My grandparents Ada and Isaac Ungerson were extraordinary people. It is difficult to reduce their kindness, generosity, and heroics to words. Suffice it to say: they were refugees from the Nazis, saved a number of their family members, and lived the immigrant’s dream in America. My grandfather built a chicken market in the Bronx and he and my grandmother raised two children, bent over backwards to care for family and friends, and doted on their grandchildren. To my grandmother, we helped fill the void in her heart from having lost her parents and six sisters to the Nazis. My grandmother passed away in 1988. Her funeral was attended by hundreds of people and the Rabbi openly wept during her eulogy.
Although my grandfather was not a man of significant means, he wanted to honor my grandmother by commissioning a Sefer Torah. The Torah was written in 1990 and was consecrated at his small synagogue in Canarsie, Brooklyn. As a teenager I vividly recall the block party that was thrown by the synagogue to welcome the Torah. Hundreds of Chassidim danced in the streets while a number of Italian and Irish policemen controlling traffic looked on with bewilderment as the procession moved along Flatlands Avenue to my grandfather’s synagogue.
Several years went by and my grandfather moved to Florida to be closer to my parents and his grandchildren. While in Florida, my grandfather received a telephone call from members of his old Brooklyn congregation. Apparently, the Rabbi at that congregation had decided to leave and had mistakenly taken the Torah with him to his new congregation. Although my grandfather explained that this was not his intent, he unfortunately had a number of health issues and was unable to pursue the matter. My grandfather of blessed memory passed away in 2005.
In 2007, my mother asked me to find out what happened to the Torah. At that point, I was an attorney at a large law firm representing real- estate developers. Given my secular legal training I was hesitant to get involved and erroneously believed that our family could not make a claim to the Torah given the passage of time. In 2008, the California real estate market collapsed and I began searching for a new job. My job search included attending a networking event sponsored by the Association of Corporate Counsel, a trade group consisting of in-house corporate attorneys. There was an interesting panel of speakers at the event who were discussing their respective decisions to give up corporate positions to take interesting non-legal jobs. One of the speakers was Rabbi Dov Fischer.
Following the panel discussion, I introduced myself to Rabbi Dov and explained to him that I was relatively new to Orange County and looking for a new job. Rabbi Fischer invited me out for a cup of coffee several days later and he spent countless hours strategizing about my job search. For some odd reason, I felt compelled during these discussions to raise the issue of the family’s long-lost Torah. At a minimum, I thought asking the question would make my mother happy.
To my surprise, Rabbi Fischer (who had been a highly successful litigator in addition to being well versed in Jewish law (Halacha)) felt that we had a case to press for the return of the Torah. The problem is that we had no idea where to look. Rabbi Fischer then spent a number of hours talking to his colleagues in New York and tracked my grandfather’s old Rabbi from the synagogue in Canarsie to a synagogue on Long-Island. He then interviewed the Synagogue’s President who agreed to return the Torah if it was discovered that they had it. Unfortunately, the Synagogue did not have it and my grandfather’s Rabbi had passed away. The trail went cold.
Blessedly, I was hired by Southern California Edison as an in-house attorney and the pressures of a new job and three little boys shifted our attention away from the Torah search. From time to time, I would consult with my new friend and wonderful Rabbi Fischer on various matters. I also enjoyed working on all sorts of interesting real estate and land-use issues for the company. One of these projects required that I prove that the utility had utility poles in a public street prior to 1911. I therefore learned how to use various historic databases containing old newspapers to make my case.
Time of course flew by and our son Alex turned 12 in 2018. I therefore asked Rabbi Fischer if he would help us prepare Alex for his Bar Mitzvah. Rabbi Fischer happily agreed and we began studying Torah and Talmud at the Rabbi’s house and joined the Rabbi’s extraordinary boutique synagogue-Young Israel of Orange County (YIOC).
During our first meeting to go over Bar Mitzvah planning, Rabbi Fischer motioned to one of the synagogue’s Torahs and identified the parsha Alex would be reading on his Bar Mitzvah date. That evening, I happily reported news of Alex’s Bar Mitzvah preparations to my mother. In response, my mother lamented the fact that the family Torah had not been found.
At this point, the Torah had been missing for 15 years. Thoughts of my children reading from my grandparent’s Torah overcame me. Using my newly found archival research skills, I conducted hours of newspaper and genealogical research to see if I could pick up the trail. As it turned out, my grandfather’s old Rabbi had a son and the son also appeared to be a beloved and well-respected Rabbi in the Chassidic community of Lakewood, New Jersey.
