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After 30 years, restored Holocaust-era Torah to be read in Morristown synagogue
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After 30 years, restored Holocaust-era Torah to be read in Morristown synagogue

Debbie Segal was a familiar face at Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael (MJCBY). She was an engaged member of the Jewish community, celebrated her bat mitzvah at Masada, and the rising senior at Randolph High School was to assume the presidency of the congregation’s USY chapter, the youth movement of Conservative Judaism. 

Her short life came to a tragic end in 1990 when the 17-year-old was killed in a car crash after her junior prom. Shortly after her death her parents, Leon and Patricia Segal, consulted Rabbi David Nesson, religious leader of MJCBY, about providing a fitting memorial for her.

Leon Segal’s parents, Rubin and Ida, were survivors from Belarus who later lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Brooklyn. Since Debbie was the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Nesson suggested purchasing a Torah scroll rescued from Nazi hands after World War II and donating it to the synagogue in Debbie’s memory. The Segals agreed. 

The Torah, newly restored for the first time since it fell into Nazi hands, will be the centerpiece of a special Shabbat service on June 23. 

“I am very pleased Rabbi Nesson decided to do this,” said Leon Segal. “My wife Patricia and I are very honored. But everything to do with Debbie is painful for us.” 

In 1990 Leon Segal traveled to England to obtain a Holocaust-era scroll from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. The trust took ownership of 1,564 Torah scrolls that survived the Holocaust and, as is custom, leased it to MJCBY on a 99-year basis. 

The scroll, dating back to the 1780s, was written in the village of Pisek-Strakonice, two villages in the southern Bohemian region of what is now the Czech Republic where approximately 200 Jews lived before the war.

“While the scroll has been part of our Yom HaShoah commemorations and Kristallnacht memorials, it has not been used in our services because of its condition and the need for restoration,” Nesson told NJJN. “That has now changed.” 

Leon, whose hobby is woodworking, built a cabinet to house the Torah in his synagogue’s rotunda, where it has remained for nearly 30 years since its trip from England and only removed on special occasions. Debbie’s name is inscribed on the breastplate that hangs over the Torah’s wooden shafts; another memorial plaque is mounted on the wall near the synagogue’s ark. 

Last month the Torah was carefully wrapped and shipped by U.S. mail to a service called Sofer On Site located in North Miami Beach, Fla. Since it was received on May 17, two of its Torah restoration experts, Rabbis Yochanan Salazar and Levy Selwyn, have been poring over its contents, checking flaws in its lettering and rips in its parchment. They’ve cleaned the surfaces and hand-checked its contents letter by letter. 

The biggest challenge was repairing letters that have cracked off the parchment, Salazar told NJJN. “The letters are broken, peeling, and cracking; holes in the parchment needing repair; and some pages need to be sewed where they have been torn,” he said. “We have to make sure that every one of the 304,805 letters in the scroll have been made valid. They had never received such treatment before.”

It is a more complicated task than most assignments Sofer On Site receives. While the average scroll has 42 lines in each column, the one from Czechoslovakia has 55 lines per column and is larger in size than most contemporary scrolls. Because the letters are smaller in size than on many other scrolls, “it feels like a 24-hour-a-day job, but actually we have been working 15- to 18-hour days,” Salazar joked.

He estimated that such an assignment “usually would take a few months” to complete. But because MJCBY wanted the scroll to be made kosher and used in a ceremony on June 23, Salazar promised congregants he would finish it in one month. He said it will be returned to Morristown by overnight mail on June 20. 

The Torah reading is expected to begin around 10 a.m. on June 23. Nesson will read the first aliyah of Chukat from the Book of Numbers, this week’s Torah portion. It deals with laws promulgated during the wandering of the Jews from Egypt after their exodus. 

Nesson will be followed by six congregational volunteers, including a teenager who recently became a bar mitzvah. “Our goal is to invite Holocaust survivors, their children, and their children to come to the bima as well,” he said. “It will be a powerful and special moment.” 

All of this pleases Leon and Patricia Segal, who plan to drive to Morristown from their new home in Monroe Township, where they moved a year and a half ago. “I think the idea of restoring this Torah is such a powerful message, especially today, when we unfortunately see a renewed anti-Semitism. This is a powerful statement about the strength of the Jewish people,” Leon Segal told NJJN.

Still, when asked to give his thoughts on the occasion, he replied, “I wish my daughter were still alive and there was no ceremony.”

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