Attendees at the 50th anniversary event in London. (photo from David Schwartz)
Behind the treelike doors of Temple Sholom’s aron kodesh are six beautiful Torahs, each with its own history. The Torah in the centre of the top row is known as our Czech Torah. It is one of 1,564 scrolls rescued from Prague at the end of the Second World War and brought to London, England, in 1964 by a group of dedicated volunteers: the Czech Memorial Scroll Trust (MST). We honor our Czech Torah each year by dedicating our afternoon Yom Kippur service to it.
The Torah, on loan to the congregation from the MST, is officially known as Czech Memorial Scroll #1036, and it was brought to Vancouver in 1971 by Temple Sholom trustee David Huberman, who traveled to London on our behalf to chaperone the Torah to its new home.
Earlier this month, my wife Debby and I escorted Scroll #1036 back to London for something of a “family reunion,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Torahs’ arrival in London. In the years since 1964, most of the scrolls brought to London have found new homes around the world and, this month, for the first time, 53 of them were reunited.
It was a great pleasure to see the Torahs arriving, and a little humorous to see how different congregations found creative ways to safely transport these precious artifacts. One scroll from an American congregation arrived in a golf bag, while another was given free shipping and chaperone service from FedEx. Many congregations who were unable to attend in person sent large posters of their Torahs to include in the commemorative service.
Ours was the only one to come from Canada, and it was shipped in a hard-shell, foam-filled Torah case loaned to us by the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia. Air Canada was also very supportive of our journey, supplying us with two complimentary seats for the large case. We were seated right behind it so we could keep an eye on it the whole way. Coincidentally, Air Canada’s Vancouver crew handled other unique cargo the same day – the Stanley Cup.
The tragedy of these extraordinary scrolls is that they are often the only surviving relics of some 153 Czech Jewish communities whose members were deported and exterminated in the Nazi death camps during the Second World War. Our Torah is one of 18 from the small town of Sedlcany, located 60 kilometres south of Prague in Central Bohemia. It was written in 1890.
In the years after the war, a rumor spread that the Nazis had planned to create a “museum to an extinct race.” According to the MST, this has little foundation in fact. They do know that a pious group of Jews from Prague’s Jewish community worked to bring artifacts and Jewish possessions of all kinds from Bohemia and Moravia to what had become the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. There, they preserved what little remained of Jewish communities, previously at the mercy of plunderers. The MST believes that this Jewish initiative was directly responsible for the subsequent conservation of the scrolls. All the curators at the museum were eventually taken to Terezin and Auschwitz. Only two of the curators survived, and the Czech Jewish community after the war was too depleted to be able to care for them. The pious group’s legacy was the catalogue of the vast collection in the museum, eventually to become the Jewish Museum of Prague, and the saved 1,564 scrolls.
For 20 years following the war, the scrolls remained in a disused synagogue in a Prague suburb until the communist government, in need of hard currency, decided they should be sold. A British art dealer learned of this opportunity in 1963 and worked with the rabbi of Westminster Synagogue, a Hebrew scholar and a generous donor, to bring the 1,564 scrolls to London. Many were in pitiful condition – torn or damaged by fire and water – a grim testimony to the fate of the people who had once prayed with them.
The Memorial Scroll Trust has given these precious scrolls a second life by restoring them and loaning them to more than 1,400 communities around the world, thereby spreading their message to new generations in diverse communities and institutions such as Temple Sholom.
The Feb. 9 Czech Memorial Scrolls Commemorative Service at Westminster Synagogue was sublime. It began with a procession of the 53 scrolls that had been brought for the occasion, mostly from around the United Kingdom and the United States. To the strains of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony, each Torah was lovingly brought to the bimah, held by a member of its current community and its original hometown announced.
Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, centre left, with the delegation in front of the Knesset Menorah. (photo from CIJA-PR)Last April, when Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts announced she planned to turn one square mile in her city centre into a leading centre for medical technology, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region, immediately started paying this leader attention.
“When we heard of her intention to create an Innovation Boulevard, we knew the mayor needed to tap into Israel’s spirit of ingenuity,” said Darren Mackoff, CIJA-PR director. Mackoff and his team helped organize Watts’ six-day trade mission to the Holy Land in December, a delegation that included individuals from the health-technology business sector and representatives from Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and Kwantlen Polytechnic University – all of them key stakeholders in Surrey’s Innovation Boulevard.
In January, just a month after her return home, Watts signed a deal with Israel Brain Technologies, the first international deal of its kind secured since she and Innovation Boulevard co-chair, SFU neuroscientist and professor Ryan D’Arcy, announced the boulevard last year. Israel Brain Technologies, created by Israeli president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, is a neuro-technology consortium. It unites Israel’s academics, neuroscientists and industry leaders under a single umbrella of brain research and innovation.
