Chevrei Tzedek Congregation has finally restored one of its historic Torah scrolls to its former glory.
Following a six-month period of repair and restoration, the Torah was rededicated during two ceremonies, with one held at the synagogue on Shabbat on Feb. 25 and one held over Zoom the following day on Feb. 26.
Scroll No. 345, as it is officially called, was loaned to the synagogue through the London-based Memorial Scrolls Trust. The nonprofit serves as the custodian of over 1,500 scrolls from the former Czech Republic, repairing them and distributing them to synagogues around the world. Scroll No. 345’s transfer to Chevrei Tzedek was paid for by then-congregants Aubrey and Amelia Jay in 1993.
“They’ve since passed away, but they were from Britain, and were survivors of the London blitz bombings during World War II,” said Alan Cohen, a prayer reader at Chevrei Tzedek.
The story of the Memorial Scrolls Trust’s work may have hit close to home for the World War II survivor couple, as the Czech Torah scrolls that the organization oversees were all recovered after the Holocaust. They survived the widespread orders of confiscation and destruction of Torah scrolls and Jewish religious texts and were put into storage during communist rule of the Czech Republic. In 1964, they were donated to Westminster Synagogue in London. The synagogue now houses the Memorial Scrolls Trust Museum, which displays several of the rescued Torahs and goes into more detail about their history.
The exact origin of Scroll No. 345 is unknown, but Chevrei Tzedek’s website theorizes that it was written in Prague by a sofer (scribe) from the Prague School of Kabbalists. This is evidenced by the particular style used to write its Hebrew letters, with some letters having smaller ones written inside of them. This style was first noticed with the letter pei, and so was coined the “double pei.”
Despite its history and unique qualities, the scroll was deemed unusable when Chevrei Tzedek staff had it assessed by the Torah scribe Rabbi Menachem Youlus.
“We were told it was irreparable, that they could never make it kosher,” explained Elissa Hozore, Chevrei Tzedek’s communications chair. “We had to have it inspected every year to make sure it wasn’t deteriorating, and at one point, the inspector said it could even start degrading the other scrolls in the ark.”
Youlus would later be arrested on several counts of fraud for falsely claiming he had rescued Holocaust-era Torah scrolls, casting doubt on his assessment of Scroll No. 345.
“Who knows if he was telling the truth? Probably not,” quipped Cohen.
With renewed interest in the scroll, Chevrei Tzedek congregants wanted to find out whether it could be fully repaired. During the summer of 2022, Memorial Scrolls Trust sofer Bernard Benarroch spent approximately six months restoring Scroll No. 345 to its proper state.
Hozore relayed the story of how the scroll was transported before being shipped to London. “Alan [Cohen] didn’t have room for it in his house, and I have a big old house. I told him I had room, and he said ‘Okay, you just put Bubble Wrap around the scroll,’” she laughed. “And the most surreal part is that the DHL [shipping company] worker came to pick it up, and he was very confused about why it was covered in Bubble Wrap.”
All this culminated in the rededication ceremony, which was attended by the children and grandchildren of the original donors, the Jays. Deborah Thompson, a Torah researcher whose work helped identify Scroll No. 345’s origin, attended the Zoom rededication, along with Benarroch.
“[Benarroch] talked about his process, and then he and [Thompson] started talking to each other, which was really interesting because they have never spoken to each other before,” Hozore recalled. “And he’s seen hundreds of these scrolls, and she’s studying the meaning of these letters. So that was very cool.”
Cohen added that the rededication came full circle when the members of the Jay family were the last people at the event to take the scroll and put it back in the ark.
“We’ve had this Torah for like 20-odd years,” Hozore added. “And all of a sudden it was like, essentially brought back to life. I’m not the most spiritual person in the world, but it was so moving.”