IN THE WAKE OF HURRICANE SANDY, A TORAH FROM KANSAS BRINGS JOY TO A CONGREGATION ON LONG ISLAND
By Stephen Steiner, OU Director of Public Relations
“Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.”
(Psalms, 119:105, as quoted by Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb)
“Tonight we are celebrating the power of Torah.”
(Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz)
“Every time we hold this Torah, we will know that it is the most special sefer Torah ever brought into this knesset.”
(Rabbi Paysach Krohn)
“Tonight is a bittersweet occasion.”
(Rabbi Yissachar Blinder)
From left: Jeff Leb, Rabbi Paysach Krohn, Rabbi Yissachar Blinder, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Some occasions are bitter and some are sweet. Then, there is that special category, called “bittersweet.” What occurred in the Long Island community of Woodmere one recent evening can be the textbook definition of the word. As it says in Psalm 30, “In the evening one lies down weeping, but with dawn -- a cry of joy.” In this case, the cry of joy came before Ma’ariv, but the idea is the same.
When Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters immersed the Five Towns of Nassau County, they rose four feet high in the sanctuary of Congregation Ahavas Yisroel and soaked the four Torahs in the synagogue’s aron kodesh (ark) making them posul -- not kosher. A synagogue without usable Torahs is like a school without teachers. Something had to be done.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in mid-America, in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, the new rabbi of Kehilath Israel Congregation, Shmuly Yanklowitz, meditated on the fact that for over a century his synagogue has built up a storehouse of 15 Torahs. Realizing that while his shul had many more Torahs than it needed while other synagogues were now bereft, he turned to the Orthodox Union to help him find a synagogue that needed a spiritual uplift by receiving a Torah -- permanently, and not as a loan.
The OU’s Jeff Leb, himself a newly hired member of the organization’s Institute for Public Affairs | Jewish Political Affairs staff, and a resident of the Five Towns, knew about the plight of Congregation Ahavas Yisroel. With Mr. Leb coordinating between both synagogues, a shidduch (a match) was arranged. Rabbi Yanklowitz and his wife, Shoshana, personally delivered the Torah from Kansas to its new congregation, flying it in from Kansas City to Newark, with a stop in St. Louis.
Neither of the two synagogues are Orthodox Union member congregations. To the OU it didn’t matter. “They are doing good works,” OU President Dr. Simcha Katz declared. “That’s all that mattered.”
The celebration at the shul took on the atmosphere of a Simchat Torah service with vigorous dancing with the new Torah and the two loaners the shul had previously received; since there had been a shidduch, the dancing resembled a wedding as well. The seforim (holy books) in the sanctuary were for the most part new; even the chairs were new. But through it all, there was no forgetting the bitterness that resulted in this sweet event.
“We’re getting this Torah because we lost ours,” said Rabbi Yissachar Blinder, the young spiritual leader of the synagogue. “Some of our families are not home yet. So that’s bitter. It hurts. But it is so sweet that a shul in Kansas City reaches out and shares something it has and that someone else needs and gives it to those who need it.”
OU Executive Vice President, Emeritus, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb continued the imagery of bittersweet. “We are coming together on this occasion, in which the OU had a little role in arranging the shidduch, in the face of a disaster, to recognize that a shul in Kansas City, so far away, reaches out to another.” But this was not a tale of two synagogues, he emphasized.
“This is about so much more than one sefer Torah. That Torah is a symbol; its value spreads exponentially. We are witnessing the beginning of something that will grow beyond anything we can imagine.”
Rabbi Weinreb quoted one verse from the very lengthy Psalm 119 with its 176 verses: “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” The Torah from Kansas, he explained, “is a little seed, a ner (candle) and it will be a light (ohr) to heal the whole world, to heal those of us who are lost, to make a path through the mayim azim (the mighty waters). The Torah has its own path (nesivah). The Torah will establish a nesivah which will become a light that will illuminate a special path for all of us.”
Rabbi Paysach Krohn, the noted speaker and mohel, found “a level of shechina (the Divine presence)” in the proceedings. “Every time we hold this Torah, we will know that it is the most special sefer Torah ever brought into this Knesset (synagogue).”
The journey of the Torah from Kansas to New York/Newark reflected Jewish life in America. “Walking in the airport in Kansas carrying the Torah wrapped in a talit (prayer shawl), people looked at us like we were aliens,” Rabbi Yanklowitz related. “In St. Louis, maybe one or two people knew what it was. In Newark, everyone was kissing the Torah and dancing.” Much to Rabbi and Shoshana Yanklowitz’ delight, Southwest Airlines provided a special compartment for the Torah, so that it could journey comfortably to its new home.
“When you hear a cry from Klal Yisroel and you ignore it, it leaves a void,” Rabbi Yanklowitz said. “If a Torah sits in the aron and others need it, you must act. When we saw how many sefer Torahs our shul had, I asked myself, ‘Who owns these Torahs?’At the end of the day, HaKodesh Baruch Hu owns everything. Nothing in a certain sense is truly our own. We can’t own a Torah in the deepest sense. We all own something that someone else needs.”
“Tonight,” he summed up, “we are celebrating the power of Torah.”
The act of placing the Torah in the ark was preceded by a Simchat Torah type-service with the reading by individual congregants and repetition by the congregation of the verses of the Ata HaRaisah, which is said prior to dancing with the Torahs. The energetic dancing that followed made a once-bitter situation into a sweet celebration reminiscent of the holiday known as The Rejoicing of the Torah.
Usually that Festival day comes out in September or October. Now, in the wake of a terrible hurricane and the destruction and despair it brought to millions, a community in the Five Towns of Long Island rejoiced in December over its new Torah. But the celebration wasn’t limited to Congregation Ahavas Yisroel in Woodmere, the recipient, or Kehilath Israel Congregation in Overland Park, Kansas, the donor. As the OU’s Rabbi Weinreb declared, “This is about so much more than one sefer Torah. That Torah is a symbol; its value spreads exponentially. We are witnessing the beginning of something that will grow beyond anything we can imagine.”
The recipient (Rabbi Blinder, left) and the donor (Rabbi Yanklowitz) celebrate with the sefer Torah.
The celebration continues -- from left, Rabbi Yanklowitz with the OU’s Jeff Leb.
Rabbi Weinreb points to the gift Torah.
The Torah, center, in the ark.
At the OU offices, OU President Dr. Simcha Katz congratulates Rabbi Yanklowitz.
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