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Torah scroll rescued by priest finds a home among BC's Jews

photo of Yale Richmond 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 people—members of BC's Jewish community, representatives of its other religious communities, and guests and friends—gathered on a Friday afternoon to mark the completion of the scroll's long journey.

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 Hebrew—the first such use of the Torah in 63 years—by 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."

Photo of people reading the torahLanger 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 Torah—its synagogue and town—are 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 scroll—which may have taken a scribe a year or more to complete—was 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.

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