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Our Holocaust Torah

This is the story of Woodlands Community Temple’s first Sefer Torah (Torah scroll). It was rescued from the town of Rakovnik, Czechoslovakia (a town in the western part of the Central Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic located between the cities of Prague and Plzen). The Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust rescued a collection of 1564 Torah scrolls and 400 Torah binders, part of the precious legacy of ritual objects collected at the Jewish Museum in Prague during the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in Czechoslovakia in the Second World War.

Our scroll, number 339 in the Czech Memorial Scrolls collection, was written in 1890, seized by the Nazis, and later, along with the other Holocaust Torah scrolls, was made available to American congregations. In our case, temple member Doris Lieberman's parents paid the costs and asked that the scroll be dedicated to the six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust. UPS transported the Torah on the last part of its journey and, when the company learned what was in the crate it was carrying, refused to accept any money for their part in bringing it to us.

Jack Safirstein, a founding member, tells the story of the scroll’s journey from New York City to Westchester. Temple member Don Moskovitz was bringing it home with him on the train but fell asleep before his disembarking at the Hartsdale station. He woke up just in time to dash off the train, but forgot that he’d placed the scroll in the overhead rack. When he realized his mistake, Don drove to the North White Plains station only to discover that the scroll has been locked up for safe keeping in the station’s Lost and Found. At Don’s insistence, a guard was placed on the office overnight until the scroll could be safely brought to its new home.

The Rakovnik scroll is on permanent loan to Woodlands where it was formally welcomed on September 22, 1967. The original cover needlepoint was designed by artist and temple member Neil Waldman. It was sewn by Elsie Bitkower.

The current Torah mantle was designed and created by artist Jeanette Kuvin Oren in 2007, part of a set that depicts three values at the core of our temple: Care for our Environment, our Community, and our Past. The Holocaust Torah cover focuses on history, the Shoah and how new birth will come after destruction. Its design includes blossoms amidst flames and represents the essence of Jewish peoplehood: out of the flames of the Holocaust came new birth and new life. The mantle is made of an assortment of fabrics, mainly hand-dyed silks, that have been pieced and quilted by the artist.

In recent years, our sofer (Torah scribe) has informed us that the original materials used to produce this Torah scroll have not stood up to the test of time. Although this scroll was used many times for Shabbat, holidays and children becoming B’nai Mitzvah, its parchment has grown brittle and is no longer able to be taken from the Ark. Nonetheless, we have given this Torah a place to live and to be loved, inspiring our synagogue community to continue seeking out new joys and new visions for a future filled with hope.

The Goldsmith Torah

Ancestral heirlooms are the treasured artifacts of a family’s history. Heirlooms are usually jewelry, or fine art, but imagine that the heirloom is a Torah that’s been in one family’s care for almost two centuries. The Torah owned by the Goldsmith family is such an heirloom, and, thanks to recent temple member Gary Goldsmith, it is currently living at Woodlands.

The Goldsmith family Torah dates back to a time when it wasn’t rare for fortunate families to have family torahs. Gary estimates that the Torah has been in his family since the early 1800s. Gary’s great grandfather, Ludwig, a physician who brought it to the U.S. in 1934 or 1935 when Germany started persecuting its Jewish citizens, including not allowing Jewish doctors to practice medicine.

Ludwig carried the Torah on its journey to America wrapped in a blanket. To keep it safe, he pretended that it was a rifle. When Gary’s great grandfather would re-tell this story, he would say that the Torah is indeed the Jews’ weapon. When Ludwig died, the Torah transferred to Gary’s grandmother, Marianne Goldsmith, and then to Gary’s father, Ludwig Michael Goldsmith and was kept at their synagogue in Montclair, N.J. When Gary’s dad passed away in 2008, the Torah was left in his family’s hands. Upon moving to Westchester in 2022, Gary Goldsmith and his family — wife Sarah Sommers, and their sons Theo (age 7), and Miles (4) — joined Woodlands. It was an easy choice for Gary.

Through parental connections, he and Rabbi Mara had known each other since childhood. So, when Gary announced plans to join Woodlands, he told Mara: “Just a heads up, when we join Woodlands, we come with a Torah.”

The Torah was formally presented to Woodlands on April 21, 2023, during the Yom HaShoah service. The Torah may move around between the sanctuary ark and the Woodlands library and will mostly be used as a teaching torah. The family also plans to use the Torah when Theo and Miles become B-Mitzvah, as well as for the B-Mitzvah of his niece and nephew, Machaela and Aidan, whose family also recently joined Woodlands.

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784