Old Czech Torah coming home to Danville

A Torah that survived Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, years of neglect and nearly three decades in anonymity is ready to take center stage upon its return to Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville.

After being painstakingly restored over the past three months, the 250-year-old scroll is going to be celebrated and welcomed back with a siyyum, or grand celebration, at 7 p.m. April 27. In addition, donors will be writing letters in the Torah over a four-day period leading up to the celebration.

The Torah is one of 1,564 found in Czechoslovakia after the Holocaust. It is held by the Czech Memorial Torah Scrolls Trust, which loans out the restored scrolls.

Newly crafted rollers for the restored Torah

Beth Chaim’s scroll (officially known as No. 266) has been on permanent loan to the congregation since it began 35 years ago in Pleasant Hill. But because Beth Chaim got it from a nearby synagogue that was dissolving, its back

story was not known until a sofer, or scribe, was assessing it for minor repairs eight years ago.

It is now known that the Torah is from Strasnice, a district of Prague, where it did duty in a prayer hall adjacent to a residence for seniors before the Holocaust.

Moreover, it is part of an incredible story.

As the Nazis overran Czechoslovakia, destroying more than 60 synagogues, a group of Jews worked feverishly to save Torahs and Jewish artifacts, bringing them to what has become the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. Museum staff recorded a description of each scroll and its point of origin.

“Somehow they had convinced the Nazis, while they were plundering synagogues, that there was value in these artifacts,” said Beth Chaim Rabbi Dan Goldblatt. “Most of the Jews in Czechoslovakia did not survive; whole communities were wiped out. Even the curators were eventually sent to Terezin and Auschwitz. But this huge collection of Torahs and artifacts survived the war.”

In the 1950s, the 1,564 scrolls were moved to a synagogue in a Prague suburb, where they languished. In 1964, the Czechoslovakian government sold them to Westminster Synagogue in London. Some were in such bad shape they had to be buried, but a majority were ripe for restoration, and the Czech Memorial Torah Scrolls Trust was formed.

A Czech Trust scroll similar to the one loaned to Congregation Beth Chaim

For the latest round of repairs, Rabbi Kevin Hale, a sofer, has worked on Beth Chaim’s No. 266 for three months. Unlike scrolls from shtetl congregations, written on rough parchment, this one is written on very fine parchment, like onion skin, he said, requiring considerable care. “It was a delight to sew it in the old-fashioned way,” he said.

Last November, Hale, whose office is in Leeds, Mass., came to Danville and conducted nine teaching sessions over five days. He will return to attend the siyyum and put the finishing touches on the restoration.

Hale’s teachings added to Beth Chaim’s own path of enlightenment after finding out eight years ago that the Torah was from Czechoslovakia. That “amazing moment of discovery” and ensuing insight into the Torah “have enabled us to appreciate what an incredible treasure we have,” Goldblatt said.

As the years went on, however, it became evident that the treasure needed significant repairs, so last year the 700-member synagogue began fundraising for the project.

In addition, longtime member Cori Rossman, a quilter and fabric artist, made a cover for the Torah. And another congregant, artist Harry Levin, crafted new etz chaim, or rollers, from cherry and black wood. (Levin’s work will hold significance for him when his grandsons, Joshua and Jacob, read from the restored Torah at their bar mitzvahs in the coming years.)

“It’s an unbelievable journey, how this Torah has come to us — a synagogue in Danville — and we feel so blessed to have it, and to be able to bring this Torah back to life,” Goldblatt said.

J. managing editor Andy Altman-Ohr contributed to this report.

The siyyum is 7 p.m. April 27 at Beth Chaim Congregation, 1800 Holbrook Drive, Danville. Open to the public, but RSVP required. (925) 736-7146

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.