A Survivor’s Lost Torah Scroll
Things don’t just disappear, I thought to myself, when I learned in 2010 that the Torah my grandmother carried out of war-ravaged Poland wasn’t in the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, where it was supposed to be. I’m a person who misplaces things frequently, and so I have to tell myself this often. It is this law of the natural world — the impossibility of disappearance — that keeps me looking for the things, especially the important things, that are lost.
The 117-year-old Torah, my family’s most treasured possession, was commissioned by my great-great-grandmother. Four generations of my family have played a role in this Torah’s creation and safekeeping. I am a member of the fifth generation, and it is now my turn to take care of the Torah. My cousin Dalia and I expected that our sons would read from it for their bar mitzvahs, just as my brother and cousin did when they were 13.
But now the Torah has gone missing, and its misplacement — I use this word because I don’t want to call it “lost” — is a cruel severing of the tie my family had with this identity-forming piece of our past. To say that I am angry doesn’t really capture the rage, or my family’s sense of loss.
My grandmother, Rachel Sharupsky Kane, died in June 2010 at age 99. My mother, Sarah Schultz, and her twin sister, Esther Meyers, accompanied their mother’s body on the long flight to Israel from Los Angeles.
Safta had made just two requests in her will: As an observant Orthodox Jew and a life-long Zionist, she wished to be buried in Israel. The second dictate was that the ownership of the family Torah scroll would be passed along to her daughters, and then eventually to her grandchildren.
Safta was buried next to my grandfather, Chaim Kane, in Har HaMenuchot, the largest cemetery in Jerusalem. The following morning, the first order of business for my mother and my aunt was to check on the Torah. They went to the Great Synagogue to inform the authorities that their mother, the original donor of the Torah, had just passed away, and to clarify that now the Torah and its safekeeping were to be her daughters’ responsibility.
My mother and my aunt had no intention of moving the Torah elsewhere; after all, they felt it was in good hands. My grandmother deposited the Torah there in the early 1980s, soon after making aliyah from Los Angeles with my grandfather. She entrusted the Torah to the clergy of what was then called Hechal Shlomo, a building on King George Street that housed both a small synagogue and the central office of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. At the time, the directors were in the midst of collaborating with a British philanthropist to erect a much larger place of worship, the Great Synagogue, right next door. My grandmother felt there was no better safe haven and place of honor for her precious possession.
In 1982 the Great Synagogue’s construction was complete, and my aunt’s family traveled to Jerusalem so that my cousin, her son Sean, could read from the family Torah for his bar mitzvah. They were there for the Great Synagogue’s consecration.
After Sean chanted from the Torah, Aunt Esther wanted a picture of her son and her mother holding the Torah together. As the Torah was being passed to my grandmother, the male synagogue administrator who was supervising the affair lurched forward to intervene, quickly explaining that it was inappropriate for a woman to hold the Torah. My aunt, not in the mood for discussion, stared at him and calmly explained in one searing sentence that this woman now holding the Torah was the same woman who carried it through Poland and over the Alps to safety, and that it was quite appropriate for her to hold it, thank you very much.
The following year, my immediate family followed suit so that my brother could become a bar mitzvah and chant from the Torah. I was 10 years old, and the Great Synagogue sanctuary seemed immense. Growing up in Tucson, Ariz., I’d never seen an architectural space so vast. Michael’s voice echoed in the giant space with its towering stained-glass windows. We were permitted to take photos. In one, my brother looks somber as he holds the family Torah, which was cloaked in a blue velvet mantle embroidered with the names of all our family members who died in the Holocaust. My grandmother stands on the other side of the Torah, with her left arm embracing it. On her face is a barely concealed expression of triumph.
This, after all, was the realization of a wish that was made four generations earlier in a shtetl in what is now Poland, when my great-great-grandmother, Miriam Yudkovsky, paid a sofer, a Torah scribe, to live with her family for a year while he painstakingly wrote each letter of the Torah.
