Torah scroll rescued
by priest finds a home among BC's Jews
In 1939 in Poland, shortly after Nazi troops had invaded, a Catholic
priest saved a Torah scroll from a burning synagogue. The name of
the priest is not known, nor the location of the synagogue. What
is known is that in 1960, the priest told another Pole that he would
like to entrust the Torah to an American Jew. And so he was led
to the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, where he handed the Torah in its
green velvet slipcover to Yale Richmond '43, a career foreign service
officer who was the embassy's cultural attache.
Richmond held the Torah for 42 years, not quite knowing what to
do with it, until the day recently when he was surfing the Web from
his home in Washington, D.C., and discovered that his alma mater
hosted a small but vital Jewish student group and had founded the
Center for Christian-Jewish Learning to advance understanding between
the two faiths. One of the center's directors was Rabbi Ruth Langer,
also a member of BC's theology department. "I sent [Langer]
an e-mail asking, 'Would you like a Torah?'" he recalled.
And so on October 11, Boston College was the site of an ancient
and traditional "Greeting of the Torah" ceremony, as about
80 peoplemembers of BC's Jewish community, representatives
of its other religious communities, and guests and friendsgathered
on a Friday afternoon to mark the completion of the scroll's long
Held in the University's multi-faith chapel in the 66 Commonwealth
Avenue residence hall, the ceremony was marked by the conveyance
of the Torah beneath a wedding canopy, circle-dancing to the music
of a klezmer band (led by fiddler and BC biology professor Daniel
Kirschner), and brief remarks by Richmond, Jewish members of the
BC community, and Joseph Appleyard, SJ, vice president for mission
and ministry. The ceremony concluded with a ritual reading in Hebrewthe
first such use of the Torah in 63 yearsby two BC freshmen
before the scroll was placed in its green slipcover in a wooden
wall cabinet, or ark, that had been constructed by BC carpenters.
Richmond, 79, a bearded Boston native who also served in Germany,
Austria, Laos, and the Soviet Union before retiring from the foreign
service, was one of four Jews in his BC graduating class. He explained
his gift of the scroll to the University by saying, "Catholic
Poland sheltered its Jews for more than 500 years, a Catholic priest
rescued the Torah from a synagogue torched by the Nazis in 1939
and sheltered it for 21 years, and Boston College sheltered me for
four years and awarded me the degree that enabled me to make a start
on a 30-year career."
The Torah, a parchment scroll on which the first five books of the
Bible are inscribed in Hebrew, is necessary for communal Jewish
worship, says Langer. The Torah is read aloud in the synagogue in
an annual cycle of section readings that restarts each fall with
Genesis, with readings taking place at prayer services each Monday
and Thursday morning, and on the Sabbath and festival days. The
readings by the BC students on October 11 were from the story of
Noah. The scroll allows the chapel to function as a synagogue on
those occasions when Jewish students gather for prayer on the campus,
says Langer. "In many ways, a Jewish community is not complete
without a Torah; the scroll is not only essential to the community,
but it even enables the community to exist fully."
called the Torah donated by Richmond "a marker of reconciliation,
embodying that priest's daring act of resistance and the fact that
a Jewish group can have a religious life" at a Catholic university.
BC's chapter of Hillel, the national Jewish campus organization,
estimates that less than 1 percent of the University's 8,900 undergraduates
are Jewish. BC's Hillel group, which has been in existence for at
least two decades, has been more active in recent years, sponsoring
Sabbath observances and a BC community Seder, as well as lectures
and charity drives. Its president, Brian Lerman '03, who also spoke
at the Torah ceremony, currently serves as president of the organization's
New England board.
While the provenance of the Torahits synagogue and townare
not known, an expert's evaluation in September determined from various
stylistic touches and dedicatory inscriptions that the Torah was
of Polish origin, that its creator was Rabbi Shmuel Shveber, a highly
regarded scribe of his time, and that it was completed in 1919.
Inscriptions on the scroll's wood rollers indicate that they were
completed in the Jewish calendar year of 5694, which coincides with
1933-34 in the Gregorian calendar. The cost of a scrollwhich
may have taken a scribe a year or more to completewas a considerable
burden for most synagogues, says Langer, and donors of Torahs were
generally honored with inscriptions. While Langer has not had a
chance to roll the Torah to its conclusion in Deuteronomy, where
dedicatory inscriptions might be found on the parchment, she has
examined the wood rollers for inscriptions, where she found, listed
with their matronymics, the scribe "Shmuel Shveber, son of
Perl," "David Roth, son of Berakah," and "Avraham
Hayim Shertz, son of Mishkit, who donated the Trees of Life [wood
rollers]." Langer has asked a friend who is a Holocaust researcher
to look into the fates of these people. She expects that BC Hillel
students will be using the Torah "in the near future"
after they receive training in the rules of cantillation used in
its public reading.
Ben Birnbaum, with reports from the BC Chronicle
Photos: At top, Yale Richmond '43 (top) brought the Torah to BC.
By Lee Pellegrini. At middle, Professor and Rabbi Ruth Langer (in
red), Daniel Pyster '06, and Sasha Westerman '06. By permission
of the Globe Newspaper Company.