As a young girl, I was very compliant. If I was told to do something, I generally did it. If I was told not to do something, I usually didn’t. There were exceptions (ah yes, the motorcycle ride, and a few other things) but I think of myself as a rule follower. On occasion I may actually take on a leadership role in order to change the rules, but I don’t like breaking rules.
Given that, it was somewhat surprising that I found myself with my head in the Ark of an old Synagogue in Kolin, Czech Republic, with a tour guide, and several others yelling at me in a variety of languages, including German that “it was not allowed, that it was special, and that I should stop.” The truth is, I honestly didn’t hear them yelling. I really didn’t. Even if I had, I am not sure I would have stopped until I was “ready” because I knew something that they didn’t. We all knew that this beautiful Ark was donated by Samuel Oppenheimer from Vienna in 1699 and for some reason was still there. However, I knew that, although it was special, the thing that made it sacred, the Torahs that once lived inside it, were no longer inside. And that one of them had a profound impact on my life. Although my head was in the Ark, breathing the smells and senses that can only be part of a 300 year old object, my heart and soul were moved beyond words and were split between being in Lexington MA in the 21st century and being in Kolin, Czechoslovakia in the decades and centuries pre 1930’s.
Kolin was a thriving Jewish community for hundreds of years – the 2nd largest in Czechoslovakia. This isn’t a history blog and I am not a historian, so I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that the Nazis destroyed the community in their quest to annihilate Jews everywhere. Although they wanted to destroy the people, they wanted to hold on to some objects so that they could create a museum dedicated to the history (and it would be only history) of the Jews. With such a goal, during their path of destruction, they salvaged many items. One of which is what I lovingly refer to as “the Kolin Torah.”
Over 40 years ago this particular Torah made a pilgrimage via the Westminster Synagogue in London to reside in permanent loan in Lexington MA. On Kol Nidre 1972 (5733) 42 years ago this week the Torah was dedicated at Temple Isaiah as a memorial to the 6,000,000 Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Rabbi Cary Yales z’l delivered stirring words when he brought that Torah into our community. (http://www.templeisaiah.net/Resources/The_Kolin_Torah.aspx)
This Torah has been through a lot and is quite fragile, so we treat it gently at Temple Isaiah. Most of the year the Torah lives behind glass. However, traditionally, on Yom Kippur morning the Torah is carried into the congregation, and spends one day being read from, and living in our ark among our other Torahs. Traditionally, the President carries the Torah through the congregation. I had the privilege of serving Temple Isaiah as President from 2008-2010. In October 2008, I wrote the following as part of my monthly President’s column:
“For me, one of the greatest perks of being President is the honor of walking through the Congregation with the Kolin Torah on Yom Kippur. In many ways, it was just as I imagined it would be. In other ways, I was totally unprepared for what would greet me. Who would have thought that I would have been thanked numerous times as I made my way through the maze of congregants? How could I possibly have anticipated the faces that I saw? Many faces that I have known for a long time – who were both touched to be touching our sacred Kolin Torah and who were proud of me, proud that their friend had this honor. Some of the faces were new faces to me. In those faces, I made connection after connection. I don’t know their names, they may not remember mine, but for those few seconds we were connected in a very powerful way. In some of the younger faces, I saw awe and reverence. Most of them could not have understood the depth of meaning in this experience but they knew enough to know that this was a special moment and they were proud to be a part of it. The older faces were so full, full of the horror of the Holocaust, the gratitude of the present and the hope for the future. And all the while, the community was united through the music we sing together and yet each person seemed totally alone with their own individual thoughts. This is us at our best. United as a community and yet allowing each individual to be their own self.”
Several years later those moments carrying the Kolin Torah and connecting to each individual in our community remain among the most emotional moments I have ever experienced. As I entered the Synagogue in Kolin and as I stuck my head in the Ark I felt as though I was connecting our Torah and our community with its ancestors and history. In those few minutes with my head in the Ark I was reassuring whatever empty space was in that Ark that we had taken care of the Torah, that we were giving it the respect it deserved, that it was contributing to a vibrant and meaningful Jewish community across the ocean. I had hopes that somehow, in some small way, the spirits and the ghosts that were there could know that.
Now, as Yom Kippur 5775 approaches, there is one more link to connect. As the community welcomes the Kolin Torah into its midst this year and as I touch the Torah with my Tallit, I will be bringing regards to the Torah from its original home. I will be remembering the Ark and the cemetery. I will hope to convey to that incredibly powerful scroll that I was in its home and breathed the air of its younger years. Past, present and future will all converge in the sanctuary as they often do but for me, it will have added meaning this year.
I may have broken a rule when I stuck my head in the Ark, but I have never been so glad to have broken a rule. As I atone for my sins this week, I think I will leave that one off the list.