mystery-torah-goodwill-williamsburg-jewish by the Forward

This Torah Was Dropped Off At A Va. Thrift Store Can You Help Us Find Where It Came From?

A couple hundred bucks can get you a variety of things on Goodwill’s online store: Tory Burch boots; a metal detector; a Burberry duffle; a collection of Furbies.

Oh, and a Torah.

Until Tuesday, you could bid for a scroll — sacred, if tattered — at ShopGoodwill.com. First listed at $200, bidders quickly pushed the price to $456.

You’ve heard of the Gutenberg Bible? Call this the Goodwill Torah.

Its story is full of mystery and unanswered questions. It involves a donor possibly shrouded in priestly robes; an iconic Southern town known for its colonial reenactment; a Ukrainian village whose Jews were nearly all killed by the Nazis; and an anonymous buyer who thought he could flip the Torah for a profit. Three days of dogged investigation have yielded a detailed accounting of the Torah’s last three months, but virtually no solid clues of its age, provenance, or rightful ownership.

“There’s gotta be someone out there that is missing this Torah and wants it back,” said Mordechai Sidell, the Website manager for a Hasidic synagogue in New Jersey whose connection to this story will be explained in good time.

The Torah came to Goodwill late one evening this August, when a man wearing a cassock donated it to a store in, of all places, Williamsburg, Va., where colonial times are still unfolding. No one at the store even realized what it was, because the nearly four-foot tall Torah was wrapped in a nondescript comforter, bundled with other unremarkable textiles, and left in the back room overnight, said Michael Luckey, the manager of the store.

The next morning, employees discovered the scroll, clothed in a traditional mantle of dark-blue velvet embroidered with the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, flanked by two golden lions. Above the tablets is a large crown, and the words keter Torah: the crown of the Torah. Underneath is one word, the name of a town in Ukraine.

The staff knew the item was Jewish, but that was all. They stuck a $500 price tag on it and put it with the other oversized items, next to a music mixing board that may have come from a recording studio.

“It’s obviously not something that you see appear at a Goodwill store,” Luckey said.

Indeed, a Torah is not something you generally see outside a synagogue or school.

Told this odd story, Jesse Abelman, the curator of Hebraica and Judaica at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., said he has never before heard of a Torah showing up, origins unknown, in a secular setting in the United States.

Torahs are valuable, sacred objects that take a trained scribe about a year’s work to produce. If even one of the more than 300,000 Hebrew characters in the scroll is inked to the parchment improperly, it is considered unkosher — unusable. So while a used Torah can sell for $13,000, a new Torah can cost more than $40,000, and some with historical value have been auctioned for up to a quarter of a million dollars.

Though they contain the five books of Moses, such scrolls are not used for regular study, generally only for ritual reading a few times each week. They are kept in special armoires known as an aron kodesh, or holy ark. When ferried from place to place, they are supposed to be carried angled toward the right shoulder, wrapped in a prayer shawl. Tradition dictates that if a Torah is dropped, everyone who sees it hit the floor must fast during daylight hours for 40 days.

And yet the Goodwill Torah has appeared out of nowhere, and been handled not unlike your grandmother’s china or last year’s overcoat.

Torah for sale

Here’s what we’ve learned so far about what happened that August night. A man in a cassock — a full-length garment generally worn by Christian clerics — put a bulky object wrapped in fabric down outside the store in the spot designated for donations, said Sean McInerney, a Goodwill employee. It was about 8:30 p.m., close to the store’s closing time, and too dark for its external security cameras to pick up any identifying details. The lone store employee who saw the man recalled him wearing a cassock.

The Forward contacted three churches in Williamsburg: one Byzantine Catholic, one Roman Catholic and one Eastern Orthodox. The pastors of all three said they knew of no such Torah, and one said he didn’t know of any clergy in Williamsburg that would wear a cassock outside of church.

The Torah sat on the shelf next to the music-mixer for almost two months.

“We did have people who were very inquisitive, because it was a very unique item,” Luckey said. But no one ever tried to buy it, or even asked to take a look under the mantle and examine the scroll itself.

Then, in mid-October, another mysterious man — Goodwill says it has no record of his identity — bought the Torah. A week or so later, the Torah was returned, for a full refund, to a Goodwill store near Richmond, about an hour away.

Luckey says that when the man bought it, he said he planned to try and give the Torah to a temple that could use it. But McInerney said that from what employees at the Goodwill near Richmond were able to gather, the man was just a reseller, and returned the Torah when he couldn’t find a website through which to quickly flip it.

The manager of the store near Richmond, recognizing that this item would more likely sell on a nationally used website, gave the Torah to McIneney’s office, which ships online orders for items donated in the central and coastal Virginia region. McInerney is an assistant manager of e-commerce there, and he posted the listing, starting the price at $200. Bids started coming in, and so did outraged emails and phone calls from Jewish people around the country.

“They were obviously kind of irate that we had the Torah,” he said.

One caller accused Goodwill of handling the Torah improperly; indeed, the listing shows the scroll unfurled, which Jewish law prohibits without saying the proper blessings.

On Monday, after receiving enough irate messages, McInerney got in touch with the rabbi of a Richmond synagogue, who alerted Temple Beth El, the sole synagogue in Williamsburg. On Tuesday, the synagogue’s rabbi emerita, Sylvia Scholnick, and its office administrator, Jill Hyman, drove an hour to the e-commerce office to collect the Torah for safekeeping.