She commissioned the Torah in memory of my great-great-grandfather, Yitzchak Yudkovsky, and it was used in the synagogue in the village of Byten until 1941, when the Nazis set the synagogue aflame. Her daughter, my great-grandmother Esther Reisel Yudkovsky Sharupsky, ran into the burning synagogue to rescue the Torah from destruction. My great-grandfather Tsvi Sharupsky, who was the shtetl rabbi, and his youngest daughter, my grandmother Rachel, then hid the Torah in the rafters of a barn that belonged to a kind, gentile neighbor.
Tsvi and Esther Reisel were shot in a villagewide massacre in Byten in August 1942. Of their 11 children, one had died in infancy, five had already immigrated to Palestine or the United States, four shared their parents’ fate in the Holocaust and my grandmother Rachel, the youngest, remained alive by living and fighting with the partisans. When her first husband was shot and killed in the Bialystock ghetto, she fled into the forest with her first born, a daughter named Freidel, who died soon after.
No one in my family knows exactly what caused Freidel’s death. My safta’s horrific loss was conveyed to her daughters through nightmares too terrible to be spoken of in waking life. My mother recalls hearing her mother’s anguished screams in the middle of the night in their Los Angeles apartment.
In 1944, my grandmother returned to Byten from the forest at great risk, hoping to find a surviving brother or sisters. She found none. She went to the neighbor’s barn, where the Torah had been stashed, and, again, in the face of danger, reclaimed the Torah. Now there were two survivors: Rachel and the Torah.
Since having my own children, I have tried to put myself in Safta’s situation. In my imagination, the Torah becomes a stand-in for the lost infant, Freidel. If I’d lost my baby, then I would care for this Torah, I would shelter it, I would forgo carrying food if it meant that I might keep this Torah safe. The Torah would be my only remaining connection to life before the mass murder, brutality and chaos. The existence of the Torah and the weight of it in my arms, or the presence of it near where I slept, would be the thing, maybe the only thing, sustaining me.
My grandmother got married again, to my grandfather, Chaim Kanowicz (his last name was later changed to Kane), sometime in the darkness of Poland in 1944. Growing up, I always understood that theirs was a marriage of necessity during that unstable period. One benefit to my grandmother was that Chaim was a stocky, strong man; he could help her carry the Torah over the mountains. No one in our family knows the details of the 300-mile trek that took them out of Poland. We know that my mother and her sister, twins, were conceived in Romania. And we know that Rachel and Chaim carried the Torah every inch of the journey and reached safety in a displaced persons camp in the former mansion of one of Mussolini’s mistresses, near the town of Viterbo, Italy. My grandmother gave birth to my mother and my aunt at a hospital building in Florence that no longer exists.
My safta was eager to get to Palestine, but she and her husband were told that an attempt at illegal passage to Palestine with newborn twins was too risky, and so in 1948 they ended up in Detroit, where her two brothers had settled decades earlier.
It was in Detroit that my grandparents spent their first meager earnings from his wages as a factory warehouse worker to get the Torah fixed, or “koshered” by a scribe, so that it could once again be used in a synagogue
In 1953, Chaim and Rachel and their 7-year-old twin daughters moved to Los Angeles, where my grandmother’s elder sister lived. My grandfather cradled the Torah on his lap for the duration of the three-day train journey. They arrived at Los Angeles’s Union Station with nothing but the Torah and maybe $50 to their name.
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.
That was only the beginning.
From their Jerusalem hotel, my mother and aunt called the synagogue every day for a week, asking for Finkelstein and pleading for an update on the Torah search. They were rarely connected with him directly, and when they were, he reiterated that he had no information.
(Reached by the Forward for this story, Finkelstein said that he did not recall the specifics of his initial conversation with my mother and her sister. He said that he attempted to match a photo of my family’s Torah with the scrolls in the Great Synagogue to no avail, and that he also gave information about the Torah to Hechal Shlomo. Hechal Shlomo did not return requests for comment from the Forward.)
Upon her return to the United States, my aunt continued the inquiry, exchanging dozens of emails with Finkelstein, Zalli Jaffe, a synagogue vice president and attorney, and Asher Schapiro, chairman of the board, about their attempts to locate the Torah. The emails add up to 18 printed pages at most recent count.
The back-and-forth became demoralizing and, at times, infuriating. The confusion was further heightened by the fact that no one individual was taking ownership of the Torah search: Sometimes Schapiro, sometimes Finkelstein, sometimes Jaffe — really, who was in charge over there?
