Home December 2013 Czech Mission

Czech Mission

Out of the ashes of death and destruction, there is a resurgence of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.  Rabbi Richard Steinberg of Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine thinks that understanding that part of Jewish history can only be done by being there, in the same way as a trip to Israel.  As an added bonus of a trip he conducted for 15 congregants, there was a chance to see the place where the congregation’s Sefer Torah came from when it was founded in 1968.
“During World War II the Nazis destroyed all sorts of institutions,” Rabbi Steinberg explained.  “In Litomysl, Czechoslovakia, the Nazis rounded up Jews and sent them to camps but didn’t destroy the synagogue.  They created a museum to show the extinction of the Jewish race.”
After the war, more than 1,500 Torah scrolls remained in Czechoslovakia for more than 20 years.  Then a financier in London paid $30,000 to bring them to Britain to evaluate whether they could be used, repaired or deemed unrepairable.  In 1968 the Czech Memorial Sefer Torah Foundation was created to loan out the scrolls on a permanent basis to small synagogues, Jewish senior homes and youth groups.
“Enter Shir Ha-Ma’a lot, then known as Harbor Reform Temple, founded in 1968,” Rabbi Steinberg said.  “As a new congregation, it applied for an received one of these Torah scrolls on a permanent loan.  It’s the same Sefer Torah that we read from every Shabbat.”  In fact, Rabbi Steinberg’s daughter, Abigail, read from it at her Bat Mitzvah ceremony in November.
The Litomysl synagogue was dormant for years, then used as a storage facility and then destroyed.  Now an apartment building stands on the site, but a plaque commemorates the synagogue and the Jewish presence in the town.  The Shir Ha-Ma’alot congregants took color copies of the Torah portion and read it on the site as if it had been 50 years ago.
“Sitting there, people were crying,” Rabbi Steinberg said.  “The idea of being where that Torah scroll was read was incredible.”
He added, “Hitler doesn’t get a posthumous victory, because we read from that Torah scroll every Shabbat.  Judaism is still here.”
Litomysl was a detour from the rest of the trip, which included sites in Warsaw and Krakow, Poland; Budapest, Hungary; and Prague, Czechoslovakia.  “It was an amazing trip – emotionally challenging and, at the same time, totally uplifting,” said Rabbi Steinberg.  “We understood the destruction of the Jewish people in all its sadistic evilness, but it was uplifting to see the resurgence of Jewish life.”
In Warsaw people have just finished building a Jewish museum on the site of what had been the Warsaw Ghetto.  The government supports it, and the young people want to reclaim the history of the people who lived there, the rabbi explained.
In Krakow, hundreds of kids are enrolled in Jewish studies classes, according to the rabbi, who added that there had been 3½ million Jews in Poland before World War II.  After the Nazis were defeated in Poland, the Communists gained control. With that came another form of repression.
“As a result, a lot of young people didn’t even know they were Jewish until recently,” according to Rabbi Steinberg. “One girl discovered that she had Jewish lineage, and even her grandmother is now unafraid to admit it.”
Krakow was not touched, and synagogues still exist there, as they do in Budapest.  In the Galitzianer Synagogue in Krakow, there are pictures of Auschwitz, life in Poland and kids in camps.  “It’s an amazing experience to celebrate Shabbat in a place where Jewish life was never meant to exist again,” Rabbi Steinberg said.
He concluded, “This is a huge, important part of Jewish history.  We can learn about it, but we can’t fully appreciate it without being there.  Eighty percent of the Jewish world now lives in the U.S. or Israel, but we have a responsibility for the rest of the Jewish world, especially where it flourished before.”

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