Atlanta Nonprofit Helps Polish Torah Get Home

Atlanta Nonprofit Helps Polish Torah Get Home

By Jan Jaben-Eilon

A Polish Torah that was brought to this country about a century ago and made its way to Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle, Pa., has returned home to a new congregation in the center of Warsaw.

The stream of serendipitous acquaintances and connections that enabled this homecoming in a matter of weeks still has its participants reeling. Sam Bernstine, the board president of Temple Hadar Israel, whose history stretches back more than 100 years through its predecessors, said his congregation is still glowing with pride and accomplishment for the donation of one of its eight Torah scrolls to Beit Centrum Ki Tov in Warsaw.

“Sometimes we feel that we’re so small that we can’t have much of an impact, but this gave us a chance to have a major impact. I have received numerous emails from congregants about this beautiful story and how, even in our dwindling years, we’re able to make such an impact,” Bernstine said.

A Torah written in Poland that wound up in New Castle, Pa., returns to Poland for its first Shabbat in its new congregation in Warsaw on April 8.
A Torah written in Poland that wound up in New Castle, Pa., returns to Poland for its first Shabbat in its new congregation in Warsaw on April 8.

When Bernstine said “dwindling,” he was being realistic. In the 1950s, New Castle’s population was about 50,000; now it’s half that. The city once had 300 Jewish families; now it has 70 Jews, most of whom are senior citizens.

New Castle is one of an increasing number of small U.S. Jewish communities whose ability to sustain Jewish life is declining along with their populations. Watching this evolution in American Jewish life, David Sarnat, a former head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, created the Jewish Community Legacy Project to help those communities plan for their eventual dissolution.

The Atlanta-based JCLP started a few years, signing up small Jewish communities and helping them “find a way to 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 congregation,” said Sarnat, who has worked with Temple Hadar Israel for years to help it establish its legacy plan.

“What made this Torah donation so exciting was the coming together of circumstances, and it happened so quickly,” he said. (Full disclosure: The writer of this article notified David Sarnat of Beit Centrum’s need for a Torah.)

Just days after learning that a Progressive Jewish congregation in Poland planned to open its doors Friday night, April 8, the first of Nisan, and needed a Torah, Sarnat contacted Bernstine, who requested a letter of explanation for the Torah’s need.

Joe Smoczynski sent an email from Poland relating how the launch of the congregation had been planned for years. Beit Warszawa, where Smoczynski is a board member, is the flagship congregation of Beit Polska, the umbrella organization of Polish Progressive Judaism, recognized by the World and European unions for Progressive Judaism.

But Beit Warszawa is about six miles from the center of the Polish capital, and some congregants wanted a more centrally located Synagogue.

The chair of Beit Polska’s audit committee, Smoczynski wrote: “Before 1939, Poland had thousands of Sefer Torahs, which were virtually all destroyed or saved by some and taken abroad. Today, if we wish to have a community, we need to find a Torah from outside Poland. 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 his letter March 15. On March 20, the board of Temple Hadar Israel voted unanimously to donate a Torah to the new congregation. A few days later, with the encouragement of Rabbi Howie Stein, Hadar Israel congregant Dale Perelman carried the Torah to Los Angeles and the waiting arms of Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, the executive director of Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland, who carried the Torah to Poland at the end of March.

Less than a month after Sarnat made the match between Hadar Israel and Beit Centrum, the Torah and its new home were dedicated in a special Shabbat that included current Rabbi Boris Dolan and former Beit Warszawa Rabbi Gil Nativ, who flew with his wife from their home in Israel for the occasion.

Rabbi Nativ was instrumental in naming Beit Centrum Ki Tov.

A mezuzah goes up at the new Beit Centrum Ki Tov in central Warsaw.
A mezuzah goes up at the new Beit Centrum Ki Tov in central Warsaw.

As Rabbi Nativ explained, ki tov, meaning “it was good,” is a repeated phrase in the first chapter of Genesis. But “Ki-Tov” was also the Hebrew name chosen by a Polish rabbi who made aliyah and whose family name was originally Mokotov. The new congregation was named in memory of Rabbi Nativ’s good friend Michael Mokotov, who died in the Yom Kippur War and descended from that rabbi.

The idea to name the congregation after Mokotov was “brought to my attention last December by a group of Polish Jews by choice, most of whom I mentored during the three years I lived in Poland,” Rabbi Nativ said.

As Smoczynski noted in his letter to Hadar Israel, Poland lost two generations of Jews through the Holocaust and the 4½ decades of Communist rule afterward, during which survivors were forced to continue to hide their religion. “We have many members who are at the beginning of their journey, seeking to repair their destroyed or broken Jewish roots.”

Beit Centrum is establishing its roots with a planting from the mature Temple Hadar Israel. As Smoczynski wrote: “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.”

Likewise, JCLP is growing in a new direction, becoming its own nonprofit organization.

“It’s a function of maturity,” Sarnat said. The Breman Museum was JCLP’s first fiscal agent, followed by the Union for Reform Judaism, which with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Federations of North America, plus a grant from the Atlanta-based Marcus Foundation, helped get JCLP on its feet.

“Donating the Torah to Poland is emblematic of what JCLP is capable of doing in the next years,” JCLP board Chairman Michael Kay said. “JCLP will emerge as a crossroads of a lot of activities that are disconnected. JCLP will become the place to go when you have a need for a Torah or some other ritual items, or you want to donate one. JCLP will become the home address for many such interesting activities, and you can’t put a value on that.”

Sarnat, who heads JCLP with former Federation executive Noah Levine, said JCLP has worked with 40 communities, most of which are still active, although three have closed.

Through their legacy plans, these congregations have established endowments for the perpetual care of their cemeteries, Holocaust education and scholarships for young people.

“We’ve helped place $2 million in endowments with Federations (in nearby larger communities), with $12 million in the pipeline,” Sarnat said.

Torahs and other ritual items from those various communities have been donated to Hillel chapters at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Vermont and the University of Texas. A few Torahs were donated to two Reform Jewish camps, two Reform congregations in Israel and the TALI school in Jerusalem.

“When we started out, we didn’t know if we needed to be a separate organization,” Kay said, “but now becoming its own entity will help its identity. I’d known David about 30 years when he asked me to become the nominal chair when they started. I didn’t grow up in a small community, but I’m empathetic. These are communities that, through thick and thin, have persevered, just as Jews have persevered. It’s not easy to get a congregation like this started when there are very few Jews, then they grow, and then at the end of their lifecycle, they are small again. It’s important to manage the exit as honorably as possible.”

Hadar Israel’s Bernstine said: “I keep telling people that we need to keep finding ways to be relevant today. We want to leave our own legacy. It is one thing to take something from Atlanta to Tuscaloosa, but this was a global connection and relationship. It shows how a few people can have a significant impact on others by doing the right thing.”

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