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The mystery and mayhem of Cape Town’s Czech Torah

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Every Torah scroll is a work of sacred artistry created by a sofer (scribe) whose work takes about a year to complete. With all this labour and expense, it’s not destined for a museum or library, but for a community, which is where it really finds its purpose.

What brings meaning to the work of the sofer isn’t the scroll being looked at or admired, but the fact that it’s read. You and I, the community that become the custodians of a Sefer Torah, give it life. Although every Torah scroll is far from an ordinary thing, there are certain scrolls that have a fascinating history that make them even more extraordinary. One of these sits in our ark in our Green Point, Cape Town, campus.

It originated in central Europe, and was rescued from the terror and destruction of the Shoah. It’s one of the more than 1 500 Czech Memorial Sifrei Torah which constituted part of the treasures looted by the Nazis from the desolated Jewish communities of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. They are, in most cases, the last remnants of the communities that lived there, in spite of the fact that Jews lived there for more than 1 000 years and developed a rich Jewish history and culture.

By 1800, Prague had become a major centre of learning and scholarship as well as Hebrew printing, and for 100 years before 1939, the Jews of the area were free and prosperous. According to the 1930 census, there were 117 551 Jews in Bohemia and Moravia, and 356 830 in all of Czechoslovakia. The Jewish community had become religiously and culturally diverse. Many were highly educated and cultured. Some of the greatest Jewish thinkers, artists, architects, poets, musicians, and composers of the time came from this region.

From 1938, there was systematic persecution of Jews in Czechoslovakia. Boycotting Jewish shops, segregating Jewish people from the rest of society, limits on their freedom and basic human rights were enforced. Eventually, violent terror and the destruction of Jewish culture began. Synagogues were burned together with Jewish books and books by Jewish authors. As time went on, Jews were ordered to leave their homes which had fallen under German authority, and were sent away. Most never returned.

About 81 000 Jews were deported to the Terezin Ghetto, and then onto death camps. About 10 500 survived. The number of children murdered was 15 000. In some towns, it’s hard to see any trace that a Jewish community once lived there. In other towns such as Prague, the old Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and museum remain. The scrolls could tell us so much, couldn’t they? It really makes one stop and wonder. They could tell us what they witnessed, about the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, who brought them to Prague, and what happened next? But, for now, they are silent.

One of the greatest mysteries of these scrolls is how and why they survived the war at all, in spite of their synagogues being burned and communities destroyed. One theory is that the Nazis wanted to create some sort of museum of the Jews which would include an exhibition of their Judaica. Another is that the Nazis wanted to keep the population calm, and so invited a group of Czech Jews to gather Jewish objects from all over the area, implying that they would be restored after the war. Either way, more than 10 000 artefacts were brought to Prague including 1 800 Torah scrolls. Once in Prague, a team of expert Jewish curators received them, catalogued them, and labelled them with meticulous detail, precision, and loving care.

The scrolls were identified by the town they came from and, in many cases, the age of the scrolls, though the dates may have been based on educated guesses by the curators. The curators witnessed the tragic scene of their own families being deported, and then finally their turn came too. Most of these brave curators were eventually sent to Terezin, and died there or were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau or another camp and murdered. The scrolls survived, yet they were devoid of the life of the community they served. After the war, they were transferred to the ruined synagogue at Michle, three to four kilometres south of Prague, where they remained untouched until they were brought to London 20 years later. How did that transpire?

In 1963, Eric Estorick, a London art dealer, was informed that there were 1 564 Torah scrolls stored by the museum for sale. He contacted a client, Ralph Yablon, who in turn approached Harold Reinhart, the rabbi of Westminster Progressive Synagogue in London. Together, they asked Chimen Abramsky, a Hebrew scholar, to go to Prague and examine the scrolls. Yablon’s generosity made the purchase of the scrolls possible, and they were transported to the synagogue in London.

They arrived on 7 February 1964, many damaged without beautiful covers (although they each would probably have had one once), and with no adornment of any sort. Some had beautiful binders that held each scroll together, others were wrapped as if in haste with a tallit, a belt, or an odd material. The ink was crumbling in many cases, and they were particularly fragile to handle. They were a tragic but eloquent monument to a brutal past.

The new custodians embarked on the job of restoration. One day – out of the blue – there came a knock on the front door of the synagogue. Ruth Shaffer, the head of the restoration committee, opened the door to David Brand, a sofer, who asked in Yiddish, “Do you have any Torahs to repair?” She replied, “We have 1 564 – come in!” Nearly thirty years later, he was still working there, bringing the scrolls back to perfection so they could “relive” and be used in synagogue services. Rabbi Thomas Salamon, then rabbi of the Westminster Synagogue, visited sofer Brand in Jerusalem in December 2013. Brand was then 95 years old. When asked how he felt as an Orthodox sofer, working on damaged Torah scrolls in a progressive synagogue, his reply was, “I was doing holy work.”

