A 200-year-old Torah scroll from Sacramento, which had been passed down through several generations of one family and survived Nazi Germany, was confiscated in Israel last month where it was held hostage by bureaucracy and politics for two weeks.
The scroll, nicknamed “Rudy’s Torah,” was taken on Dec. 29 by the Western Wall Authority from a supporter of Women of the Wall (WOW), an Israeli organization that advocates for gender equality at the Kotel.
The Torah was presented as a loan to founder Anat Hoffman in 2016 after she spoke at Congregation B’nai Israel. Hoffman wanted to use the Torah scroll at the Western Wall for girls celebrating their bat mitzvahs, services for Rosh Hodesh (the blessing of the new month) and other occasions.
The Torah’s namesake, the late attorney and judge Rudy Michaels, “had a history of supporting women, egalitarianism, equality and justice,” said CBI Rabbi Mona Alfi. “Loaning the Torah was so appropriate given Rudy’s legacy.”
According to the Authority, WOW supporter Leib Eisenbach carried the Torah into the Kotel Plaza, where his entry was blocked and the Torah confiscated. He was told it would be returned when he left the area, but only if he signed a document admitting that WOW “desecrated the sanctity of the Kotel.”
“[Eisenbach] was outraged and wouldn’t sign the document,” Alfi said, noting that the Torah had been confiscated before and returned without such a requirement.
The official story changed multiple times, first with assertions that Eisenbach never came to claim the Torah, then with a letter from Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, head rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites in Israel, stating that “No Torah scroll was confiscated at the Western Wall” and that Eisenbach “of his own will asked to leave the Torah scroll at the entrance until he could retrieve it after the prayer service.”
Incredulous, Alfi asks, “How does one lose a Torah?”
WOW released a statement on Jan. 11. “As for now, ‘Rudy’s Torah’ is still in the hands of the police. When we called them to understand where we can collect it from, they knew nothing about it,” the statement read. “We are outraged by this behavior of a public figure. The Rabbi of the Western Wall uses his power to discriminate against women and non-Orthodox movements and we will continue fighting this.”
Two days later, WOW posted on Facebook: “ ‘Blessed are you g-d… who released the bound.’ After two weeks since Rudy’s Torah was confiscated from us, [it] is back home! Rabbi Rabinowitz, see you next Rosh Hodesh.”
A follow-up statement read: “After the Ministry of Foreign Affairs got involved, they contacted the police and gave us the cellphone number of the people involved. We got the Torah back today and filed a complaint against the Rabbi of the Western Wall.”
Alfi welcomed news of the Torah’s return. “It’s clear that the voices of protest coming from American Jews mattered,” she said. “Our letters, emails and calls demanding for the release of the Torah … without making the Women of the Wall sign that outrageous piece of paper mattered. We cannot and will not allow for our Judaism to be marginalized any longer. No one group of Jews should have a monopoly on what it means to be a Jew.”
The provenance of “Rudy’s Torah” goes back to Leipzig, Germany, where it was passed down by six generations of rabbis to Rudy Michaels’ family. In 1938, the German-born man found safety in America while the remainder of his family fled to England. He served in the U.S. military during World War II as one of the Ritchie Boys, special military intelligence officers, many of them German-speaking immigrants, who were used primarily to interrogate prisoners in Europe.
When Michaels visited his parents in 1974 — the first time he had seen them in more than 35 years — he asked for the Torah and gifted it to Congregation B’nai Israel. “I have fond memories of Kol Nidre with Rudy, who was a tall and skinny man, cradling this Torah like a baby,” recalls Alfi.
While “Rudy’s Torah” has been returned to WOW, Alfi says, “In the long term, we want women to have the same access as men [to the Kotel] and we want [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] to fulfill the promise he made of an egalitarian section of the Wall. He abandoned his promises.”