Connor O’Neils and a Torah

By Rabbi Lisa Delson

What do Ann Arbor, Michigan and London have in common? Not much, other than a pub named Connor O’Neils and a Torah.

In December, I had the great opportunity to take a short vacation to London. In just five days, we saw the intersection between old and new and loved every minute of it. Among the fabulous sightseeing, Shabbat was coming closer and it came time to choose a place to spend Shabbat. Since most of our time was spent in Central London, we chose the Westminster Synagogue. Not only was it close to our home base, it also has a connection with the synagogue that I serve in Ann Arbor.

Last year our congregation celebrated the renewal of our Torah scrolls and with that we researched the origins of our four scrolls. The scroll that we use all the time is a Westminster Scroll, one that had been rescued from the Czech Republic in the 1960s. Our scroll is originally from the small town Volyne in Bohemia. No Jewish people inhabit the town anymore and the old synagogue is now being used as a disco. Our scroll made a stop with over 1500 other Torah scrolls between Prague and Ann Arbor, and that was at the Westminster Synagogue in London. A wealthy philanthropist and the original rabbi arranged for all of these scrolls to be moved to London for further cataloguing and distribution to congregations all over the world with one eventually ending up in Ann Arbor.

As we arrived for Shabbat we were greeted by a small group of congregants. Rabbi Salamon was extremely welcoming and interested in how we chose to join them for Shabbat. We told him about our Torah and we were immediately invited back for Shabbat morning services and a tour of the Westminster Museum and Trust. In the morning, we arrived and were led upstairs with another couple to the museum. We learned of a philanthropist in the congregation who was approached about rescuing the scrolls that had been preserved in a warehouse. Originally they only thought there were a few hundred scrolls. In reality, there were over 1500 scrolls catalogued and delivered to the Kent House (the building that houses the Westminster Synagogue today). As the scrolls arrived in 1964 they were laid out on the marble hallway and they had to answer the question of what to do with this wealth of Jewish life. Rabbi Harold Reinhart and the congregation decided that they did not want all of the scrolls at the synagogue, instead they wanted their stories to remain alive and decided to set up the Trust for other congregations around the world to be used. All but 160 of them have been distributed around the world for congregational use.

Shabbat morning continued with services and a Kiddush. Even now, thinking about this experience it is so powerful that Torah scroll led me to a place and made me feel so welcome. All of the stories and all of the connections came down to a scroll with the words of our tradition, written in the same Hebrew and read in unison in every synagogue around the world each Shabbat. Torah certainly is a tree of life that brings people together making us all of one people and one heritage.

Rabbi Lisa Delson serves as Assistant Rabbi and Program Director at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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