The Incredible Story of BRS’s New 600-Year-Old Torah
This past Sunday of Chol HaMoed, owing to the great generosity of the Kohlhagen family, our Boca Raton Synagogue community had the distinct honor of welcoming two Sifrei Torah into our collection. While all Torah scrolls are sacred and worthy of our love and affection, the extraordinary story of one of these Sifrei Torah in particular makes me look forward with added excitement to dancing with it on Simchas Torah in just a few days from now.
While most modern Sifrei Torah have 42 lines per column, this very large scroll has 67 lines. It was written in Spain and has been carbon-dated to over 600 years placing it prior to the Spanish Inquisition. From Spain it was moved to Horinghausen, Germany, where it resided for decades. It was later moved to Kassel, Germany, before our member Steven Kolhagen’s great, great, great-grandfather Marcus brought it to his hometown of Korbach, Germany.
When Hitler rose to power, Steven’s grandfather, Arthur, prepared to leave Germany and removed the klaf of the Torah from its atzei chaim. Only by hiding the klaf in a mattress was he able to smuggle it to the United States where it found a home in a Shul in Washington Heights. In the late 1950s thirteen families, including the Kohlhagens, formed the first orthodox Shul in Teaneck, NJ, Congregation Bnai Yeshurun—something I personally appreciate: I grew up davening in Bnai Yeshurun and celebrated my Bar Mitzvah and Aufruf there—where they used this Torah until 1967.
That year, Arthur suffered a heart attack and was unable to walk the long distance from his home in Bergenfield to Bnai Yeshurun. With the direct assistance of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt’l, Arthur opened a new Shul in his home that grew to become Congregation Beth Abraham, which now boasts many hundreds of families.
The Kohlhagen family now lives in Florida and we are incredibly proud and honored to be the latest stop on the remarkable journey of this Torah. As we sang and danced the Torah from their home to BRS, I couldn’t help but think that this Torah, in many ways, embodies the very story of our people. It came into being many years ago, but almost since its inception has been on the run, fleeing from persecution and oppression. Yet, while the Inquisitors and Nazis, yemach shemam v’zichram, are relics of history, this Torah has not only survived, but it continues to teach, inform, inspire, and uplift as much now as the day it was completed.
One can only imagine what this Torah has witnessed and experienced, the stories it could tell, and the places it has been. It has touched lives in Spain, Germany, New York, New Jersey, and now Florida. Over the last six-hundred years, countless have received Aliyos from it, many Bar Mitzvah boys celebrated coming of age with it, others marked their Aufruf with Maftir from it, communities danced with it, and it is still strong, beautiful, kosher, and stands ready for whomever will be called up next to it.
The simple truth about this six-century-old Torah, like all Torah scrolls, is that more than we have lifted and carried the Torah, the Torah has lifted and carried us. That sense of lift is what we recognize, celebrate, and strive for on Simchas Torah as we affectionately and lovingly dance for hours with all of our Sifrei Torah, new and old, Ashkenazi, Sefardic and Nusach Ari, simple and ornate alike. The history of our Sifrei Torah must inform, inspire, and strengthen our future commitment to them and all that they represent.
In his Pachad Yitzchak (Sukkos #57), Rav Hutner quotes a story from the first Gerrer Rebbe, the great Chiddushei Ha’Rim. Once year on Simchas Torah, the Chiddushei Ha’Rim was observing two of his followers, both great Torah scholars, dancing fervently and enthusiastically. The Rebbe turned to the person next to him and predicted which of the two would tire first, and so it was.
When asked how he knew, the Rebbe explained that the one student was dancing in celebration of all the Torah he had learned the previous year while the other student directed his energy to dance in anticipation and excitement for the Torah he would learn in the coming year. What we have already learned, said the Rebbe, is finite, complete and has limits. What we can yet learn, though, is not defined and therefore our strength for it is greater.
Our Sifrei Torah have illustrious histories, but it is up to us to give them meaningful and distinguished futures.
As we eagerly anticipate Simchas Torah, it is worthwhile to hear the story of a remarkable hachnasas Sefer Torah that Rabbi Paysach Krohn described:
A number of years ago in Flatbush, New York, a very private, soft-spoken gentleman, who always sat near the back of the shul, told his rav that he wanted to donate a Sefer Torahto the congregation. The gentleman, Mr. Shimshon Blau (a pseudonym), told the rabbi that he had commissioned a soferto write the Sefer Torah for him and now the job was nearly complete. The rabbi was incredulous. Mr. Blau was not known to have substantial funds and the cost of a new Sefer Torah was more than $30,000.