The IBT deal will give the City of Surrey access to some of Israel’s top thinkers and the development of innovative, life-saving medical advances, said Mackoff, but it will also give IBT the opportunity to engage in exchanges and partner on specific projects with their counterparts in Western Canada. “The outcomes of these joint ventures will undoubtedly serve the people of both Israel and B.C. well in the future,” he noted. In a press release, Watts said, “Israel and Surrey have common health-care challenges and share the goal of setting a new standard in medical care and innovation. By combining our remarkable pool of talents and expertise, I know that Surrey and Israel will together create groundbreaking and life-changing advancements in health care.”
Watts’ CIJA-led educational mission included 25 business meetings at Israeli universities, hospitals and centres of innovation, political briefings, tours of Israel’s most significant historic and contemporary sites, as well as a visit to Israel’s northern border with Syria, on the Golan Heights.
“In addition to gaining a strong understanding and appreciation for Israel and the challenges the Jewish state faces in the region, it was extremely important that Mayor Watts left Israel with tangible collaborative partnerships between the city, trip delegates and their counterparts in Israel,” Mackoff said.
The blizzard-like conditions in Jerusalem on the mayor’s day of arrival meant CIJA had to do some on-the-ground improvising and move the team to Tel Aviv at the last minute.
Mackoff traveled alongside the mayor and said she was tremendously moved and inspired by this visit. “The Jewish and pro-Israel community in Western Canada has a firm friend in Mayor Watts,” he reflected. “She saw firsthand what Israel is truly about – a country that has overcome tremendous obstacles to create a thriving democracy which is leading the world in scientific advancements.”
Due to personal circumstances, the mayor was unavailable for comment.
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.
MK Pnina Tamano-Shata speaks to the audience at a convention held Jan. 1 concerning the fate of approximately 7,000 individuals in Ethiopia who are still waiting to be granted aliyah. (photo by Uri Perednik)
Last August, 450 new olim made the five-hour flight from northwest Ethiopia to their new home: Israel. According to those on hand to meet the new immigrants when they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, the passenger roster for that hot August day constituted the last remaining members of Ethiopia’s ancient Jewish community, known as the Falashmura, or Beta Israel.
“The last group of the Jewish community of Ethiopia just stepped down from their plane,” said Eliezer Zandberg, as Israel’s newest immigrants joined weeping and elated relatives in the airport. Zandberg is the chairman of Keren Hayesod, or United Israel Appeal, which helped coordinate the aliyah of the Beta Israel. “This is the excitement, this is the whole story – returning to their homeland.”
While news agencies reporting on this aliyah assumed that the final leg of Operation Dove’s Wings last August carried Ethiopia’s last Jews, many aid groups remain adamant that the aliyah is not yet over. In the past five months, relief agencies, family members, advocates and rabbis from Israel and abroad have been calling on the Israeli government to return to Ethiopia and process the family members that have been left behind in two Jewish communities, Addis Ababa and Gondar. Both communities are located in northwest Ethiopia, and have been central receiving points for Ethiopian Jews hoping to make aliyah. According to several aid organizations that have recently been in Gondar, there are as many as 7,000 Jewish descendants that should have qualified for aliyah – many of whom are direct relatives of newly accepted olim in Israel.
On Jan. 1, 2014, while the rest of the world celebrated a new year, advocates for those remaining 7,000 got down to work. In Israel, members of the advocacy group Struggle for the Aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry (SAEJ) hosted a convention on the grounds of Ben-Gurion University in Be’ersheva. Some 200 members of Israel’s Beta Israel community, new immigrants and three members of the Knesset were there to discuss what has been termed a continuing humanitarian issue. A second convention was held a two days later in Tel Aviv, hosted by the relief organization South Wing to Zion, which was founded by Ethiopian human rights activist, Dr. Avraham Negusie. The mandate of both conventions was to highlight the needs of Ethiopian Jewish family members still waiting for aliyah approval.
According to Uri Perednik, who helped found SAEJ and helped organize the convention in Be’ersheva, MKs Pnina Tamano-Shata, Hilik (Yehiel) Bar and Shimon Solomon were briefed on the status of the remaining applicants in Ethiopia, and the events that have occurred since the August airlift. After members of the Ethiopian community in Israel staged a protest in front of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office on Aug. 28, the Knesset absorption committee agreed to look into reopening the aliyah for outstanding family members, Perednik said in an interview from his home in Israel. However, he added, there has been little resolved by the government, and members of Israel’s Beta Israel community are becoming increasingly frustrated.
