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After raising their two daughters in L.A., they made aliyah in the early 1980s and brought the Torah with them, placing it, safely, they believed, on loan to the Great Synagogue. In 1991, when the scud missile attacks of the first Gulf War drove them back to the States, the Torah remained in Jerusalem.
In February 1992, my grandmother received a note on Great Synagogue letterhead from the then-director, Chaim Klein. “The Torah you entrusted to us was recently inspected… and found to still be kosher,” he wrote in Hebrew. He mentioned that it continued to be used for worship “from time to time.”
I imagine this letter was reassuring for my grandmother. Despite the fact that she was thousands of miles away from the Torah — further than she’d ever been from her treasured scroll — here was a confirmation that the Torah remained in good hands and was still being put to its intended use.
In 1999, my cousin Jake Sharp and his wife, Lizzie, visited the Torah with their daughter Becky on the occasion of her bat mitzvah. They were the last family members to see it.
Lizzie tells a story that echoes the anecdote from Sean’s bar mitzvah: Becky and her mother were not permitted to touch the Torah, so in the photograph the Torah sits in the ark of the Great Synagogue, with Becky on one side of it and a 13-year-old boy from her b’nai mitzvah class on the other.
Fast-forward to June 2010. My mother and aunt arrived at the Great Synagogue the morning after their mother’s burial and were met by the synagogue’s director general, a rabbi named Gedalia Finkelstein. He was the highest-ranking synagogue official present that morning.
Finkelstein disappeared for a few minutes and returned carrying a tattered piece of yellow legal pad paper. On it a few names were scribbled in pencil. He told Rachel’s grieving daughters that all the names of the families who lent Torahs to the synagogue were on that frayed piece of paper, and their mother’s name was not on the list. He told them he had no idea where the Torah was.
He also said that Klein, who had signed the 1992 letter — the letter assuring my grandmother of the Torah’s continued safekeeping and use — was now dead. Finkelstein had been in his current position since 2001. He told them that he could not be held responsible for anything that transpired before his tenure began.
He had nothing else to say on the matter, he said, but he did admonish my mother and aunt for leaving their hotel room during shiva for their mother.