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The stories behind our Sifrei Torah

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A Sefer Torah is not only about the liturgy on the page; it is often also symbolic of a person, event or history that needed to be remembered. This Shavuot, we look at just some of the many special stories behind the South African Jewish community’s Sifrei Torah.
by TALI FEINBERG | May 17, 2018

The Norman Isaacson Unity Torah

If there ever was a man loved by all in the Cape Town Jewish community, it was the late Norman (Normie) Isaacson.

“Normie was a phenomenon who served the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation as its Shammas for over 47 years, yet remained a man without an enemy,” wrote members of the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation in the Cape Jewish Chronicle.

“His prodigious memory for names is without equal; his ability to fraternise with all strata of society; his devotion to duty; his impish sense of humour — as well as his sermonic interjections — endeared him to all and sundry. Rabbis would often seek his advice on procedural aspects of the liturgy and service.”

Isaacson encountered many challenges. He nursed his wife through illness and lost two children, one of them in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Through it all, he maintained his faith, good cheer and concern for all of G-d’s people and creatures. For decades each morning, he would enter the Marais Road Shul before 06:00 and chant King David’s Psalms, together with Neville Scher. While never focusing on his own pain, he demonstrated remarkable sensitivity to anyone else’s misfortune.

In 2012, over the course of Isaacson’s 90th year, Marais Road Shul committed to writing a Torah in his honour, completing it before his 91st birthday. Over 1 000 people crowded the streets for a welcoming parade and service in the shul, thus fulfilling the promise reserved for the greats, “olamcha tireh bechayecha”.

“Sadly, at the beginning of October 2013, the multitudes once again filled the Marais Road Shul for Normie, this time to bid farewell,” wrote the shul members. “In a service seldom, if ever, witnessed in Cape Town, Nochum ben Moshe Isaacson’s coffin was brought into the shul, the home he so passionately loved and served. And we – young and old, famous and ordinary, rabbis and laypeople – said goodbye to an icon of our time; a true giant.”

The Czech Torah

“When you open the ark in Temple Israel Green Point in Cape Town, you will notice that the smallest Torah scroll has a small brass plaque attached which identifies it as Czech Memorial Scroll 128,” begins Rabbi Greg Alexander of the Cape Town Progressive Hebrew Congregation.

“The story behind this Torah goes back to World War II and the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. As the Nazis rolled through the country, destroying synagogues and rounding up Jews, a few brave souls started to collect artefacts of the ruined shuls, including their Torah scrolls. These were gathered in a warehouse in Prague and remained there through the war.

“Eventually, most of those who had gathered them were sent to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, and died there,” he continues.

“After the war, the Communists took over and again, religion was suppressed. In 1964, a group of donors from the Westminster Reform Synagogue in London offered to buy 1 564 scrolls from the Czechoslovak government and brought them safely to England. They slowly paid for sofrim (scribes) to restore each one and to then have them sent to congregations around the world.

“We were the recipient of number 128 and it is still in use, most often for bar and batmitzvah celebrations. As far as we can tell, our Czech scroll was written in 1870.”

A Torah after tragedy

In March last year, hundreds of people streamed through the suburban streets of Savoy, singing haunting songs of celebration as they accompanied “Dan’s Torah” to its new home in the Chabad Savoy Shul.

The Torah was bought for the shul by the Jewish community in the name of Daniel Copans, a phenomenal teenager who died from cancer three years ago, shortly before completing his matric at King David Linksfield.

Thousands of people from South Africa, New York, London, Australia and Israel donated towards the Torah, the final letters of which were written by Daniel’s twin brother, Adam, at the home of Rabbi Eitan Ash, of Chabad Savoy.

Rabbi Ash not only drove this project, but did everything in his power to obtain life-saving treatment from American doctors for Dan, even going with him to New York for medical treatment.

“Dan’s dream was to have a family and give back to the community, and it was my wish that he should stand under a chuppah one day to get married,” Rabbi Ash told the SA Jewish Report at the time. “A Torah represents the whole Jewish world, is the centre of Jewish life and it is always brought into shul under a chuppah. So, a Torah in Dan’s name seemed totally appropriate. Also, a Torah lives forever...”

The Torah came from Israel and the Copans family “coloured in” the first letters of the Torah. The rest was almost completed in Israel, with the exception of about 400 letters, which were filled in by donors, friends and family.