At one point, Schapiro enacted a show of sympathy in an email, explaining that his own family also lost a Torah saved from the war when it was later loaned to a hotel for a bar mitzvah. I wondered: Does the chairman of the board really want to draw a parallel between the Great Synagogue and, say, the Marriott? Shall we assume that one of the largest synagogues in Jerusalem places no more import on the safekeeping of a Torah than a hotel?
This past summer, I learned that Finkelstein, known in America as George Finkelstein, had resigned from his post at the Great Synagogue after the Forward reported that he had been dogged by allegations of sexual abuse over decades. The claims began when he was an administrator at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan. The Forward also found that in 2009, a man filed a complaint with the Jerusalem police alleging that Finkelstein had behaved inappropriately by wrestling with him in the rabbi’s home and at the Great Synagogue. The police dropped the case in 2010 for lack of evidence. Needless to say, the allegations against Finkelstein made my family even more skeptical about the trustworthiness of the Great Synagogue.
However, we thought we might finally see some progress when my aunt forwarded to the Great Synagogue the original contract, made with Hechal Shlomo, from the early 1980s that described the terms of the loan of the Torah. It also contained a list of specific identifying features: locations of staining and parchment shrinkage. Rachel had the Torah’s weight documented at the time the contract was made. Converted from kilograms, it weighed 18.85 pounds. Translated from Hebrew, the contract reads, “The Synagogue commits to keep the Torah in the holy ark of the Synagogue and take care of the Torah carefully and devotedly, taking this into consideration especially because of its age and special value to Mrs. Kane and her family.” It’s clear from the wording: my grandmother did not want her Torah getting confused with any other.
We also learned in October that a new director general, Zev Lanton, had taken the helm at the Great Synagogue. We were cautiously optimistic. With the details provided by the contract, and a new leader, maybe the Torah would be located.
My mother and father flew to Israel in December 2013 to meet with the clergy of the Great Synagogue face to face. Three and a half years had gone by, and all that had been provided to my family — the only fruits of the Great Synagogue’s search — was one shaky iPhone video of a Torah that clearly was not ours.
A few days before their meeting, the Forward called the Great Synagogue to ask about the Torah. Jaffe told the Forward that the Torah was originally entrusted to Hechal Shlomo, which is a different legal entity from the Great Synagogue. Yet Jaffe said he was committed to helping us in our search. In fact, he was optimistic: “We believe we have found it,” he said.
That would have been nice.
Jaffe produced a Torah that he said had been stored in the synagogue’s cellar — not the one from the iPhone video — and presented it enthusiastically to my parents. They asked an outside expert, Rabbi Yitzchak Goldshtein, to inspect the Torah. Goldshtein heads Machon Ot, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to Torah scroll identification, maintenance and repair. After many hours of close examination using the details enumerated in the contract, he concluded that the Torah could not possibly be ours.
At the time of this writing, Goldshtein is continuing to help us in our search. Jaffe told us that he is paying for the Torah expert’s time.
But even if Goldshtein finds a Torah that matches the specifications in the contract, neither he nor any other expert will ever be able to say with 100% assurance that it is the same Torah my grandmother brought out of Poland. The only way a real match could be ensured is if we had on hand multiple photographs of the family Torah un-scrolled, to show the finer details of the calligraphy and its textual alignment on the parchment.
I want Goldshtein’s search to be successful. But even if it is, the truth will always be tainted with uncertainty. I am already mourning a loss of something that was supposed to be loved and cherished by many future generations. I was looking forward to taking care of the Torah, and in doing so, linking myself to my ancestry. But the Torah will never exist for me in the way it used to: proud, undeniable, resilient, resplendent in its blue velvet mantle. My children will never have the privilege of knowing it exists for them.
I’ll tell my children the story of the Torah, and then — depending on the outcome of the current search — I may have to tell them it’s not with us anymore. They won’t understand that, just as I don’t understand it. Of course the Great Synagogue must be held accountable, but that doesn’t bring the Torah back.
Mimi Schultz is a psychiatrist in private practice. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and two children.
Reporting contributed by Nathan Jeffay and Naomi Zeveloff.