SENIORS | After long journey, Torah ends up in S.F. shul

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

A Torah that traveled from Israel 25 years ago and was stored in the closet of a couple’s San Francisco home finally has taken up permanent residence where it can be enjoyed by the community, in a neighborhood synagogue.

The scroll, which Mella and Zalman Katznelson brought to San Francisco in 1988 when they immigrated from Israel, was packed along with memories of Jewish life in prewar Warsaw and the concentration camps where Mella survived the war.

Zalman, who was a physician in Haifa, had received the Torah decades ago as a gift from a grateful Hassidic family whose child he’d helped to save. He already had the scroll in his possession in 1974 when he met his wife, a Holocaust survivor who arrived in Israel after the war.

When the couple moved to San Francisco to join their two children, “We brought the Torah with us, and we were holding onto the Torah like a charm,” Mella Katznelson recalled in an interview. “We didn’t want to give it away, we didn’t know who to give it to.”

That uncertainty persisted for years after her husband’s death about 10 years ago, she said. But then in May Katznelson went to Congregation Adath Israel, a Modern Orthodox shul in the Sunset District, to hear the new rabbi lead services.

Standing with donated sefer Torah are (from left) Mella Katznelson, Rabbi Joel Landau and Mella’s daughter, Gail Zerbib.

“I went to listen to Rabbi [Joel] Landau, and his voice reminds me of my brother,” Katznelson recalled. “It gives me chills.” Her brother, David Schweitzer, was a cantor at a synagogue in Warsaw before the war.

Katznelson knew then that she wanted to donate the Torah to her longtime synagogue. Landau admitted he initially was skeptical when she approached him about the scroll.

“To be honest, when someone tells you that they’ve been keeping a Torah in a closet for a lot of years — the odds of that being something you really want are not high,” the rabbi said. “Typically the wear and tear of time causes the letters to chip off, and the quality of a Torah of that type usually is not that great.”

But he agreed to accept the donation at a board of directors meeting in June, and after the meeting he went to the ark to examine Adath Israel’s newest scroll.

“I said, ‘Hey, let’s go take a look at what we’ve got,’ “ Landau said. “And we open it up and it’s just gorgeous. It’s a beautiful, beautiful Torah.”

Once Landau realized the Torah was not old or decaying, he resolved to have it properly dedicated. That will happen in the coming weeks in a celebratory event where congregants dance with the Torah for several blocks, dancing all the way into the sanctuary and under a huppah.

Katznelson said after her husband died, she continued to hold on to the Torah as a talisman. Now she is confident the scroll is where it belongs. “It is a new beginning for the Torah,” she said, “and a new beginning for the rabbi.”

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.