Adam filled in the last two letters, which were an Aleph and a Lamed, representing the brothers’ names – Daniel Leib and Adam.

The Torah that took 50 years

During the 1950s, the then-thriving Jewish community in Orange Grove, Johannesburg had its spiritual centre at the shul on 9th Street. One of the founder members, Moshe Malkin, and his wife Guttel were very active in the community. Guttel convinced her husband that they should purchase a Torah for the shul in their family’s name.

Since exchange control was then in place, such a transaction was not a simple matter. Monies had to be arranged and clearance received for the process of acquiring a Torah from Israel, which then cost £500 (R8 435)!

Their youngest child, Isaac, was going on holiday to Israel and he was given the task of meeting with various sofers, and finding and commissioning the right one to write the Sefer Torah for the Malkin family, to be given to the 9th Street Shul.

Isaac, then in his early 20s, met with various sofers, but being young and indecisive at the time, he could not make a decision and returned to South Africa empty-handed. And so ended the story of the Malkin Family Sefer Torah, until 2013...

At the age of 90 years young, Isaac – who was now living in Australia – relayed this story to his great-nephew Dr Darren Klotnick, who was inspired by the fact that this Torah was never acquired and the story never completed.

Dr Klotnick felt that this was something which had to be undertaken. He spoke to his mother, Shulamith, who said that the Malkin family had originally come from the town of Frankfort in the Orange Free State.

The shul and community in that area is no longer operational, and it was suggested that instead of acquiring just any Sefer Torah, rather try to acquire one that holds sentimental value and relevance to the family – in short, to try to acquire a Torah, which had been part of the Frankfort community and the lives of the Malkin family.

The Frankfort Shul had been shut down in the 1960s and tracing a Sefer Torah from there was almost impossible. After many months, the unexpected happened…

Dr Klotnick, with the assistance of Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, managed to find and acquire the Torah from the Frankfort community.Bursting with excitement, the good doctor was forced to wait until the next morning to relay the news to his 91-year-old great-uncle in Australia.

He began the call by saying that Isaac’s life-long burden of not completing his parents’ request to purchase a Sefer Torah was over. He told him the story and explained that arrangements had been made to purchase the Torah and have it restored to a kosher and usable state.

Isaac was speechless and told his great-nephew that it wasn’t often that a 91-year-old man cries, but he was so happy that this chapter of his life was closed and the long-awaited request of his mother and father had been fulfilled at last.

It took another year for repairs on the Torah to be completed – it was both computer scanned for errors and checked by a Sofer. It was found that there was an extra letter, a “yud” (representative of Hashem) in the chapter of Bereishit.

Therefore, this Torah had never been truly “kosher” until its restoration in 2014, almost 100 years after it was first written. The special Torah was used for the first time since its restoration on Rosh Hashanah 2014 in the Mizrachi shul in Glenhazel. Family members read from the Torah while Dr Klotnick witnessed this emotional moment.

The first reading from this Torah was of the binding of Isaac and how, at the request of an angel, he was saved and freed. So, too, was Isaac Malkin unbound of the burden of not purchasing a Torah for his family over 50 years before, and freed in the knowledge that the Torah was now a part of the family, inscribed with the names of his parents.

This Torah will live on for many years in the name of the thriving descendants of Moshe and Guttel Malkin.

The Matthews family Torah

In June last year, Stanley Matthews – the former CEO of the Premier Soccer League and currently the CEO of top football club SuperSport United – bought and donated a Sefer Torah to Linksfield Shul, after his family became fully observant Jews and after seeing the joy of a Hachnasat Torah ceremony in Israel.

“We decided it would be nice to do the same for our eight-year-old son’s barmitzvah when the time comes,” his wife, Shardi, told the SA Jewish Report last year. “Then we decided: Why wait?”

The Matthews family dedicated the Torah in memory of their great-grandparents, as well as to their parents and their five children – two boys, Wade and Cole, and three daughters: Savannah, Cassidy and Madison.

At noon on Sunday, June 11 2017, the final few letters were written in the magnificent Torah and the scroll left the Matthews’ Tregoning Street house for the last time. It was covered by a chuppah and regally escorted by hundreds of people, including Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and other leading rabbonim, family, friends and shul members. Many took turns to dance with it under the chuppah. It was the first new Torah the shul had received in nearly two decades.

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