A great mitzvah: New Castle’s Torah finds a home in Poland
No one remembers exactly how or when the century-old Torah got from Poland to New Castle, Pa., but it will be a long time before anyone forgets how it made its way back home.
Call it serendipity or call it beshert, but either way, Beit Centrum Ki Tov, a progressive congregation in Warsaw, received its first Torah late last week as a gift from Temple Hadar Israel, the last surviving congregation in New Castle, which is in the process of “downsizing,” according to its president Sam Bernstine.
There is a certain symmetry to this story: A Torah is likely smuggled out of Poland prior to the devastation of its Jewish community, and decades later, it is sent back to help a fledgling congregation ignite its commitment to the continuity of the Jewish people.
The Torah, one of eight owned by the small New Castle congregation, was destined to become an integral part of Beit Centrum Ki Tov, said Bernstine, who explained how quickly and fortuitously details fell into place.
Membership in Temple Hadar Israel has dwindled to 70 people, down from its heyday in the 1950s of about 300 families, and the remaining members are senior citizens. Bernstine knows that the time will come when the synagogue will be forced to close and has been working closely with the Atlanta-based Jewish Community Legacy Project, which provides guidance to small congregations across the nation about winding down their affairs and finding homes for their artifacts.
The board of Temple Hadar Israel already had agreed that it would be selling five of its Torahs in the months to come and would donate three, when Bernstine got word from David Sarnat of the JCLP that a new congregation in Warsaw was in need of a Torah.
“On March 20th, we had a board meeting, and the decision to donate the Torah to this new congregation in Poland was unanimous,” Bernstine said.
The challenge then became how to get the Torah to Los Angeles within the coming days so that Rabbi Haim Beliak, who works with the progressive Jewish community in Poland, would be able to deliver it on his upcoming trip to Warsaw. Beliak would be departing from L.A. to Warsaw on March 30. If Beliak could get the Torah before that date, Beit Centrum Ki Tov would be able to have it for the opening of its new synagogue on Shabbat, April 8.
As fate would have it, at an adult education program at Temple Hadar Israel on March 22, Bernstine learned that member Dale Perelman, former president of King’s Jewelry, would be traveling to L.A. to visit his son on March 24.
“I said, ‘Dale, do not leave here until Rabbi [Howie] Stein [spiritual leader of Temple Hadar Israel] and I talk to you. We might be able to use your help,’” Bernstine recalled.
Following the program, Stein and Bernstine explained to Perelman that they needed to get the Torah to L.A. but preferred not to ship it. They asked him if he would consider carrying it on the plane and hand-delivering it to Beliak, who would arrange for the transfer to occur at the historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Perelman was up to the task, and after another congregant, Alan Samuels, carefully packed the Torah in protective shipping materials, Perelman picked it up and headed to the airport. He and his wife, Michele, left New Castle and journeyed to Pittsburgh, where they caught a flight to St. Louis, then connected to another flight from St. Louis to L.A.
“Lugging it through security and all made it a little more difficult,” Perelman said. “But I was very happy to do it. It was a very nice thing for our temple to do.”
The Torah was protected in bubble wrap and covered with a plastic bag, but at least one fellow passenger recognized what it was by its shape.
“A woman from Florida asked me, ‘Is that a Torah you’re carrying?’” Perelman said. “When I told her it was a Torah going to Poland to a new congregation, there were tears in her eyes.”
After flight delays and oppressive L.A. traffic, the Perelmans finally arrived at Wilshire Boulevard Temple about 80 minutes late, but Beliak and the staff of the congregation were nonetheless waiting for them to receive the Torah and prepare it for the next leg of its journey.
Beliak flew to Warsaw on March 30 and delivered the Torah to Beit Warszawa, a liberal congregation formed in 1995 as a member of Beit Polska, the umbrella organization for Progressive/
Reform Judaism in Poland. The Torah will be kept at Beit Warszawa until the end of the week, when it will be transferred to Beit Centrum Ki Tov.
Progressive Jews in Poland started meeting regularly on Friday evenings more than 20 years ago in private Warsaw flats, according to Joe Smoczinski, a board member and gabbai of Beit Warszawa. The minyan continued to grow, and its members eventually “decided that a permanent place would be a logical next step,” Smoczinski wrote in an email.
Funding, however, was a problem, as the restitution of property post-Holocaust, and the resulting funds, was only available to the Orthodox Gminas (communities) set up by the Jewish Union. In the early 2000s, an American sponsor — a survivor — helped establish a synagogue on leased property in south Warsaw, Smoczinski wrote.
“As we now have a wide range of members attending our Reform-style services, demand has grown to have a more traditional service,” Smoczinski wrote. “Since July 2015, we commenced on the road to form a second Gmina in Warsaw. … The date 1st Nissan or 8th April was chosen in January of this year as a good symbolic date to officially open Beit Centrum Ki Tov. Then the race against time started to find a Sefer Torah —no Torah, no community.”
Beit Centrum Ki Tov has rented premises and “wanted to make a connection with the USA and with Israel,” said Smoczinski. “The resultant need for a Torah arose, and the obvious place to search for one was in the USA. We hoped (but did not rely on) that a Polish Torah would be found and returned home. Our wish came true.”
While the origins of the Torah have not been confirmed, a sofer who examined all of Temple Hadar Israel’s scrolls a few months ago said it was “probably Polish in origin and probably from the 1920s, give or take,” said Stein, who sees yet another dimension to this story.
“Temple Hadar Israel has a scroll from Poland that survived the Holocaust,” Stein said. “A family that came to New Castle had a Torah that they had hid before they left Poland. A cousin went back and got it, and that’s the scroll we use every week. Now we get to send a scroll back to Poland.
“Jewish life is going through a revival in Poland, and we get to contribute to that is some way. It’s a great mitzvah to provide a new Torah scroll to a new community, especially a new community in Poland, that was so decimated in the Holocaust.”
As for the members of Beit Centrum Ki Tov, to say they are overjoyed to receive the Torah would be an understatement.
“You have given us a seed that we will nurture so it can grow and bloom,” Smoczinski wrote in an email to Temple Hadar Israel. “Your Torah may have recently played a minor role, somewhere near the back or side of your aron kodesh. But at Beit Centrum Ki Tov, it will have a major role each week during Shabbat morning Shacharit, not forgetting the High Holidays. … With the 1st Nissan being on Shabbat, there will be three readings, a great way to open the scroll and read from it for the first time. The words written in this gift to us will sing to all that come to hear.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.