I love Shavuot. Not only are my most favorite foods eaten in abundance, but the very center of Judaism is recognized. The Torah. I wrote a blog post about this holiday last year (I must have had more free time). This year, I wanted to honor all of the people that have rescued Torahs from dangerous places for thousands of years.
The image I have included and link to about.com is about such a rescue as recent as Katrina. The caption from the picture read, “Removing Torah scrolls from New Orleans’ flooded Beth Israel Synagogue following Hurricane Katrina” , written by Alan Smason. I was so touched by that image that I requested well-known water colorist, Jordan Krimstein, use it as his Jewish New Year card that year. He did and the response was incredible. Here is the original letter that was sent out with the beautiful water color painting of the card:
We all remember the intense destruction of last year’s Hurricane Katrina. One photograph Jenny saw was incredibly emotionally moving. Alan Smason, freelance writer for The Cleveland Jewish News explains:
Members of ZAKA carry the precious Torah scrolls from the main Congregation Beth Israel sanctuary on September 14, 2005. The synagogue suffered catastrophic damage following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina on August 29. Waters rose so quickly from a nearby burst levee that no one was able to launch a rescue effort before the oldest Jewish Orthodox synagogue in New Orleans was destroyed. The stained glass windows entitled the Creation Windows are visible in the background as sunlight streams into the flooded Beth Israel sanctuary. Rabbi Issac Leider of ZAKA carries one of the holy Torah scrolls to a waiting boat outside.
Beth Israel was devastated by the intense hurricane and resultant flooding. The main sanctuary was flooded with water polluted by raw sewage, random debris, and chemicals. The holy Torah scrolls were painstakingly rescued. Following Katrina, six American volunteers with ZAKA arrived in New Orleans, offering aid and assistance to Jewish victims of the hurricane. Who is ZAKA? ZAKA is a New York-based Jewish rescue and recovery organization known in Israel for providing emergency aid at the scene of bombings. But the efforts were too late. Seven Torah scrolls were soaked, handwritten letters were illegible, parchment was disintegrated.
What else did Beth Israel lose? Everything inside including the chairs, tables, pews, bimahs, kitchen equipment, library, office files, all records, memorabilia, etc. was lost. Shul President Jackie Gothard stated that, “Our biggest challenge is the in-gathering of our members, many of whom evacuated to other communities and are not returning to New Orleans, and others who are challenged with the rebuilding of their homes and lives; especially our members who lived in the same neighborhood as the shul, and had the same 8-10 feet of water in their homes. Many of the congregants of Beth Israel are generational members, whose parents and grandparents built this congregation for them.” It is heartwarming to hear about the Jewish community pulling itself together on not only a local level, but a global one as well.
So what ended up happening to the Torah scrolls? On a sad note, all seven of their Sefrei Torah scrolls were so badly destroyed that they had to be buried. Over 3,000 prayer books met the same fate. Who was left to bury the Torah scrolls? Bruce Nolan, Staff Reporter for the Times-Picayne explains that an unaffiliated Christian named Rebecca Heggelund carefully buried the ruined Torah scrolls in her back yard. “Her respect for our faith and our tradition was just a beautiful tribute,” said congregation President Jackie Gothard. Rebecca Heggelund worked as a secretary at Beth Israel for eight years during the 1990s. Heggelund said that she came to understand Jewish rituals and values, including Jewish reverence for the Torah. The Torah is the center of Jewish life and law. In the Orthodox tradition it is the exact record of God’s own words. As a result, the handwritten scrolls containing the first five books of the Bible are any community’s most precious possessions. And tradition prescribes that at the end of their usefulness, they must be ritually buried in a cemetery among deceased Jews. That was not possible shortly after Katrina struck the city. Gothard said. “We evacuated with no idea what the extent of this would be,” she said. “We were like everybody else. We figured we’d be gone two or three days, we’d come back, clean up, that would be it.” Since the devastation to the area was so severe, the Torah scrolls were buried in Heggelund’s backyard until they were able to be moved for proper internment. This burial ceremony took place this past March 19, 2006. The seven Torah scrolls were buried next to the long-serving gabbai of Beth Israel, Meyer Lachoff, who died prior to the hurricane and wasn’t able to be buried until a few weeks later, due to the devastation. The Burial ceremony was attended by over 200 members/friends of Beth Israel and the Jewish Community.
The following press release written and distributed by the Orthodox Union, March 21, 2006, Rabbi Waxman, OU Director of Synagogue Services provided words of inspiration at the burial service for the Torah scrolls, declaring, “There are several times, burial being one of them, in which a Jew is compared to a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll) and a Sefer Torah is compared to a Jew. As we bury these Sifrei Torah it is crucial that we do not bury the principles of Torah with them. It is important that the vibrancy of Torah and of the New Orleans Jewish community remain strong.”
“When we are burying Sifrei Torah, in no way does it mean that we should forget the contents,” Rabbi Waxman said. “It would be tragic if, in fact, we forgot our Torah. But it is good that we are able to dispose properly and honorably of these receptacles of the Torah. Unfortunately, Beth Israel has been destroyed. The Sifrei Torah were ruined and must be buried. But by this action we have the opportunity to go on. We have the opportunity and the necessity to continue in the Torah lifestyle; to plant these physical seeds of Torah and to tend to them by reestablishing places of Torah-true prayer; and to dedicate time each day to learn Torah and to perform Torah precepts.”
Jackie Gothard shares exciting news. Rabbi Elazar Muskin along with several Los Angeles Young Israel congregations have a Sefer Torah ready to donate to Beth Israel. The dedication ceremony is August 27, 2006, just two days short of Hurricane Katrina.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, may we always keep the Torah at the center of our hearts. The Torah’s precious words have inspired Jewish communities for thousands of years. Whether we give tzedaka (charity), donate to a Jewish organization, or call distant relatives to wish them a happy new year, we are a light onto the nations. Do an extra mitzvah. The whole world will glow more brightly.
As we celebrate Shavuot today, remember all of the beautiful Torahs that you have seen around the world. They arrived there with care an honor, just as the Torah instructs us to be to the people around us.