Torah with European roots finds new home in Israel

Torah with European roots finds new home in Israel

Community members dancing at the dedication of their synagogue’s first Torah scroll.
Community members dancing at the dedication of their synagogue’s first Torah scroll.

A Torah scroll that made its way to America from the shtetls of Eastern Europe has found a new home with a congregation in Israel.

Shaarey Tziyon, a new Ethiopian synagogue in Rehovot, celebrated a hachnasat sefer Torah welcoming ceremony with music, dancing, and speeches on Nov. 28. Dr. Saul and Marlene Landa of East Brunswick donated the 120-year-old scroll.

“It was a very emotional experience for us,” said Saul Landa, who attended the dedication, along with Marlene and his brother and sister-in-law, Seth and Rikki Landa of Teaneck. “This is a Torah that has now helped launch three Jewish communities.”

Landa’s grandfather, a rabbi from what was then the Belarus section of Poland, brought the scroll with him when he immigrated to the United States. His followers came with him to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where, said Landa, “my zayde started a small synagogue in the basement of his home.” Landa’s great-grandfather had the scroll inscribed for the Olyka sect of Hasidism. 

After his grandfather’s death in the 1960s, Landa’s father, a Modern Orthodox rabbi, took possession. When he died in 1979, Landa brought the scroll to Young Israel of East Brunswick, which he had cofounded four years earlier and which was in need of a Torah scroll. It remained there until this year; YIEB has seven other scrolls.

Landa became aware of the Rehovot synagogue, which opened in May, when an Ethiopian Knesset member, Dr. Avraham Neguise, came to speak at YIEB during a trip sponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. YIEB’s former religious leader, Rabbi Jay Weinstein — who at the time was president of the federation’s rabbinical association — arranged the trip. 

Weinstein brought the scroll with him to Israel when he made aliya in July, but the dedication was put off until the NJ couples could attend the ceremony. 

Landa, a dentist with offices in Howell, is descended from a line of rabbis going back 500 years. Both he and Seth, an anesthesiologist, received smicha, rabbinic ordination, to continue the family tradition.

Shaarey Tziyon is a thriving congregation with many children, said Weinstein in a phone interview from Israel. He now works in Neguise’s office and for Teach First Israel, which places recent college graduates as teachers in underprivileged schools.

Prior to Landa’s gift, the community had borrowed Torah scrolls. “This past Simchat Torah was very special to them because it was the first time they have ever had their own Torah,” said Weinstein, who said he enjoys advocating for the Ethiopian community.

Rehovot Mayor Rahamim Malul and town council members attended the festivities, which included music blaring from trucks and dancing around the new scroll as it was paraded under a huppa. Neguise couldn’t make the ceremony, which drew more than 200 people, as the Knesset was in session, though Landa was able to meet with him the next day in his Knesset office in Jerusalem. 

Shaarey Tziyon Rabbi Ayanow Alana, in a statement to NJJN, said, “The community was incredibly touched that the Landas not only dedicated their Torah but came all the way to Israel to participate in the event. The community really felt incredible that Jews around the world care about them. It was a long process to be able to build this shul, and now having the Torah makes it complete.”

Landa said prior to sending it to Israel, he took the scroll to a scribe in Brooklyn to have the atzei chaim, or rollers, removed. The scroll was enclosed in an ornamental silver case, in the Sephardi tradition, engraved with the names of Landa’s parents and grandparents. Although Ethiopian Jews are not descended from Spain or Portugal, they follow Sephardi practices.

Landa said when he and his family members got within a half-mile of the synagogue, they could hear the music.

“As we got closer, we heard the trilling that women make in the Middle East, and my brother said, ‘There must be a wedding.’ As we got closer, we realized it was for us. The trucks were blasting music. Soldiers and policemen were closing off multiple streets. It was an amazing scene.”

Some of the speeches delivered were in Amharic, the Ethiopians’ native language, and Landa addressed the congregation in Hebrew. Other community rabbis and residents attended, too, bringing their own Torah scrolls to “welcome” the new one.

Also attending were Landa’s sister, Janet Landa of Jerusalem, and her family, and his other brother, Philip of Beit Shemesh, and his family.

“You know I didn’t know how much that Torah really meant to that congregation until that day,” Saul Landa said. “They danced and sang for hours and hours, throwing confetti and candy. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had. I felt like an astronaut who had just come back from the moon and was getting a parade down Broadway. ”

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