Family connection brings Canadian Torah to Santa Cruz

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In the small Alberta city of Medicine Hat, the Jewish community has died down to less than a minyan.

The local synagogue, Sons of Israel Congregation, has long since been sold and most of its belongings disbursed or forgotten.

But more than 1,500 miles away, at Conservative Congregation Kol Tefillah in Santa Cruz, Medicine Hat's 60-year-old, ivory-crowned Torah has uplifted a whole other Jewish community.

The well-preserved Canadian scroll has filled a gap in the previously Torah-less congregation.

"Right from the beginning [six years ago], our congregation…had been raising money to buy one," said Kol Tefillah congregant and founding member Miriam Fishman. "We'd been using Torahs on loan from other congregations."

In addition to helping the Santa Cruz congregation, Fishman had a personal stake in giving new life to the scroll. Her grandparents, Esther and Max Conn, founded the Medicine Hat temple in 1936 and commissioned the Torah from a sofer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1937.

In fact, Sons of Israel Congregation is where Fishman prayed as a child and first laid her eyes on the Torah's ivory crowns. At the time, it was an active community of 40 families with a rabbi, synagogue, Hebrew school and organizations such as Hadassah and B'nai B'rith.

But during the '50s and '60s, assimilation and emigration obliterated the Jewish community in Medicine Hat, a southern city with a population of about 50,000.

Fishman's grandparents passed away in the early 1950s, her parents moved to Los Angeles in 1956 and Fishman moved to the Bay Area. She lived in San Francisco, Marin and then Israel for four years before moving to Santa Cruz 12 years ago. Only her uncle Manuel Raber and his family remain in Medicine Hat.

Not long after moving to Santa Cruz, Fishman and husband Noel, played a key role in forming a new congregation, Kol Tefillah. It emerged from a group of Conservative Jews, organized by Noel.

"Over the years it grew and developed into its own direction," said Fishman. "Eventually there wasn't enough space, so we became our own entity."

Currently held in a rented space, all services of the egalitarian 65-member congregation are participatory and led by members rather than a rabbi and cantor.

"All we were missing was our own Torah," said Fishman.

Fishman had been eyeing the Medicine Hat Torah for a while. When the synagogue closed, she began negotiating on behalf of her Santa Cruz congregation. Her uncle flew the Torah down and gave it to his eager niece in January.

In a Torah dedication ceremony, Fishman scanned the room filled with congregants as well as family. The Torah's spiritual journey between generations of Jews became apparent.

"That somebody from our family is there to witness [the Torah's use] almost every Shabbat," said Fishman, "really gives us great joy.

"Who would have thought that a Torah created in Winnipeg would go to a little town called Medicine Hat, Alberta, then find its way down to Santa Cruz, California."

With a sigh of relief, she added: "And now we don't have to worry about any of the other congregations calling to get [their Torahs] back."