Bay Area group takes Torah to isolated Russian Jews

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Four months after a fire seriously damaged a Jewish center in an isolated Russian town, members of Borovichi's Jewish community crammed into that same building to see their first-ever Torah unfurling.

Leading that triumphant Torah dedication ceremony in the building's small synagogue earlier this month was a seven-person Bay Area delegation.

"I saw a light in their eyes and a kind of joy that made me feel as though this is a community being born," said Pnina Levermore, executive director of the Bay Area Council of Jewish Rescue and Renewal in San Francisco.

"Not only that, but we were a part of it. It was a remarkable feeling."

The April fire, believed by local Jews to be arson, came just days after authorities in the Russian city granted a public space to the city's Jews. The fire destroyed the roof of the building intended to house a synagogue and Jewish center.

Just months later, Levermore reported, "You couldn't tell there had been a fire. They did such an incredible job. It felt like a synagogue."

Adding to that feeling was the new Torah scroll and the presence of two Bay Area rabbis — Steven Kaplan and Morris Hershman — who taught the community about their new sacred scroll, led prayers and songs and blew the shofar.

Denied their religious freedom during decades of communism, most of Borovichi's 500 Jews have never practiced their religion.

"I don't know if I can separate my emotions from their emotions," said Kaplan, who leads Temple Beth Torah in Fremont. "It was very moving, touching and uplifting."

Kaplan presented a kiddush cup purchased by a senior group at the Fremont congregation.

Beth Torah had adopted Borovichi as a partner city through the BACJRR's Yad L'Yad program, sending funds to help the Jewish community and writing letters to protest a spate of anti-Semitism there last year.

The anti-Semitic attacks, from the fast-growing Russian National Unity Party, spurred a major BACJRR campaign to expose the situation. Hundreds of letters and e-mails of concern poured into Borovichi authorities from around the world.

The campaign produced dramatic results. The local legislature passed four laws prohibiting the ultra-nationalist RNU from recruiting in schools, wearing swastikas, posting anti-Semitic posters and holding demonstrations.

And the city's authorities granted the town's Jews a public space in the center of town, rent-free for 50 years. But then came the fire, which seemed to many to be a clear case of anti-Semitic backlash.

The Bay Area delegation, in part, came to celebrate the rebirth of the space. Their first night in Borovichi, they were feted at the town's fanciest restaurant by a crowd that included Jews, non-Jews and town officials.

"The whole town knew we were coming," Levermore said. "It was absolutely a big deal."

The Torah that traveled with the Bay Area group came from a Miami congregation, which had a scroll it wanted to donate to a worthy cause. Levermore heard about that scroll and thought it was a perfect opportunity for Borovichi, which longed for a Torah of its own.

At the dedication ceremony, town residents stood shoulder to shoulder around the inside perimeter of their humble synagogue so the Torah could be unrolled.

Hershman, retired regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, explained that the parchment could be touched at the top and bottom, but not on the lettering, which could be damaged by the oil in fingers. Dozens of hands took hold of the sacred scroll.

"It was very exciting because of the people who surrounded me," said Lillian Forman, former BACJRR president. "There was a lot of warmth throughout the entire room. It was wonderful."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.