The vast majority of scrolls are now loaned out to communities throughout the world, and that’s how Temple Israel in Cape Town came to be the steward of Czech scroll number 128. We know precious little about this Sefer Torah except that it came from the small town of Golčův Jenikov near Caslav in the Central Bohemian Region of today’s Czech Republic. It had a significant Jewish quarter of about fifty homes to the south of the town’s central square. The Jewish congregation was founded there in 1870, and it numbered about 300. There is a synagogue building from 1899 still standing, and a Jewish section (since 1884) in the municipal cemetery, but there’s no functional Jewish community there today. The Memorial Scrolls Trust estimates that our Torah was written in 1870 at the time of the community’s founding.

Today, it sits proudly in the Aron haKodesh (ark) in Green Point, and is brought out at Bnei Mitzvah and every Simchat Torah. But what happened to the Czech people who loved and cherished the scroll? Where are they? Where are their children and grandchildren now? Every time we read from that scroll or dance with it around our shul, we honour their memory. Am Yisrael Chai (the Jewish people lives).

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Habonim honours Anstey, a ‘superman without a cape’

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The outgoing manhig (leader) of South African Habonim Dror, Errol Anstey, took his departure from the youth movement after 20 years of service in an online Zoom call with nearly 300 current and former members, friends, and family.

“I agreed to take the job for a year or two back in 2000, and never dreamt it would end up being 20 years of challenging but hugely satisfying work,” Anstey said in an emotional speech to his audience from around the world.

In the late 1990s, the movement had dropped in numbers, finances were in a mess, and the well-known Onrust campsite was in bad shape, former shaliach Ronen Segall recalled. “Errol was the obvious choice for someone with deep knowledge of the movement, its workings, and its campsite. In my eyes, Errol became Habonim’s true hero, a superman without a cape but full of capability.”

In a short space of time, Anstey led a significant turnaround for Habonim along with the team of shlichim and Habonim leadership. His fundraising, finance, and administration skills shone, and over his term as manhig an estimated R20 million has been raised and invested in the Onrust campsite to make it one of the most sought-after and valuable campsites in South Africa.

“This has enabled the movement not only to maintain the site to a high level, but the revenue has helped finance many of the movement’s activities,” Anstey proudly told his audience.

The traditional role of the manhig since the founding of SA Habonim Dror was always to be the “adult in the room” to act as a guide and mentor to the movement’s young leadership. Former mazkira klalit (general secretary) of Habonim from 2005, Micaela Browde, paid tribute to Anstey saying, “You were really a stalwart for us, you fought for us, you had our backs, you made sure we were supported, guided, and you did so with strength, humility, and humour.”

Anstey described some of the challenges during his stint including differences of opinion and sometimes open confrontation with mainstream Jewish community leadership when Habonim was critical of some of Israel’s actions. “It wasn’t easy to be a lone voice for progressive, liberal thinking as South Africa’s community became predominantly conservative,” he said with his usual frankness.

Another mazkir klali, Daniel Sussman from 2019, described Anstey’s catch phrase as “do everything, all the time, never sleep”. This succinctly summed up for him the endless number of projects and activities which Anstey led over the past two decades on behalf of Habonim.

Stanley Bergman, originally from Port Elizabeth and now in New York, the national treasurer for Habonim in 1968, paid tribute to Anstey’s enormous efforts to support several generations of Habonim members. He praised him for his ability to connect with graduates from the movement around the world and develop a donor community to support the Habonim Foundation which he initiated.

Anstey spoke of the erratic provision of Habonim shlichim from Israel over the years, and how he had additionally become a shaliach himself, which meant mentoring the leadership and members of the movement. He emphasised that he had “the privilege of working with the cream of South African Jewish youth” and said “there was nothing more fulfilling than working with inspired youth”. Their activism had motivated him to run successfully for public office in 2011 as a member of the Democratic Alliance.

During the Zoom session, many participants showered praise on Anstey’s term as manhig including Isaac Herzog, the chairperson of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who acknowledged the “outstanding contribution” that he had made to Habonim over so many years.

Former mazkir klali in the early 1980s, Stephen Pincus, expressed his appreciation for Anstey’s earlier roles as camp organiser at one of the largest Onrust camps ever, and later in spearheading the 50th anniversary celebrations of the movement.

“It was clear from those early years that Errol had that obvious aptitude for organisation along with a commitment to the movement,” he said. “Little did we know that we unleashed a formidable force which reverberated in the movement for more than 40 years.”

Anstey told the audience that his two children, Saul and Talia, had followed in his footsteps, having attended 12 Onrust camps and later became his “eyes on the ground” regarding movement dynamics. He also noted that it was probably an unprecedented situation that they had actually left the movement before their father did.

