Peninsula Sinai member Steve Lipman, on left, views the historic Torah scroll with the sofer who repaired it, Rabbi Moshe Druin.
Peninsula Sinai member Steve Lipman, on left, views the historic Torah scroll with the sofer who repaired it, Rabbi Moshe Druin (Photo/Marty Izenson)

Czech Torah going home after 47 years on Peninsula

The Olomouc Torah scroll is finally going home to the Czech Republic after a nearly half-century stay at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City.

The scroll was one of more than 1,500 sent to the Jewish Museum in Prague in 1942 for safekeeping. In the early 1960s, British attorney and philanthropist Ralph Yablon purchased the scrolls from the Czechoslovakian government and donated them to London’s Westminster Synagogue, which established the Memorial Scrolls Trust that loaned them to synagogues around the world, with most going to U.S. shuls.

The scroll from the synagogue in Olomouc, a city in the Czech Republic about three hours east of Prague, was one of two loaned to PSC in 1970. Damage to its Hebrew lettering has made it unfit, or “unkosher,” for use in religious ceremonies in recent years.

The Olomouc Jewish community has now been reborn after being decimated by the Nazis, and has asked for the return of its scroll. PSC is paying for repair of the Torah, and a delegation led by Rabbi Corey Helfand will bring it back to Olomouc in October.

“Restoring the scroll and returning it to its home means the Holocaust is not just a memory, but that there is new life,” Helfand said. “It’s like rekindling the light, in a way, to know Jewish life didn’t end there.”

Rabbi Moshe Druin, the sofer who is repairing the scroll, showed it off to congregation members this week after spending nearly five months working on it at his Florida home. He told the synagogue’s Hebrew school students that the Torah, which he estimates to be 200 years old, was excited to be going home.

“This Torah has been wandering, and you know what the one wish of this Torah has always been?” he asked the kids. “This Torah is about to go home. It’s about to be reunited with the same town it came from. The Torah will not just be happy to be home, but it will be happy that it’s healthy.”

Druin said the scroll had become badly damaged over the years, with many words broken and letters faded. A Torah is considered kosher only if every single letter in the entire scroll is intact.

Repairing the scroll and returning it to Olomouc will cost about $38,000, Helfand said in a letter to congregants, so the synagogue began a fundraising campaign seeking anything from $1.80 per word to an $18,000 donation for one of the five books of the Torah.

PSC also set up a GoFundMe page seeking contributions and said any amount raised beyond $38,000 would help pay for commissioning a new Torah for the synagogue — expected to cost an additional $75,000, Helfand said. As of Sept. 13, the GoFundMe campaign had raised about $8,500 from 106 donors in two weeks.

Druin, who has repaired hundreds of Torah scrolls across the country, said this is the first time he has heard of one of the loaned scrolls going back to its original community.

“Judaism is known for storytelling, but the truth is we all have our own Passovers where we tell stories,” he said. “This is an unbelievable story. Every Torah is special because of its message, but this one is great because of where it came from and where it’s going.

“This was the first time a story like this crossed my path, where a congregation was destroyed and is starting up again now.”

The Olomouc Torah has a personal connection to Jocelyn Shapira, the wife of Doron Shapira, Peninsula Sinai’s cantor. Her maternal grandmother was born in Olomouc and the family lived there until the Holocaust, reading from the same Torah scroll now being repaired and sent back to her ancestral town.

Jocelyn visited Olomouc a decade ago, before she met her husband, and took pictures of the site that used to be the city’s only synagogue. She never imagined the scroll from that synagogue would become part of her life.

“I get choked up thinking about it,” she said. ”People who died, who I learned about — for the last few years I was in the presence of their Torah. I don’t know how to express how special that is.”

Druin will join Helfand and other PSC members in bringing the scroll to Olomouc in mid-October, with the sofer putting the finish touches on the Torah there — he expects to save the Ten Commandments and the Song of the Sea from Exodus for those final strokes. The chief rabbi of Prague is expected to attend the dedication ceremony.

Helfand said PSC congregants also will make a one-day side trip to Olomouc next spring, during a tour of Poland, Prague and Vienna, to visit the scroll. And Jocelyn Shapira has plans to see the scroll about a decade from now.

She and her husband have twin 3-year-old boys and a 2-year-old daughter. After their b’nai mitzvah, she hopes to take them to Olomouc to go up to the bimah for a very special aliyah — in the presence of the Torah scroll, in the city of their great-grandmother.

Donations to the Olomouc Torah restoration can be made via gofundme.com.

This article was updated Sept. 19 at 9 a.m.

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Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.