Scholnick did not respond to telephone calls Wednesday, but McInerney said she and Hyman told him the synagogue may hire someone to determine whether the scroll is still kosher. If it is not, they plan to bury it in a Jewish cemetery, the traditional fate of things that have the name of God inscribed in them but are no longer fit for use in rituals.

Rabbi David Katz, the head rabbi of Beth El, said that thrift stores in the area have occasionally called him because they received small pieces of Judaica, such as a mezuzah without a scroll.

“But nothing like this,” he said.

A long way from Berdichev

The Torah itself offers tantalizing clues to its origin.

Most prominent is the one word embroidered on the Torah’s mantle — “Berdichev.” Two hours by car from Kiev, Berdichev is a small city, part of the historical Pale of Settlement, where Jews were allowed to live in the Russian Empire. Before World War II, Jews made up more than a third of its population. But the Nazis killed nearly every Jew in Berdichev, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica.

There are a few theories as to why a Torah might bear the Berdichev stamp .

One is that the Torah was associated with a society of Jews from Berdichev. Called a landsmanshaft, these communities of people from the same town in Eastern Europe flourished around the United States in the early part of the 20th century, primarily in New York.

In 1938, there were at least eight Berdichev societies in New York, said Daniel Soyer, a professor of history at Fordham University and the author of a book about Jewish immigration societies. Though Soyer said that none of these societies were religious, it was common practice for a landsmanshaft to sponsor the creation of a Torah on behalf of their hometown. That means the scroll could have belonged to a congregation that had no connection to Berdichev, but did have a connection to someone from there.

Alternatively, it could have been the property of someone whose name was Berdichev, Soyer said.

Another theory centers on Hasidim, ultra-Orthodox Jews whose tend to live in insular societies led by charismatic rabbis or their descendants.

Berdichev — unlike towns such as Lubavitch, Satmar and Bobov — never gave birth to a Hasidic dynasty. However, there are a small handful of “Berdichever” synagogues in Hasidic enclaves around New York. These synagogues are most likely a remnant of the time when immigrant Jews created congregations with their countrymen, said Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College and a scholar of Hasidic Judaism.

Calls to Keter Torah Berdichev, in Monsey, N.Y., and to Berditchev Kloiz, in Lakewood, N.J., yielded no missing Torahs (or missing Torah mantles).

“For sure not,” said Shea Seidenfeld, Keter Torah’s rabbi. “I would know.”

Seidenfeld and his family live above the synagogue, which is in a townhouse on a suburban street in the predominantly Hasidic town. He did not have a cell phone, so the Forward texted pictures of the Goodwill Torah to his synagogue assistant. Neither recognized it.

In Lakewood, Sidell, the website manager for the Berditchever Kloiz, a synagogue with Orthodox Jews of many backgrounds, said their Torah collection was also intact. The Forward shared images of the Torah with Sidell. He noted the mysterious discrepancy between its torn scroll and luminous mantle.

“From the cover, it doesn’t look so old,” Sidell said.

It also could be that this Torah is left over from an old Berdichever synagogue from somewhere around Virginia, though there is no evidence yet that such a congregation exists.

“It’s likely that what it is, is a remnant of a small community that lived in the South, that came from Berdichev, and this is all that’s left of it,” Heilman said. It may have had as simple a name as “Anshei Berdichev” — people of Berdichev.

The Torah keeps the score

There may be more clues on the Torah that are not visible in pictures, or that could most likely be uncovered by an expert scribe, said Abelman, the curator at the Museum of the Bible. The back side of the animal hide on which the words of the Torah are written could have notes from scribes that have certified its kosher-ness in the past. The rollers bearing the scroll might have an inscription with the identity of the Torah’s donors. If it crossed the Atlantic sometime in the 20th century, it could even bear a customs stamp.

The Forward was unable to reach the Beth El rabbis Wednesday morning for an update on the Torah, and how they plan to examine it. It is likely that the Torah is in poor condition, based on images of the partially torn and faded scroll shared with the Forward by Goodwill.

“Temperature, humidity or even just physical mishandling can cause the ink to come off the parchment, and if even one letter is missing or damaged, then the scroll is unkosher,” and therefore unusable for prayer services, said Rabbi Joshua Heller. His synagogue, Congregation B’nai Torah in Atlanta, recently decided to have a scribe re-certify their scrolls as kosher every year; Heller said that if a Torah is left unattended to for decades or more, it would “definitely deteriorate.”

But Abelman, the museum curator, said that remains to be seen.

“Especially if it’s just been sitting around closed for a long time, it wouldn’t shock me if it was completely kosher,” he said.

Correction, 11/7/19, 6 p.m. — This article has been updated to reflect that Jesse Abelman suggested the Torah may still be kosher if it were “closed,” not “in clothes.” His original statement was misheard.

Do you have any information about this Torah? Contact Ari Feldman at feldman@forward.com or on Twitter @aefeldman

Author

Ari Feldman

Ari Feldman

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. He covers Jewish religious organizations, synagogue life, anti-Semitism and the Orthodox world. If you have any tips, you can email him at feldman@forward.com. Follow him on Twitter @aefeldman.

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