A Torah travels from New Castle (Pa.) to Warsaw (Poland)
By Jan Jaben-Eilon
On Friday evening, April 8, the first of Nissan, a new Progressive congregation, Beit Centrum Ki Tov, will open its doors in the center of Warsaw, Poland, and dedicate its first Torah – donated by Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle, PA.
The launch of the new congregation had been in the planning stage for a few years. Beit Warszawa, the flagship congregation of Beit Polska – the umbrella organization of Polish Progressive Judaism, recognized by the World/European Union for Progressive Judaism – is about six miles from the center of Warsaw and some congregants felt the need for a more centrally located congregation.
According to Joe Smoczynski, chair of Beit Polska Union Audit Committee and board member and gabbai of Beit Warszawa, “The alternatives in Warsaw are Chabad, the Orthodox and a Reform community set up and indirectly controlled by the Orthodox. There is no affiliate of the World Union for Progressive Judaism or the European Union for Progressive Judaism in the center of Warsaw, a city which had the world’s largest Temple before the Second World War.”
Smoczynski wrote those words to the board of Temple Hadar Israel in his moving letter March 15 explaining the need for a Torah. “Before 1939, Poland had thousands of Sefer Torahs which were virtually all destroyed or saved by some and taken abroad,” he wrote. “Today, if we wish to have a community, we need to find a Torah from outside Poland.”
Five days later, Temple Hadar Israel voted to donate one of its Torahs to Beit Centrum, after board president Samuel M. Bernstine, who said he was “personally touched” by Smoczynski’s letter, made the proposal to his board. Only five days after that momentous decision, congregant Dale Perelman carried the Torah, originally from Poland, to Los Angeles and into the waiting arms of Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, executive director of Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland, who, in turn, carried the Torah to Poland at the end of March. The hand-off of the Torah took place in front of beautiful stained glass windows at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.
The swiftness of the decision-making and the transport of the more than 85-year-old Torah was necessitated by the timing of the opening of Beit Centrum. But the matchmaking of Temple Hadar Israel and Beit Centrum itself was the doing of David Sarnat, founder of Atlanta-based Jewish Community Legacy Project.
As reported in eJewish Philanthropy in October 2013, JCLP assists small Jewish communities that are experiencing dwindling populations and anticipating an end to their ability to sustain a congregation and Jewish life. “We help the congregations prepare a plan that honorably allows them to leave a legacy, as well as make sure their assets go to aspects of Jewish life that were important to them when they were a vibrant community,” explained Sarnat. Of particular importance in these Legacy Plans is a provision for perpetual care of the congregation’s cemetery, and choices of how to dispose of its assets and ritual items, including Torahs.
Sarnat, a former executive at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, spearheads JCLP along with Noah Levine, another former JFGA executive. The JCLP works with The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) to provide guidance to these Jewish communities, usually located in small towns whose overall populations have also declined.
Bernstine says Temple Hadar Israel asked for JCLP’s help to make sure that the community’s elderly have a place to worship for as long as possible. “We want to keep our facility alive for people to always have a place to pray,” said Bernstine. “But we also want to be fiscally responsible.”
As Bernstine told eJewish Philanthropy in 2013, New Castle’s population in the 1950s was about 50,000. Now it’s half that. At one time the Jewish population was 300 Jewish families. Now there are 70 individuals, “very heavily on the senior citizen side of the equation. I’m 57 and I’m not the youngest, but one of the youngest,” he said of the congregation that has been in existence for more than 100 years. “It became clear to us that if we kept things as they were, we’d only have two more years of existence. Now I’m optimistic that it’s seven to 10 years. David (Sarnat) has helped us put together a plan.”
Sarnat helped Temple Hadar Israel’s board develop its business objectives by asking the group how it wanted the congregation to be remembered, and how they want their artifacts to be handled long term. When he heard that the fledgling Beit Centrum Ki Tov needed a Torah, he called Bernstine. Since Temple Hadar Israel had more than one Torah, the board decided to donate this Torah, whose official evaluation says it’s over 85 years old.
According to Sarnat, “The JCLP only facilitated this action and if the other actors were not who they were, it would not have happened.”
Thanking Temple Hadar Israel, Smoczynski wrote: “I wish to thank your board for your very generous gift that turns us from a Minyan into a Congregation that can hold complete Shabbat morning services. This gift means a part of your community will always be with us. You have given us a seed that we will nurture so it can grow and bloom.”
He also invited members of Temple Hadar Israel to visit Beit Centrum in Warsaw. “Come and see this exciting moment in the history of Warsaw, where Rabbi Jastrow left for the USA over 150 years ago to start the first Progressive community in Philadelphia – with a Sefer Torah.”