By Rebecca Kanthor
A version of this article appeared in Tabletmag.com on September 17, 2015
A well-traveled Torah relic rescued from Nazi Germany has made its way
to China—via Brazil—to serve a lay-led liberal congregation in
Shanghai, China, that was in need of a Torah in order to conduct Rosh
Hashanah services. The Torah, which has seen several repairs over the
years and dates back to 1939 Germany, was welcomed with open arms by
members of Kehilat Shanghai during the fledgling congregation’s Rosh
Hashanah services—the first to be held in the former Ohel Moishe
synagogue, where European Jews took refuge during World War II, in
over 60 years. The Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum is now housed there.
Kehilat Shanghai’s intimate and uplifting Rosh Hashanah services were
led by Rabbi David Wolfman, visiting from Boston. During the
ceremonies Wolfman invited all of the members of the congregation,
including several children, to surround him as he read from the
historic Torah; In August, Kehilat Shanghai member Jeanine Buzali
traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to accept the Torah donation from
Reform congregation Associação Religiosa Israelita (ARI). Kehilat
Shanghai’s president Arie Schreier then carried the torah around the
room, weaving his way through the crowd.
“We had no idea we would be here for the giving of the first Torah
which was very emotional for us,” said Karin Batterton, who was
vacationing in Shanghai from Baltimore with her daughter and grandson.
“We felt a real kinship and we were so glad to see that there was a
community developing in an area of the world that we had no clue
16-year-old Shanghai resident Vincent Wilmet said, “It is a very
emotional day for me to celebrate the Jewish New Year with Kehilat at
Ohel Moishe, as it is where I did my bar mitzvah three years ago.
Receiving a new torah for my community here marks history for the Jews
in Shanghai but has a very special resonance for me.”
The Torah has now served congregations spanning three continents. It
was smuggled out of Germany in 1939 by Siegfried Moses, a member of
Berlin’s Wisenstrasse Synagogue. Moses had been granted a visa to
Brazil, so he agreed to carry the Torah with him, taking on a great
risk as there were severe luggage restrictions in place for immigrants
from Germany, according to Ricardo Gorodovits, President of ARI.
“It was one of our first Sefarim used extensively in all our
ceremonies from 1942 till recently,” Gorodovits wrote in an email. The
community that attends ARI was founded by German immigrants. Today it
consists of 900 families, making it the largest congregation in Rio de
When Union for Progressive Judaism vice president Rabbi Joel
Oseran—who led Kehilat Shanghai’s first High Holiday services five
years ago—suggested to ARI that they donate one of their torahs to a
congregation in need elsewhere in the world, they chose Shanghai. The
Torah donation was a way of honoring one of ARI’s founders, Josef
Aronsohn, whom along with his father, was a German refugee in 1940s
Shanghai before finding his way to Rio.
“Aronsohn trained thousand of ARI kids in their Bnei Mitzvah,
including Ricardo [Gorodovits] and myself,” said Raul Gottlieb, an ARI
board member. He added: “We have more Sefarim than we need for our
daily use and it is a pity to keep them unused.”
For Buzali, bringing the torah from Rio to Shanghai marks an important
step in Kehilat Shanghai’s growth as a congregation. “I think this
means we now have a responsibility to have a continued presence here,”
she said. “We need to always have a community around this Torah to
support it and make sure that it is used. I think we can do it.”
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