The rabbi spoke to the sofer and learned that Mr. Blau had indeed been paying small sums of money over the years and recently had made the last payment. The Sefer Torah would be finished in a few days.
On Shabbos the rabbi announced the good news to his congregants and everyone went over to Mr. Blau to wish him “mazel tov” and thank him for his generous gift to the shul. Plans were made for the Hachnasas Sefer Torah, the public dedication and welcoming ceremony.
A few weeks later on a bright Sunday afternoon, the community gathered at Mr. Blau’s home and escorted him as he carried the Sefer Torah from his home to the street where he walked under a chupah to bring the Torah to the shul. Dancing and singing accompanied those who took turns carrying the Torah, and a special meal was tendered in the shul in honor of the occasion. A few days later, a neighbor asked Mr. Blau if there was a particular reason he decided to have the Sefer Torah written. At first he was hesitant to talk about it, but eventually he relented and told his heartbreaking story.
When I called Mr. Blau to hear the story directly from him, he said, “Rabbi, please don’t make me tell the story again. I haven’t slept a full night in the last fifty-five years.” I wasn’t going to press the issue, but then, of his own volition, he began reliving the episode. It is one of the most moving stories I have ever heard. People literally gasp when they first hear it. It is hard not to be moved to tears.
Shimshon Blau was only 16 years old when the Nazis took him, his parents, and his sisters from Lodz, their hometown in Poland, to one of the notorious concentration camps. Shortly after their arrival the parents were separated from the children and Shimshon never heard from them again. He was placed in a slave labor barracks and suffered humiliation and heartache every day.
One night as he was lying in bed, a Nazi soldier came in to check on the prisoners. He walked from bed to bed—and then he saw Shimshon. Suddenly he lunged at Shimshon’s feet, grabbed his leather boots and yelled, “Those boots are now mine.”
Shimshon was shocked. The leather boots had been given to him by his parents shortly before the family had been captured by the Nazis. Shimshon treasured them because they were his last connection to his beloved parents. He had no pictures, no letters, no memento that he could hold onto in a private moment for strength and rejuvenation. The gift of the boots had become a precious memory.
Shimshon cried uncontrollably. This cruel act by the Nazi was the axe that severed the last tangible bond with his parents. It was devastating. Shimshon cried for hours. Eventually he fell asleep.
The next morning he went out of his barracks barefoot and found the soldier who had taken his boots. In desperation he ran over to him and begged, “Please give me a pair of shoes. I have nothing to wear on my feet. I’ll freeze to death.” He did not dare to antagonize the soldier by asking for his own boots back.
Much to Shimshon’s surprise, the soldier told him. “Wait here, I’ll be back in five minutes with some shoes for you.”
Shimshon shuddered in the cold as he waited for the soldier to return. In a few minutes the Nazi came back with a pair of shoes and gave them to the startled but grateful teenager.
Shimshon went back to his barracks and sat on his bed to put on his new shoes. He looked them over carefully. They were made of wood, but he knew he would have to wear them regardless of what they were made of or how uncomfortable they would be. As he was about to put his foot into the shoe, he looked into its instep and gasped. The instep was a piece of parchment from a Sefer Torah!
Shimshon froze in terror. How could the Nazis be so heartless? How could he step down on the words that the Creator Himself had told Moses to write for all generations?
But he knew he had no choice. There was nothing else to wear on his feet and it was either these shoes or frostbite and death. Hesitant with guilt, he put them on uneasily.
Now, years later, Shimshon said, “With every step I took, I felt I was trampling on the Creator’s Sefer Torah. I swore to myself then that if I ever got out of the camps alive, no matter how rich or poor I was, someday I would have a Sefer Torah written and give back to the Creator the honor that I took from Him by trampling on His Torah. That’s why I gave the shul a Sefer Torah.”
Rabbi Krohn concludes: “In his sincerity, Shimshon felt he was trampling on the Creator’s Torah. Who could blame him? But what about us? We must ask ourselves, “Are we in any way trampling on the Creator’s Torah? Do we, unwillingly and sometimes even willingly, violate basic precepts of His Torah, which is in essence trampling on His words? Shimshon Blau surely rectified his “misdeed.” We should do no less.”