Torahs find new temples
Temple Anshe Emeth in Pine Bluff closed its doors in June after almost 150 years as the spiritual home of the city’s Jewish community, but the congregation’s legacy will live on through the gifts of two Torah scrolls.
A Torah scroll is a handwritten scroll containing the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Five Books of Moses. One of the temple’s Torah scrolls was donated to a Jewish congregation in Megiddo, Israel. The second is being given to a Jewish congregation in Guatemala City, Guatemala.
Rabbi Gene Levy, who served the Pine Bluff congregation during its final years, and his wife Bobbye flew Thursday to Guatemala City with the Torah. Joining them were Karen Kahn Weinberg and her husband Dan from Atlanta. Weinberg is a Pine Bluff native, and her family had been members of the Anshe Emeth temple for three generations.
“This is an opportunity to have people who were part of that congregation hand it over to the next congregation, so the memory of the Torah and the congregation stay alive,” Levy said.
Weinberg was to read from the Torah during Shabbat services, which began Friday night and continued this morning, at Adat Israel’s temple.
The date of the gifting of the Torah has special significance for Weinberg. Her father, the late Stanley Kahn, a well-known jeweler, died Feb. 24, 2016. The opportunity to accompany the Torah on the trip and to read from the scroll in his memory was one not to be missed.
“It was extremely powerful to me to want to escort that Torah scroll to its new home,” Weinberg said. “I felt however religious my parents and grandparents were or weren’t, they remained members forever … they knew who they were.”
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein of Toronto serves as the fledgling Guatemala City congregation’s rabbi, traveling from Canada two or three times a year to lead services. When she’s not there, the congregation is led by members.
Levy said he’s been talking with Goldstein on and off for about six months, while Goldstein planned the service for the transfer of the Torah to coincide with one of her trips to the city. Levy said he’ll also have a short role in the transfer.
“One of the things I’ll be doing is giving a little brief history of the Pine Bluff congregation, so that the people in Guatemala City have an idea of who their benefactors are,” he said.
The gifting of the Torah was facilitated by the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Levy said one of the organization’s roles is to help congregations that are closing or those with Torah scrolls available to give away to connect with congregations without a Torah or those in need of a second one.
“Long story short, they matched this congregation and this Torah,”
Levy said. “The question was how to get it there.”
The Torah sent to Israel was shipped, not delivered in person. The Levys decided to take the other one to Guatemala.
So how does one travel with such a cherished and expensive religious text?
“This has been a deal,” Levy said.
Using funds from the Pine Bluff temple, a custom-built
container was crafted for the Torah. Levy checked in at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock a few days early to find out the best way to go about traveling with the scroll.
He didn’t want it out of his sight for long. Because Torahs are handwritten in a laborious process, they can be quite expensive, ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.
Weinberg said she is particularly interested in the makeup of Adat Israel, the Guatemalan congregation,
which was formed by converts to Judaism.
“It’s so fascinating to me, because growing up in Pine Bluff with painful memories of anti-Semitism … to me it’s exhilarating that anybody would want and choose to be Jewish,” she said.
Jeannette Orantes, president of Adat Israel, said by email that the congregation was formed in 2005. Members initially met in homes and eventually the group rented a house for services, but they had no Torah of their own, just one on loan.
She said Goldstein told
them about the Pine Bluff congregation that was closing, and they contacted the World Union for Progressive Judaism and the transfer was set in motion.
Orantes said the group is honored to receive the Torah.
“Saying thanks is too short, but there is no other words to express,” she said. “We can just say toda raba (thank you) to all the people involved in this wonderful event.”