How did a Torah, crafted and written in Europe, well before the war, whose exact provenance and passage to the United States is unclear, but whose decades in the Bronx are well documented, end up on its way to Odessa?
And what does it have to do with Montebello?
As is true with so many things in the Jewish community, everything, it turns out, is connected.
The Torah scroll belonged to Eddy and Sidney Z. Bowman, who were very active congregants at the Kingsbridge Heights Jewish Center in the Bronx. The shul was a prominent modern Orthodox institution, and its rabbi, Israel Miller, was well known and highly respected. A one-time president of the Rabbinical Council of America and a senior vice president at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Miller, who held many other positions as well, was best known for his work advocating for Holocaust survivors at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
When the Bowmans died, they left the Torah scroll to their daughter and son-in-law, Lillian and Richard Weinberger. Soon, the demographics of the Bronx changed, Rabbi Miller left the shul, and the Weinbergers moved the scroll to Kittay House, a complex that offers assisted and independent living, just a few blocks from the shul.
Kittay House started as a haven for Jews, but as time passed and the demographics continued to change, fewer and fewer Jews lived there. Eventually, the Torah scroll no longer was used, and sat abandoned in its ark, waiting for its next life.
Meanwhile, Lillian and Richard Weinberger moved to Wesley Hills more than 50 years ago, Mr. Weinberger said. They were active members of the Pomona Jewish Center; when that merged into the Montebello Jewish Center, they switched their allegiance to Montebello, and have been active there ever since.
It’s not so easy figuring out what to do with an extra sefer Torah, particularly a heavy one, as this one is. And there was another specification that made it even harder.
“How do you find a home for a Torah that has come from Europe and was used in a modern Orthodox synagogue but is owned by a Conservative couple who are proud of being members of an egalitarian synagogue?” Montebello’s interim rabbi, Richard Hammerman, asked rhetorically. (Rabbi Hammerman replaced Rabbi Adam Baldachin, who has moved across the river to Scarsdale.)
Rabbi Baldachin tried to find a good home for the scroll, but couldn’t. “He contacted the Masorti movement” — that’s the Conservative movement outside North America — “but they couldn’t find anything,” Rabbi Hammerman said. So he inherited the problem.
That’s where connections came in.
“My friend Ron Hoffberg has been the Masorti rabbi in Prague for 15 years,” Rabbi Hammerman said. “He needed another sefer Torah for his congregation, so he told me about this group, which is, of all places, in Westchester County. It’s called Project Kesher.”
To be specific, it’s in Harrison. Richard Hammerman’s son, Eytan Hammerman, coincidentally is the rabbi of the Harrison Jewish Center.
Project Kesher works to help empower Jewish women, mainly in Eastern Europe. Among its other work, it introduces Jewish women to each other, and brings Torah scrolls to their communities.
And that’s how, “within days, we made the shidduch,” Rabbi Hammerman said. The Torah was matched with a congregation in Ukraine. Project Kesher picked up the scroll, took it to a scribe, Dan Wigodsky of White Plains, who checked and repaired it and then certified it as kosher and ready for use.
“For three years, the Weinbergers were looking for a home for their sefer Torah, and because of my connection with Ron Hoffberg, we could make it in three days,” Rabbi Hammerman continued.
“So — from the Bronx to Montebello to Prague to Harrison to Odessa.” It’s all about connections.
“Everything is a circle,” Rabbi Hammerman summed up. And now, the Torah scroll is going back home to Europe, where it will be welcomed this week by Jews in Odessa.