Monday and Thursday, so that three days do not go by without Jews hearing something from the Torah.

    July 23, 2011 at 10:36 pm |
    • Yaakov

      I assume they have other Torah scrolls for Shabbat and reserve this one for limited use because of its age. Our congregation has a few old scrolls we don't keep in heavy circulation also.

      July 24, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  14. Erik

    Not to be picky, but the Torah is written in Aramaic, not Hebrew...

    July 23, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
    • TokenJew

      Not to be picky, but that is a reeeeeeeeeally stupid and ill-informed thing to say.

      July 23, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
    • sls

      sorry but no. the Torah is written in Hebrew.

      July 23, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
    • TokenJew

      SLS, he must be thinking of the Talmud....It is a huge pet peeve of mine when people go out of their way to correct others with misinformation.

      July 23, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
    • md2205

      The Torah is written in Hebrew. One of the oldest translations and commentaries on the Torah is written in Aramaic.

      July 23, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
    • MCR

      The other responders are correct: The Torah was written in Hebrew. The Talmud is written in Aramaic.

      July 23, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • Joe Shmoe

      Actually Erik....It was written in Hebrew......you must be thinking of the original Bible.....which was probably written in Aramaic and translated shortly after into Greek.

      July 24, 2011 at 3:44 am |
    • GAW

      Erik Try not to drink and post at the same time.

      July 24, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  15. justathought

    I the early 20th ce tury after a raging storm off western coast of Africa where a ship sank, however three castaways managed to get in a rowboat together, it just so happened that none of them believe in God. Off in the east the could see the shoreline and started to row. As they got closer they noticed a small cloud of smoke. At first they were happy to think that there may be some help. They talked exciteldy until one man asked,"What if they are canniblals?" They were no longer joyful, but fearful. When they finely brought the boat up on shore they strated up a small hill single file. As they neared the crest they got down on their knees and crawled. Suddenly the lead man jumped and cried out, "We're saved, we're saved!" How do you know?" asked the other two. "Because there's a building with a cross on it, they're Christians!"

    July 23, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • Laughing

      They made their way inside and found some christians inside. They asked them how they made it in there and the three stranded men told their story. At the end, the father asked if they believed it was god that had saved them. All three said no, it was only themselves they should thank for saving their own lives. That's when the father ordered the death of the unbelievers.

      Moral of the story, don't trust christians.

      July 23, 2011 at 10:15 pm |
    • J.W

      Hey Laughing I put this period in my name to separate myself from the other jws. I bought that book you told me to read by Bill Bryson. I have only read one chapter in it so far though.

      July 23, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  16. justathought

    I the early 20th ce tury after a raging storm off western coast of Africa where a ship sank, however three castaways managed to get in a rowboat together, it just so happened that none of them believe in God. Off in the east the could see the shoreline and started to row. As they got closer they noticed a small cloud of smoke. At first they were happy to think that there may be some help. They talked excitly until one man asked,"What if they are canniblals?" They were no longer joyful, but fearful. When they finely brought the boat up on shore they strated up a small hill single file. As they neared the crest they got down on their knees and crawled. Suddenly the lead man jumped and cried out, "We're saved, we're saved!" How do you know?" asked the other two. "Because there's a building with a cross on it, they're Christians!"

    July 23, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
    • frank

      Get an MRI of your head immediately–something's wrong with your brain.

      July 23, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  17. Rachel

    It is great that the Jews are preserving their culture and moving past the Holocaust. Hitler tried to eliminate a race but failed. The Jews will live on and never forget their roots.

    July 23, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • Yaakov

      Amen...this isn't about victimhood, this is about transcending victimhood and looking forward

      July 24, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  18. John

    I don't know which is worse, a religion or a holocaust. Both kill more than their fair share of people and both are infectious.

    July 23, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • Ryan

      I will agree that religion has been the cause of death for many, however, it has, historically, been those people who take religion to the extreme, I.E. radicals and of course the Crusaders. Being a Christian, I would not kill anyone of any other religion, or belief unless it was in self defense. I do not agree with a lot of other religions, and definitely do not agree with athiests and their belief of no God. It is people like those of that Westboro "church" that give Christians a bad name, just like radical Muslims who claim to kill in the name of Allah, yet they kill their own people without a second thought. Christians must go out and spread the Word through words and actions, not by forcing someone to believe.

      July 23, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
  19. Chuckie

    In our internet, fast-paced, throw-away culture it is refreshing to read this story. The sacred and art, combined with a sacrificial gift of time and talent, blended to restore an item with such a deep and meaningful history.

    July 23, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  20. MJ

    Technically, Theresienstadt was a ghetto, not a concentration camp.
    http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005424

    July 23, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • Julie in Austin

      And in reality, a lot of Jews - very likely including some of my relatives - died there. Fortunately my ancestors fled Germany in the 19th century during an early pogrom. Not so fortunately, when I've tried to locate relatives who stayed in Europe, the family names I search for most often turn up as victims of the Holocaust and more often than not, at Theresienstadt.

      July 23, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
    • Sam

      From your link:

      "NAZI DECEPTION
      Theresienstadt served an important propaganda function for the Germans. The publicly stated purpose for the deportation of the Jews from Germany was their "resettlement to the east," where they would be compelled to perform forced labor. Since it seemed implausible that elderly Jews could be used for forced labor, the Nazis used the Theresienstadt ghetto to hide the nature of the deportations. In Nazi propaganda, Theresienstadt was cynically described as a "spa town" where elderly German Jews could "retire" in safety. The deportations to Theresienstadt were, however, part of the Nazi strategy of deception. The ghetto was in reality a collection center for deportations to ghettos and killing centers in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe."

      A concentration camp, but even worse considering its purpose of deceit. Iv'e read so much about this war, visited a concentration camp, but I still get sick to my stomach when I read something new every now and then.

      July 23, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • Shlomo

      I've visited Theresienstadt. It was a concentration camp mostly for children. It was used as a stopping point for deportation to
      other camps. The Nazis kept Theresienstadt clean and "Under Wraps" for inspection by organizations like The Red Cross.
      Visiting there and viewing rooms filled with artwork drawn by the children kept there is Heart Wrenching.

      July 26, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.