A Tale of Two Torahs

 

The oldest Torah scroll in America rests inside a museum at Congregation Mickve Israel on Monterey Square. Each year on July 11—the anniversary of the arrival of 42 Jewish settlers in Savannah just five months after the founding of the colony—worshippers gently remove a deerskin scroll from its perch inside the gilded ark at the front of the sanctuary. Asked why Savannah’s scroll is older than any in New York City—home of the nation’s oldest Jewish community—Rabbi Belzer explains that centuries of winter heating dried out and eventually destroyed the New York scroll, while the Savannah Torah is made of deerskin, which has a high moisture content. Besides, Belzer quips, “nothing ever dries out in Savannah!” Marion Levy- Mendel, a descendant of original settler Benjamin Sheftall, says the scroll reminds her that Jewish people have been part of Savannah history almost since the city’s beginning. “I really respect them for their fortitude, and for having the guts to stick it out, because I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them in those early years,” she says.

As a descendant of one of the original 42 settlers carries the approximately 500-year-old set of scriptures from one side of the gothic room to the other, congregants reach out with their own holy books and brush the corners against the scroll. Later in the service, Rabbi Belzer uses a thin silver pointer to read select verses, then places the holy text back into its cabinet.

Another Savannah synagogue, Congregation Agudath Achim, occupies a modern brick and glass building on the southside that’s a far cry from Mickve Isreal’s grand gothic structure. Yet this Jewish community—which celebrated its own centennial four years ago—is also home to a historic Torah scroll. In the lobby of the synagogue, a glass case protects the 200-year-old Holocaust Torah of Kamenice from human hands. Agudath Achim hired an expert to carefully restore each letter of the scroll, which is the only trace of a Jewish community wiped out by the Nazis in the former Czechoslovakia.

Synagogue member Erwin Friedman describes the raw emotion he felt the day the congregation stretched the restored scroll out from one end of the room to the other: “It was like the document could speak, like we were standing there looking into the past.” If a Jewish community is ever reestablished in Kamenice, the Savannah synagogue will be obliged to return the scroll.

Two scrolls—one from a community of Jews who prospered, another from a group tragically snuffed out sixty years ago. Both remind us of the importance of keeping the past alive; sometimes written words communicate more than ideas.

If you’re interested in viewing Savannah’s ancient scrolls, contact Congregation Mickve Israel at 912.233.1547 or Congregation Agudath Achim at 912.352.4737 —Michael Jordan