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A TORAH SCROLL RESTORED: RESCUED FROM SYRIA AND BROUGHT TO OUR COMMUNITY SYNAGOGUE

By: Kelly Jemal Massry



“Our Syrian masoret has been unbroken for over 3,000 years. Even if we’ve never set foot in Syria, we guide our children with the traditions of Halab. This Torah represents the transmission of the Syrian-Jewish tradition and it's a pleasure to accept it in Magen David Synagogue.” So began Shul President David Catton as he addressed the crowd assembled to celebrate a very special Hachnassat Sefer Torah that took place on September 18th in Brooklyn.

Although community members have been to countless Sefer Torah dedications and although there are indeed several Sefrei Torahs housed by Magen David Synagogue, the reception for this one was different. For this one had been rescued, under threat of great peril, from Damascus, Syria by Yousef Jajati, A’’H. Mr. Jajati was a businessman who traveled between America and Syria frequently, in spite of the danger. “Even once the Syrians emigrated to the community, he traveled back to Syria for business,” says Rabbi Haim Shaul, who leads the synagogue. “Every time he went there, he came back to America with a Sefer Torah hidden and smuggled in his luggage. He smuggled fifteen Sefrei Torahs that way.” That truly is a marvelous feat, especially considering what an egregious crime it was in the eyes of Syrian authorities to be caught “stealing” what they consider to be their property. Though the Torah is the cornerstone of our religion, they don’t believe Jews have any right to this part of “Syrian antiquity.” Had Mr. Jajati gotten caught, he most certainly would have been detained and jailed.

The most dramatic part is, while attempting to transport this Sefer Torah, he almost was! As luck would have it, The Secret Service searched his luggage, even as the rescued Sefer Torah lay on the bottom of it. But because of Hashem’s guiding Hand, his slight would not be discovered. In a stroke of foresight Mr. Jajati put a portrait of the Syrian President, Bashar Hafez al-Assad, on the very top of his luggage. The Syrian authorities were so impressed to see a portrait of their president being given such prominence by a Jew that they instantly closed the suitcase and told him he was good to go. The smuggled Sefer Torah was never detected. It made its way safely to America and through the doors of one of our community synagogues – if a little worse for wear. “Since it was so old, a lot of letters and the actual sewing was disintegrated, but we restored it,” said Rabbi Shaul.

Hence the reason for that morning’s celebration – the restoration of an ancient Sefer Torah, estimated to be 250-300 years old. Taken from a land where it was devalued and left to decompose, this relic was brought into the folds of a synagogue where it was rightfully honored. There was something truly holy in what went on – because of course, in beautifying this Sefer Torah, what was really glorified was the name of Hashem.

Much credit is due to the synagogue’s committee members, David Catton, Jeffrey Gindi, Eli Kassin, Leon Freue , Nissim Zleta, Lawrence Dayan, Harold Sutton, and Raymond Kassin, who saw the occasion for what it was – an opportunity to bring the community together, educate our young and support the synagogue in the process. “When Mr. Jajati donated the scroll to our synagogue, we decided we wanted to make a beautiful case for it, given that this was part of our history,” says Harold Sutton. “We also saw it as a good fundraising opportunity – a chance to allow the whole community to be involved.”

Indeed, the design by which so many people were either memorialized or honored on the casing of the Sefer Torah was nothing short of resplendent. First, one headline donor had a name plastered around the crown of the case. Then, what became known as twelve shevatim were crystalized on the main portion of the case. Finally, five Sifrei Torah spanned the next portion of the case. Parashiyot, perakim, and otiyot (letters) were also up for donation, so that everybody who wanted to contribute to the project could. During a ceremony held at the synagogue, each and every donor was called onto the stage and given a moment in the spotlight, as they were photographed with their families in front of the Sefer Torah. “It’s a community shul,” says Harold. “We just want to grow Torah and hesed and ma’asim tovim. The fact that the project was all-inclusive is indicative of what our shul is about – unity.”

Following through on that precept, the leaders of Magen David Synagogue planned a beautiful program around the milestone and encouraged the entire community to attend. The festivities began at the home of Sara and Eddie Esses, where an elaborate breakfast was held. Then, congregants danced with the Sefer Torah all the way to the synagogue. Children trailed in their wake, reveling in the excitement of the moment. Once at the synagogue, attendees were addressed by the synagogue’s president, David Catton, followed by its rabbis: Rabbi Haim Shaul, who leads the main minyan Rabbi Joey Haber, who leads the first minyan, and Rabbi Mordechai Sultan and Rabbi Ezra Cohen Saban who lead the father-son children’s minyan. Our community’s Chief Rabbi Shaul Kassin and the Principal of Magen David Yeshivah, Rabbi Alan Berkowitz were also in attendance.

The atmosphere in the room was one of solemnity but also one of gratitude – for being granted the privilege to share in such a historic moment. Rabbi Ezra Cohen Saban spoke about what an honor it is for him to lead the father-son minyan and plant the seeds from which a love of Torah andtefilah spring. Tearing up, the rabbi said, “It’s so special to see kids at a celebration of a Sefer Torah that was brought from its homeland of Syria and restored so we can read from it on Shabbat.” Rabbi Mordechai Sultan furthered his sentiment: “A Sefer Torah is holy because, as the words and letters are all intact, they are an expression of Gd's will. There are many generations of sages that have read from this Sefer Torah and we will continue.”

As Rabbi Joey Haber reminded the congregation, synagogues are akin to a mishkan me'at - a small tabernacle. Hashem's presence never separated from the mishkan because it was constructed enthusiastically, voluntarily and with the contribution of the whole community. That description is certainly reminiscent of what our community showed by coming together to commemorate this Sefer Torah. As one unit, we acknowledged the miracle of something so holy escaping such horrific confines. We sought to elevate the scroll and make it beautiful, increasing the merits and elevating the neshamot of those we love in the process. In mid-September, just before the holidays, there was no better way to find favor in the eyes of Hashem than to glorify His Torah as one.

“So many people had their hands involved in this scroll,” says Harold.

“It was a blessing to all of the congregants and an honor for the synagogue to accept the Torah and be involved in the project.” By hosting this beautiful event celebrating our rich history and the transmission of tradition, Magen David Synagogue epitomized the concept of hidur mitzvah. The committee members would like to thank Magen David Yeshivah, President Jeffrey Gindi and Jeffrey Sutton for the use of the facilities, as well as Eddie Esses for opening up his home for the morning portion of the program.  So, too, we at Community would like to thank the synagogue for orchestrating a one-of-a-kind event for the whole community to take part in.