Updated on Oct. 6.
GREENBELT — As many people celebrate the Jewish High Days throughout the country, a fascinating but very unusual Torah Scroll presently sits in the Mishkan Torah Synagogue in Greenbelt.
This scroll survived the Holocaust and is one of several scrolls of the Torah (the five books of Moses in the Jewish scriptures) at the Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue now led by Rabbi Saul Oresky. The scroll is originally from the Jewish community of Vlašim in what is today the Czech Republic.
Although most of the members of this community were murdered by the Nazis and their synagogue ransacked, the scroll, now at the Greenbelt synagogue, miraculously survived.
Many synagogues in former Czechoslovakia were destroyed during the Nazi occupation. During World War II, Torah scrolls belonging to these synagogues transferred, with great difficulty, to the Central Jewish Museum located in the Czech capital of Prague.
The curators of this museum meticulously labeled and cared for the scrolls until most of these Jews, too, were transported to the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, where most would die. The government of the post-war Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (ČSSR) thus assumed control of the scrolls until they were sent west during the 1960s.
This is fortunate; Oresky said that a scroll must be used to keep it in good condition, for a scroll not rolled out, read and studied will become brittle and start to crumble.
The Mishkan Torah scroll made its way to Greenbelt with much fanfare in 1967, a little more than 50 years ago.
The synagogue’s website quotes the News Review of June 8 of that year, which states: “An age-old ceremony was re-enacted in Greenbelt on June 4 when a newly acquired Torah or religious scroll was borne in solemn procession to the Jewish Community Center on Ridge Road and Westway and dedicated in a two-hour ceremony . . . The procession down Ridge Road included synagogue leaders, Sunday School children and many members of the congregation. The Torah, which contains the Five Books of Moses, was protected by a canopy.”
Oresky said that it takes a large amount of time for scribes to hand-copy a Torah Scroll. This particular scroll has another interesting feature as some of the letters used in the writing are highly stylized.
While the scroll is very beautiful, the use of the stylized script was not simply for aesthetic purposes. Rather, the scribe who lettered this scroll was a devotee of Judaism’s mystical tradition of the Kaballah.
As part of this tradition, writing letters in special ways conveys certain esoteric meanings. The copyist of this scroll, for example, shaped the Hebrew letter “Peh” in such a way as to contain another Hebrew letter, a second Peh, within it, representing worlds within worlds.
In the Vlašim Holocaust scroll of the Mishkan Torah Synagogue in Greenbelt, it is more than a Hebrew copy of the five books of Moses, but also a way of seeing the universe in miniature – worlds within worlds – which is unique to this scroll. In this way, a message nurtured by the Vlašim community lives on to inspire new generations.