What Is An “Orphan Torah”?
What Is A “Lost Congregation?”
From The Heart
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
With the Aron HaKodesh, Holy Ark, so central on our bemah, perhaps you have failed to notice that there is another Torah that is encased to my right (your left). It is the Orphan Torah. This Torah was saved from the Holocaust among the 1564 that were discovered in Prague at the end of World War II that survived from the communities of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. These sacred scrolls were taken by the Nazis from their communities as their rightful owners were murdered. All that remains from these communities are the sacred scrolls. They are orphans.
The Westminster Memorial Scroll Trust was created to preserve these scrolls and find synagogues to adopt them. Temple Beth-El has scroll number 298. It is on loan to the synagogue with the condition that it is displayed in a respectful, commemorative manner. Thus it sits in its own prominent case, perpetually enshrined on the bemah. Yet while the town of origin is known for many of the scrolls, there was no entry next to number 298. Not only are its owners dead, they are not even known. This is truly an Orphan Torah. Since it was brought to Temple Beth-El by Bea and Jack Fine, we have been its family, its guardians. When I host groups from parochial schools and colleges, this is the only Torah scroll that I open for them to view. I tell them the story of the miraculous survival of this Torah, indicative of the eternal power of Judaism and of its bearers, we, the Jewish people. This Orphan Torah is a witness to history, a witness to our national indestructibility.
Just as there are Torah scrolls whose place of origin cannot be identified, there are communities that are not connected to Torah scrolls. There were about 210 Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia, 60 in the Sudetenland, and 20 in Prague itself. The destroyed communities that have no existing Torah Scroll or other ritual objects are the Lost Congregations. Jewish history in Europe has a long history. It was rich in learning, music, customs, literature, humanity. The Holocaust swept it all away. That world is gone forever.
On February 8th, 2014 in the Westminster Synagogue in London, there will be a Service of Rededication commemorating 50 years since the scrolls arrived there. I am sure that it will be most meaningful.
I invite you to join on Friday, February 7th and 8th, 2014 at Shabbat services for our own program of memory and dedication. At Erev Shabbat services I will speak about the history of the scrolls and the process of their salvation. This will include a little of the history of this part of Europe. I have prepared a pamphlet based on materials from the Trust. On Shabbat I will continue this exposition. We will also take our Orphan Torah from its case and include it in our Torah procession. Following the Haftarah, tables will be set up tables in the Sanctuary and the Orphan Torah scroll opened to be viewed. This will be an especially moving moment. I will file a report of this Shabbat with the Westminster Trust to include it in their memoirs.
I bequeath to you the opportunity to identify a Lost Congregation and adopt it as your own, reuniting an Orphan Torah and a Lost Congregation. We have given life and perpetuity to this Torah scroll. By selecting a congregation from those destroyed, learning about it and including it in many ceremonious ways, you will be able to give it a measure of eternity as well. Our Torah lives! The Jewish people lives! Forever and Ever!