Anstey warmly welcomed the new incoming manhig, Wayne Sussman, in his usual modest style saying how satisfying it was for him to hand over the mantle to “someone who will be better than me and will take Habonim to new heights”.

Sussman responded in the session with his usual passionate style, describing the six previous manhigim who preceded him as “giants on whose shoulders we stand”. He lamented the fact that the Habonim leadership was on a Zoom call and not at the annual Onrust camp, and how challenging it was going to be in 2021 without the lessons learned and experiences from machaneh.

“Our first task will be to assist the 2021 bogrim led by the new mazkir, Aaron Sher, to capture some of the magic which will be lost, but I’m confident we can do it,” said Sussman.

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JNF Blue Box enters the digital age

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When is a Jewish National Fund (JNF) Blue Box not a blue box? Never. Even though the physical box now has a digital donation option, it’s still the age-old Blue Box.

This box has for decades symbolised the JNF and the commitment of Jewish people around the world to rebuild Israel.

And for decades, it has been filled to the brim with pennies, cents, nickels, dimes, lira, and francs – coins of every denomination dropped in, one could almost say, religiously every Friday evening before Shabbat candle lighting.

Now it’s no longer limited to physical coins and a metal box. The new Blue Box with a digital donation option via SnapScan will be launched in time for Channukah to keep the tradition of the Blue Box alive for the next 120 years.

The first real Blue Box was, oddly enough, Theodor Herzl’s hat. At the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, he used his hat to solicit donations from delegates as a means of purchasing land to establish a Jewish homeland.

Soon after, a Polish bank clerk proposed that a collection box bearing the words “National Fund” be placed in every Jewish home to raise money for land purchases. Production began in Vienna. The boxes were initially produced in a blue material and thus became known as Blue Boxes.

Over the past 120 years, funds collected via the Blue Box from around the world have assisted the JNF to realise its aim of developing land in Israel: building roads and water reservoirs, establishing parks, and preparing the soil for agriculture and settlement. Beyond fundraising, the Blue Box is also an important educational tool for spreading the Zionist message and renewing the historic bond between the Jewish people and EretzYisrael.

Stories about the Blue Box have become legendary. In the United States around Tu B’Shvat, teams of children brandishing JNF Blue Boxes would travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the New York City subway system. They would move from train car to train car with these ubiquitous boxes in hand, soliciting contributions from passengers and stopping only when they sensed or saw the approach of policemen.

In South Africa, members of the JNF would visit Jewish homes every Sunday to collect and then empty Blue Boxes, diligently counting the hundreds or thousands of coins inside them. In addition to being proudly displayed in almost every South African Jewish home, Blue Boxes were also present in schools, shuls, Jewish-owned businesses, medical waiting rooms, even hairdressing salons.

In times past when life wasn’t so frenetic and women could spend afternoons playing rummy and socialising, the money raised and won during the games was often dropped into the Blue Box, adding to the largesse and reputation of that particular hostess.

Today the iconic Blue Box (or pushke) remains the link between the Jewish people and the land, and to many, perhaps even to the majority of the Jewish world, it’s a symbol of Jewish continuity. They can also be quite valuable: a few antique Blue Boxes were auctioned by Sotheby’s recently, realising more than $3 000 (R46 006) each.

However, in the age of credit cards, cryptocurrency, and e-wallets, fundraising via a coin-based Blue Box risks becoming an anachronism.

So, the JNF has relaunched the Blue Box and linked it to the SnapScan mobile-payments app. A QR code will be found on all new Blue Boxes purchased from the JNF. People with old boxes can bring them in to have the QR code imprinted for no extra charge.

It’s modern technology indeed, but inextricably linked to a century-old tradition of keeping Israel alive in every Jewish heart.

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Back to Work

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So many in our community have lost jobs since the onset of lockdown. We are publishing their details to help them find work. This is the last group for this year. We will resume in 2021.

Name: Fran Lurie

Experience: Sales Consultant

Education: Matric

More information: I have worked in the exhibition industry for 20 years, and because of COVID-19 this was the first industry to go. I was retrenched and now seek new employment. I am driven, enthusiastic and ready to take on a new venture.

Current location: Johannesburg

Willing to relocate: No

Email address: franlurie@telkomsa.net

Name: Nicole Williams

Email address: nmoskovitch@gmail.com

Experience: National Key Accounts Manager/PA/Secretary

Education: Matric (Herzlia); Travel and Tourism diploma (Travel and Tourism Academy)

More information: I’d like to work for a company which will allow me to grow professionally and as an individual. I’m eager to work in a team structure and am happy to travel. I enjoy new challenges, and having a proactive mindset has helped me achieve success. I’m creative, energetic, and pay attention to detail. I’m committed, loyal, enthusiastic, and give 101% in everything I do.

Current location: Cape Town

Willing to relocate: No

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