I reported this news to Rabbi Fischer who urged me to call the Rabbi. The next day, I placed the call. Following introductions, I gently inquired if the Rabbi had a father who had a small congregation in Brooklyn. The Rabbi said yes. I proceeded to introduce myself and explained that my grandparents were congregants in his father’s synagogue. The Rabbi responded that he remembered my grandparents fondly. Next came the million-dollar question: I asked if he knew what happened to the Torah written for my grandmother. He responded, “of course-its here in my synagogue!” I explained that my son was soon to have his Bar Mitzvah and inquired if the Torah could be loaned to us. The Rabbi advised he would have to think on it and we concluded the call. After making contact I reported the good news to my mother and Rabbi Fischer. We were ecstatic! Now however we had to begin the process of negotiating for the Torah’s return.
Rabbi Fischer agreed to act on our behalf and proceeded to call the Rabbi in Lakewood to discuss the return of the Torah. Following a number of phone calls and months of scheduling delays, the Rabbi in Lakewood explained his view that the Torah was a gift and he felt that he was precluded from returning the Torah.
It was at this point that Rabbi Fischer and I began building the case under Jewish law for the return of the Torah. Under Jewish law, there is a presumption that a Torah may not be given as a gift unless the donor’s intent is made clear. Unbeknownst to the Rabbi in Lakewood and his father of blessed memory, my mother had also contributed financially for the writing of the Torah and had an independent claim of ownership.
With Rabbi Fischer’s sage counsel and support, I drafted a lengthy letter to the Rabbi in Lakewood respectfully explaining our position on the matter. Rabbi Newman, the Headmaster of the Hebrew Academy and my parent’s Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui in Florida also offered counsel and support. Each Rabbi took the time to provide letters supporting our position.
As we were putting the finishing touches on our letter, my mother demanded that I contact one of her friends who has a son that lives in Lakewood. Yet again, largely to placate my mother, I made the call. Of course—my mother was right. As it turned out, the individual I called lives directly across the street from the synagogue and knew the Rabbi in Lakewood well.
We discussed the matter with our family friend who (unbeknownst to me) then sought advice from the head of a local Yeshiva in Lakewood. The head of the Yeshiva agreed with our view that the Torah should be returned.
Weeks went by. As I was beginning consultations with a number of experts in commencing a Bet Din, I received a call from our family friend. He told us that he had spoken with the Rabbi and felt that the Rabbi was going to return the Torah. Twenty minutes later, the Rabbi called. He explained that it was his family’s belief that the Torah had been gifted but he recognized our claim and wanted to do the right thing. The Torah was ours. The call came at 3:45PM on Sunday December 2, 2018…the last night of Chanukah.
I called my wife in tears and asked her to get me on a flight to New Jersey or New York that night. My next call was to my mother and then of course, to Rabbi Fischer. The first words out of his mouth: “you have to get on a plane—like now!” Rabbi Fischer did however agree that it would be acceptable if I flew to New Jersey the following day.
On Monday, December 3rd I was on a flight to Newark and was able to stay with my aunt who lives in Monroe Township, New Jersey (an hour away from Lakewood). At 1:30 PM on Tuesday, December 4th, I arrived at the synagogue in Lakewood. I was 5 hours early.
My philosophy and mindset has always been to approach good news with skepticism. In my humble view, Hashem has an incredible sense of humor. Nothing appears real to me until one or more comical things (typically at my expense) occur. I entered the synagogue and found a lone individual davening. He looked up and asked if he could help me. I told the gentleman that I was early for my appointment with the Rabbi and asked where I could find him. The congregant replied, “he lives next door.” I asked, “should I just knock on the door?” Without missing a beat and with a quizzical look, he responded, “how else is he going to know you are there?” It was at that moment that I realized this was happening.
I knocked on the door and the Rebettzin answered. After a brief back and forth, she called to her husband who came out. I will always remember that the Rabbi was extremely warm and affable. “I thought you were coming at 6-so you are 4 hours early…” He shrugged his shoulders and then said, “no problem-let me get the Torah for you.” We walked to the sanctuary and the Rabbi pulled a Torah out of the ark. He gently laid it on a desk and read my grandmother’s name on the mantle. He then took out a Tallis and wrapped it lovingly, kissed it, and walked me out to my rental car. The Rabbi gently placed the Torah upright on the rear passenger seat of the rental car. He buckled it in and wished me well.
