September 29, 2010

A Joyous Homecoming for Simchat Torah

From Steve Schwager, CEO

This week the Jewish world will observe the holiday of Simchat Torah, which celebrates the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle and marks the immediate start of a new one. Literally translated as “Rejoicing in the Laws of the Torah,” the atmosphere in the synagogue during Simchat Torah is joyous; the Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark and are lovingly carried around, accompanied by dancing and singing.

So I am pleased to share with you a JDC story about two very special Torahs that have found a “new home” at this auspicious time.

As you may know, unfortunately there has been a black market for many years dealing in the sale of stolen Torah scrolls. (A new Torah handwritten by a scribe can cost upwards of $50,000.) In the early 1990s, the office of the then Manhattan District Attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, organized a “Torah Task Force” together with the Police Department and the New York Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) to investigate and crack down on Torah theft. They arrested several people; and in one such case, the DA offered to mitigate the recommended sentence for the mastermind of a Torah theft operation if he would hand over the stolen Torahs to the DA and to the police so they could be returned to their rightful owners. The thief tried to “pull a fast one” on the DA and brought in 10 Torahs, but good detective work determined that these were not the same 10 scrolls that were originally stolen. Never knowing the original home of these 10 Torahs, the DA was eventually handed a decision from the New York State Supreme Court that stated that these “homeless” Torah scrolls could be distributed to Jewish organizations and congregations designated by the JCRC.

Nearly 15 years later, this story has come to a happy ending just in time for Simchat Torah. The JCRC designated JDC as the recipient of two of these Torah scrolls, which we then had repaired over the summer. We identified two communities in Europe that needed new Torah scrolls: Sofia, Bulgaria and Belgrade, Serbia. In Sofia, the Torah will help replace scrolls stolen from the synagogue 10 years ago; the Torah traveling to Belgrade will be the first kosher Torah to be used since Yugoslavia was divided into five separate countries in 1991 and Jewish community assets were divided.

In a ceremony last week at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan widely covered by the media, the 150 year-old scrolls were handed over to JDC by Robert Morgenthau and current DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. Read about the event in The Daily News or click HERE (and watch below) to watch two short news clips from the New York affiliates of CBS and NBC.

While placing the Torahs into good hands is cause enough for celebration, there is an added dimension to this story for JDC: the thread of the Morgenthau family in rebuilding Jewish life around the globe. It was Robert Morgenthau’s grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., who in his service as U.S. Ambassador to Turkey cabled New York philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff in 1914 asking for $50,000 to feed starving Jews in then Ottoman-ruled Palestine. This marked the unofficial founding of JDC as an organization in that year. The original telegram is on display as part of the Morgenthau exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and a metal replica of the telegram hangs in the entrance of JDC Headquarters here in New York. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In his remarks at the event last week, Robert Morgenthau said: “I am humbled by my family’s role in the development of the JDC. Our family has witnessed its global good works for practically a century and it is hard to imagine an organization having more of an impact on world Jewry. The fact that these Torahs possess DNA with threads from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the JDC is unbelievably gratifying, and reminds us that the JDC’s work of saving Jews, work that began 96 years ago, is never complete and never more necessary.”

Participating in the ceremony last week were JDC Board members Alan Jaffe (who is both President of the NY JCRC and JDC’s Treasurer) and Ken Witover; as well as Gideon Taylor, JDC Associate Executive Vice President and Herbert Block, Assistant Executive Vice President, who worked with the DA, JCRC, the Jewish communities, and the relevant diplomats to make all of this happen.

Irv and I were very happy to learn that in a sweet final twist, the Torahs were accompanied in their travels by the Bulgarian Prime Minister and Serbian Foreign Minister, who were in New York last week for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. This “special delivery” will enable those Jewish communities to enjoy extra “simcha” (joy) on Simchat Torah. As this holiday marks the completion and immediate new beginning of reading the Torah, we are reminded of the cycle of JDC’s mission. Programs are completed; programs are beginning; and for as long as there are Jews around the world who need us, our work will continue.

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