A tale of one Torah: Sad saga in Russia 70 years ago at heart of new Palo Alto scroll

When Rochel Levin was a young girl, her father was arrested.

This was not uncommon. After all, she was a child in early 20th-century Russia, where Jews could not practice their faith freely.

Her father, Yitzchak Elchanan Shagalov, was a rabbi, a mohel and a Chabadnick. He refused to give up any of those identities just because the government said so.

“Jews without Torah,” he would say to his children, “are like fish without water.”

The authorities arrested him one day in the late 1930s. His wife, Mariache Garelic, always thought he would be released from prison and return to his family.

He never did.

For years, Rochel didn’t know what became of her father, but his love of Judaism remained within her spirit.

On March 30, Chabad of the Greater South Bay will celebrate his memory with the arrival of a new Torah scroll at their Palo Alto synagogue.

Chabad’s Rabbi Yosef Levin is the son of Rochel Levin-Liberow, who recently said from her home in London that she had always dreamt that “when I grew up, I would write a Torah.”

She turned 80 last year, around the same time that her mother, a legendary rebbetzin in the Lubavitch world, died at age 106 with 600 descendents.

Ten years earlier, Levin-Liberow had learned the truth about her father: He had been shot soon after being arrested for counter-revolutionary activity.

Having lost her mother and now knowing the truth about her father, Levin-Liberow decided it was time to have a Torah made in memory of her parents, especially for her father, who was killed because of his love of the Hebrew words within the Torah’s parchment.

So last year, Levin-Liberow contacted her son, the rabbi at Chabad of the Greater South Bay, and told him she wanted to commission a scribe who could write a Torah in memory of her parents.

Rabbi Levin, fortunately, knew a scribe in Israel.

“I explained that my mother decided to write this Torah in memory of her parents,” he said, “and as an expression of gratitude for God for making it through.”

One year after that conversation, Levin flew to Israel to pick up the scroll.

On Sunday, March 30, Chabad of the Greater South Bay will celebrate its new Torah. Levin-Liberow — who turns 81 the following day — will fly in from England for the event, as will about 20 other relatives from around the globe.

At 1:30 p.m., people will gather at 2477 Louis Road in Palo Alto. They will proceed down Louis Road, dancing and singing and carrying the new Torah scroll underneath a chuppah until they reach the Chabad Center down the street.

People will bring Chabad’s two existing Torahs outside to greet the new one, after which they’ll eat and shmooze.

“Just to be able to have a new Torah is a very special thing,” Yosef Levin said. “But this Torah in particular, it’s like out of the ashes. It’s a very special story.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.