Since the convention, all three MKs have called for the aliyah to be reopened, according to a statement released by SAEJ. Tamano-Shata has offered to forward a petition to the minister of interior, Gideon Sa’ar, while Bar and Solomon have vowed to pressure the government to admit the remaining family members.
“There is no doubt in the [Ethiopian Jewry’s] Judaism because their family is here in Israel,” said Bar. He expects an appeals committee will review the outstanding cases. “The committee will begin to check these cases, examine the paperwork, understand that [there] was a serious mistake here and finish this terrible saga.”
Perednik noted that records maintained by the Jewish community in Addis Ababa indicate that 415 community members have already died waiting for their aliyah papers to be approved. Since the Jewish community in Gondar is much larger than in Addis Ababa, he said, “the number of deceased [in Gondar] may be twice as big.”
“The Israeli government encouraged these families to leave their homes and villages in order to realize their dream of returning to the Holy Land,” wrote Perednik in his Times of Israel blog, referring to Israel’s initial efforts to rescue persecuted Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s. The Beta Israel of today “are members of active Jewish communities whose religious lives revolve around their synagogues, who maintain laws of family purity with their mikvahs, and who attend classes on Judaism, and are nonetheless alienated by the establishment.”
Some aid groups charge that the poverty and unemployment in Ethiopian Jewish communities are directly related to their nebulous immigrant status. “The situation is worse than most [for] most Ethiopians” in their cities, Perednik explained. He said the government’s encouragement for them to seek aliyah meant that they were forced to sell their property and quit their jobs in order to come to the cities in which they now live.
“About 80 percent of the people in these communities have family in Israel. I know many cases here in which there could be almost an entire family [living] in Israel – the mother, the father, brothers and sisters, and one sister or one brother is left behind. Or you could have all the children here [in Israel] and the parents left behind. Many of these people in Israel, brothers and sisters, are in the army and grew up in Israel, feel Israeli and Jewish.”
At the heart of the issue concerning the families’ immigrant status is the question of their Jewish ethnicity. In 2003, the government mandated that all future Beta Israel immigrants must be able to show matrilineal ancestry. Prior to that date, Beta Israel immigrants who could show either matrilineal or patrilineal heritage were eligible.
The problem with the change in the ruling, said Hila Bram, co-founder of the London-based relief organization Meketa, is that traditional Ethiopian Jewish communities still follow the patrilineal Jewish ancestry, and have done so for thousands of years. Patrilineal heritage is believed to have been common in early biblical times, and many of the cultural traditions of ancient Ethiopian Judaism are distinct from those followed by Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish communities.
“The Jewish state has turned around and said we take you by the religion of your mother, whereas Western Judaism until the second century and Judaism in Ethiopia until now, take you [as Jewish] by your father,” Bram explained in an interview from her residence in England. “And that has really added to the confusion and to the problematic nature of all of this for Ethiopian Jews. By their society, you are the religion of your father, who is the head of the household.”
According to both Perednik and Bram, the cessation of Jewish Agency services on Aug. 28 meant the closure of all religious and educational services in Gondar, as well. Perednik said the remaining community members were devastated by the closure of the synagogue, given that it is used daily. Since the closure, the Ethiopian Jewish organizations Hatikvah and South Wing to Zion have stepped forward to raise the rental costs to keep the synagogue open. The Torah, which had been removed by the Jewish Agency, was later returned with Negusie’s assistance. The Jewish school has not been reopened. Students have been transferred to public schools, where there is no provision for Jewish education.
Since the Jan. 1 convention, effort has been stepped up by Beta Israel community members to convince the Israeli government to review the situation in Ethiopia. In December, an appeals committee visited Gondar to assess the situation, but the trip was delayed by snowfall in Israel, and Bram said that the team had only one day to assess the situation. The report is not due to be released for another month or two.
SAEJ released a statement last week calling on the government to increase the immediate powers of the appeals committee and to accept those applicants who meet the following criteria: “They are descendants of Ethiopian Jews from [either] their mother or their father; they left their villages and have been waiting for years in Addis Ababa and Gondar; [they were] listed earlier with the Ministry of Interior; they live as Jews; and they have close relations in Israel: parents, children, brothers, sisters.”
The committee also made a formal appeal that the government change the terminology it uses concerning community members in Ethiopia. “[The] committee is protesting the government[’s] use of the derogatory name Falashmura.” The ancient name was ascribed to the community by non-Jews hundreds of years ago, and implies in polite context one who is a “stranger.” The community has elected the name Beta Israel, meaning “Children of Israel,” for members of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel who were granted aliyah earlier, and Zara Israel (Descendants of Israel) for those who are descendants of the original community and are awaiting aliyah.