Rabbi David Senter has two congregations. First, there are 143 families he serves as spiritual leader of Cong. Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Pompton Lakes.
The other is one he can only imagine, extending as it does across an ocean and back in time more than half a century. Nonetheless, he feels a strong personal and tangible connection to these people and their long, proud history through their Torah, which Beth Shalom has had on permanent loan for the past 30 years.
Every Shabbat, Senter recites the mourner’s Kaddish, naming those whose yahrzeit falls during the week to come. Most weeks, that list is very long far longer than it would be if it only included the deceased members and relatives of members of Beth Shalom. Some weeks, in fact, the list includes whole families that perished together and for whom no living relative remains to say the memorial prayer.
"Sometimes there are so many names," said Senter, "we have to split the list between Friday night and Shabbat morning. Sometimes, we have to split [the weekly list] between two Shabbatot because Nazis killed so many in one week."
These are the members of Senter’s other congregation, the largely extinguished Jewish community of Pardubice, a Czech town about 60 miles from Prague. Years ago, when Beth Shalom acquired Pardubice Torah Scroll #5, one of 16 rescued from Pardubice, the Passaic County congregation became guardians of the memory of some 500 souls who in 1930 had called Pardubice home. At war’s end, only five Pardubice residents returned. One now tends the Jewish cemetery, supported by the Jewish community of Prague. The sole synagogue in Pardubice itself had been razed.
Thanks to the Nazi obsession with recordkeeping, Senter knows exactly when to mark the yahrzeit of each man, woman, and child from Pardubice deported to their deaths. Thanks to Senter’s determination to personalize this tiny group of Hitler’s 6 million Jewish victims, Beth Shalom congregants now vie for the privilege of standing up at Shabbat services to represent the departed from Pardubice. "As custodians of their Torah, we are obligated to say kaddish for them. One person is selected to stand for everyone on the list that week," said Senter.
But during one week of the year, not one person from Pardubice died, observed Senter. "It was a week of life for the people of Pardubice," he said, and remarkably, it coincided with Beth Shalom’s recent rededication of the Pardubice Torah, returned to ritual use after languishing on a shelf in the synagogue’s ark, "a silent witness to history," Senter called it.
The joyous rededication, earlier this month, complete with dancing in the streets of Pompton Lakes, was attended by the borough’s mayor, as well as by religious leaders from the local Islamic center and area churches with whom Senter has worked to promote interfaith relations.
Integrated into the life of the congregation after an eight-month project Senter initiated to restore it, the Pardubice Torah has become another vehicle for perpetuating "in a small way, the life of that community and the traditions of that community that no longer exists. When a child is bar or bat mitzvah with this Torah, not only do I think about the one celebrating, but I also think about the children who should have but never did have the opportunity to celebrate," said Senter. "That’s very much why I wanted to bring this Torah back into use."
When he assumed the Beth Shalom pulpit two years ago, Senter decided to find out as much as he could about the Pardubice Torah.
He learned that the Torah was written between 1850 and 1860, at least 19 years before the Pardubice synagogue was constructed in 1879 to 1880.
Rabbi Norman Patz, spiritual leader emeritus of Temple Sholom of West Essex in neighboring Cedar Grove who is chair of the New Jersey State Holocaust Commission and a past president of the Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews, explained that the Pardubice scrolls became part of a cache of sacred texts and ritual objects from Moravia and Bohemia (today, the Czech Republic) that the Nazis stole, then had packed up and sent to Prague to be part of a permanent collection for a planned museum in memory of a liquidated race. By war’s end, said Patz, the Nazis had collected 150,000 to ‘00,000 ceremonial items, including 1,564 Torah scrolls, Torah crowns, and shofars. Everything was stored in eight synagogues and 50 warehouses throughout the city. Curators working for the Jewish museum in Prague, temporarily spared death sentences, spent the war years carefully cataloguing the loot and preparing it for exhibition.
However, when members of the Third Reich viewed the display, they were astonished by its beauty, Patz reported, and refused to open it to the public.
The few curators who survived the war returned to reopen the Jewish museum, which became a popular tourist attraction even through the years of Communist rule.
The Torahs, however, were not displayed, but rather stored in a damp synagogue in Michle, a suburb of Prague, until the early 1960s. Then the cash-strapped Communist government sold the lot to Eric Estorick, an art collector in London, for 30,000 pounds sterling, "a huge sum at the time," noted Patz. The purchase was financed by Ralph Yablon, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist who had hoped to establish a museum to display the scrolls but was soon convinced that such an institution would have little public appeal.
Instead, the scrolls were handed over to the Westminster Synagogue in the Knightsbridge section of London for safekeeping, under the auspices of a newly formed Memorial Scrolls Trust. A sofer was engaged to repair those deemed reparable, and in 1964, the trust began a process of distributing them to Jewish institutions around the world that promised to keep alive the memory of the destroyed Czech Jewish communities.
Two-thirds of the scrolls were eventually sent to the United States, said Susan Boyer, a volunteer for the trust who works out of her Los Angeles home and is a founding member of the Czech Torah Network (www.czechtorah.org), a non-profit educational group dedicated to promoting Jewish continuity by linking communities throughout the world with the rescued Torahs.
Boyer, who tracks the scrolls’ history and whereabouts, noted that "the oldest one, on display in the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, dates to the 1600s." Others are on permanent loan to the White House, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and the Holocaust Museum in Chicago, despite the fact that the trust "prefers to send the Torahs to congregations where they will be used, rather than just displayed," Boyer said.
Proving the power of the Torah to establish personal connections to an historic event difficult to comprehend, back in Pompton Lakes, Senter said he is "toying with making a stop in Pardubice" on his way to Israel with a congregational mission next year.
Anyone interested in receiving an aliyah, Torah honor, or reading from the Pardubice Torah may arrange to do so by calling Senter at (973) 835-3500.