So: there I was…in Lakewood New Jersey…in the middle of winter… in a rental car…wearing a suit… with precious cargo in the back seat. Waves of emotion overtook me on the ride to my aunt’s house. I am not known for my keen sense of direction and got lost. It was a typical overcast and rainy winter day in New Jersey and the sun was rapidly setting. I realized that I had made a wrong turn and attempted to make a U-turn. As the road was narrow, I pulled the car onto the side of the road. There were a number of strange bumps and sounds as the car made contact with the side of the road. When I hit the accelerator, the engine revved but the car didn’t move. To my horror—I had pulled into several feet of New Jersey mud and muck.
I then called AAA. After an hour on hold, AAA advised that they “could not locate a tow truck operator to assist” but they promised that “they would see what they could do.” Hashem has a sense of humor. This was definitely real.
I called the Monroe Township police as it was now dark. A 6’5 police officer arrived on scene within minutes and sized me, the car, and my precious cargo up and down with a mixture of bewilderment and amusement. “Unfortunately, I cannot help you get out of this mud. I can call a special tow company out but they will charge you $200. Before I make that call, can you explain how this happened? Did you have anything to drink today sir?” Again—this was the kind of sign I was looking for.
Vito, the tow truck driver arrived ten minutes later and pulled the rented Toyota Camry out of the mud. The Torah safely arrived at my aunt’s house an hour later. As it turned out, I had in fact been travelling the right way and did not need to make a U-turn. And of course, AAA found a tow truck to rescue me 10 minutes after I was freed from the mud. The next morning, I had to figure out how to get the Torah home to Orange County.
Everyone I spoke with advised that I should bring the Torah on the plane. Although I wanted to oblige, I did not think it wise to carry a large Torah onto an indirect flight from Newark to Houston and then Houston to Orange County. Therefore, I decided to ship the Torah. I was conflicted about shipping the Torah and was hoping for another humorous sign from Hashem that this was the right thing to do…and I got several.
Upon entering the UPS store in Monroe Township, I was greeted by an affable man who exclaimed, “Is that a Torah? Are you going to bless me with the opportunity to ship a Torah?” It turned out the gentleman owned the store and was a Hindu. However, he assured me that he would pack the Torah with the utmost care and it would never touch the ground.
I explained to him that the Torah took years to find and I politely insisted on being present to supervise the packing. The owner then advised that his packing employee-a “Mr. Goldberg” would know exactly how to pack the Torah and would be in the store in an hour. I agreed to wait.
An hour later, Mr. Goldberg arrived. As it turned out: Mr. Goldberg appeared to be 6’5, had large earrings and a multitude of “interesting” tattoos. The owner asked Mr. Goldberg, “do you know what this is?” Mr. Goldberg responded, “of course! It is a Torah wrapped in a Tallis!” At that time, the owner’s wife arrived with their son who was wearing a UCLA sweatshirt. Their reaction to seeing a Torah in their store was incredible. They continued to remind me that they viewed the shipment of the Torah as a blessing. The owner and his wife also went to great lengths to explain to their son what a Torah is and why it is so precious.
Mr. Goldberg and his wife proceeded to pack the Torah. The entire packing process took over an hour. Mr. Goldberg took direction from the owner and his wife. Every decision regarding the placement of bubble wrap, foam, weight, box dimensions, styrofoam peanuts, the use of specially designed air bubble packs, and the method of closing the box were the subject of considerable deliberation.
The owner and his wife advised me that the Torah should be shipped overnight with guaranteed delivery the next morning. This may necessitate a second mortgage on my home, but I agreed. I left the store feeling good about this special shipment. True to their word, the Torah was in Orange County, California at 11:00 AM the next morning and the owner of the store called me to make sure the Torah arrived safely. I was thrilled to bring the Torah to Rabbi Fischer and Young Israel of Orange County for safekeeping on Sunday, December 9, 2018.
Within the next several weeks, G-D willing, Alex will begin studying from the Torah. We are truly blessed to live in such a wonderful and supportive community. We are particularly grateful to Rabbi Dov Fischer of Young Israel of Orange County, Rabbi Yitzchok Newman of the Hebrew Academy for their dedication and support.
MARC ROTHENBERG IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.