Clapping and singing along to a klezmer duet, dozens of Jewish university students in Oakland and their guests welcomed the arrival of a 300-year-old Torah scroll last week.
The scroll had served generations in a Polish Jewish community, survived the Holocaust hidden in a farmhouse wall, was smuggled out of communist Poland and then served a New Castle synagogue until its closing at the end of 2017 due to its dwindling and aging membership.
And now it has begun a new chapter at the Hillel Jewish University Center in Oakland. The center hosts worship and cultural activities for students at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
“I feel like a part of history,” said Jamie Schachter, a vice president of Pitt’s Hillel Jewish Student Union. “It’s a new beginning.”
Sybil Epstein reaches out to touch the Torah as Sam Bernstein pushes Larry Buntman, carrying the Torah, around the congregation Saturday during the final Shabbat service at Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle Saturday.
Among those attending were Deena Epstein of Cleveland and Ina Silver of Mt. Lebanon, daughters of couple that arranged to have the Torah brought America .
“My parents were Jewish to their core,” Epstein said. “Knowing that it’s going to a vibrant community, where this will really live on, would please them to no end.”
A group from Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle also plans to travel here by bus on Saturday when the Torah is first used for Shabbat services.
It was this same Torah that, on the last Sabbath of 2017, members of Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle read from as they officially closed their synagogue, concluding more than a century of organized Jewish worship in the city. It’s a fate facing many once-thriving, now-declining industrial cities in the region.
But Friday’s service was looking forward, as the numerous Jewish students, some in casual clothes, some in formal suits or dresses, cheered the scroll’s arrival at the start of a weekend dedicated to Jewish education and worship. The scroll was protected in a white cover decorated with colorful designs of a crown and the tablets representing the Ten Commandments.
Brian Burke, president of Pitt’s Hillel Jewish Student Union, had the role of formally placing the scroll in the ark, or container, next to other scrolls the students use in the center’s worship space.
“It was crazy to think of all that history there” in his hands, said Burke.
A Torah scroll contains the five biblical books of Moses, inscribed in Hebrew on parchment.
This one is believed to date back to the early 1700s. It served generations in the town of Suwalki, Poland, which had more than 10,000 Jews by the late 1930s.
Among those residents were Joseph and Janet Mirow. They had planned eventually to follow others in their family to Palestine, but with war looming in 1938, they availed themselves of their quickest possible exit — tickets to America, sent by an uncle in New Castle (whose relatives also attended Friday’s ceremony at Hillel.)
Joseph Mirow, after serving in the U.S. Army, operated a jewelry store in New Castle, and the couple raised two daughters there.
Many other relatives, tragically, as well as most of Suwalki’s Jews, perished in the Holocaust, the Nazi-led murders of 6 million Jews after Germany overran much of Europe.
The Nazis’ hatred of all things Jewish extended to sacred objects such as Torahs. But a distant relative of the Mirows hid this scroll in a wall in his house.
His son, Nochem Adelson, wrote to the Mirows in the 1970s, saying he had found the scroll during renovations, family members said.
With Jewish worship repressed under communism, Adelson hoped to send it to America. But the Polish government also restricted export of such cultural artifacts.
Mr. Mirow explained the situation to a non-Jewish friend who was a fellow immigrant from Suwalki and was planning to visit their hometown. The family still isn’t sure of the details, but the friend managed to smuggle it out. And in 1975, after the Torah underwent repairs, it entered regular synagogue use in New Castle.
Tragically, Mr. Mirow died soon afterward in a car accident. Mrs. Mirow died in 2002.
The scroll is one of several from Hadar Israel finding new lives in places as diverse as Poland, Indonesia, South Carolina and Jewish summer camps in Pennsylvania.
The ceremony was poignant for longtime Hadar Israel member Carole Schwartz-Cohen, who attended Friday. “I wouldn’t have missed this,” she said.