Well-Traveled Torahs Journey to Austin: Families Tell Stories of Their Scrolls
BY TONYIA CONE
While all Torah scrolls contain the Five Books of Moses, Sifrei Torahs owned by \several families in Congregation Agudas Achim’s community are a story in and of themselves. Representatives from four families recently spoke at a brunch, telling of their Torah’s journey, each a unique reflection of Jewish history and perseverance.
Greenberg Family Torah
Around 1933, Elaine Handelman’s great-uncles and grandmother commissioned a Torah in honor of their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Little did those Greenberg family members know, the gift would enable Handelman to learn more about her family’s history and would become a meaningful part of family simchas for generations to come.
“I’m proud of the fact that my grandmother and her brothers had the idea of having a Torah written for their parents.
Of all the things they could have chosen, this is what they chose,” Handelman said, adding that it reflected the importance of Jewish education in her family.
After receiving the Torah, the Greenbergs carried the Torah under a chuppah from their home to their small Russian synagogue, located a block away from the local Polish synagogue, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Handelman still has a copy of the Torah presentation announcement, which was printed in English and Yiddish.
Handelman explained the Torah is larger and heavier than most because the letters are a little larger than those that make up most Torahs.
“People who've looked at a lot of Torahs, they're struck by how easy it is to read,” she said.
Plaques on the Torah also set it apart from others. One of the plaques, engraved with family members’ yahrzeits, allowed Handelman to learn some names that went back a few more generations than surviving family members knew about.
“My grandmother was named Hadassah. One of the yahrzeits was for another Hadassah. So that was probably her grandmother,” Handelman explained.
The other side lists the names of the Greenberg’s five sons and one daughter, along with her husband, Handelman’s grandfather.
When the Greenbergs’ synagogue combined with others in the 1950s, two of the brothers who had commissioned the Torah received the scroll and used it for weekly lent it to a havurah for their services, while Handelman’s generation remained unaware of the family’s Torah until the early 1980s.
Handelman and other family members from her generation wanted their children to use the Torah in their b’nai mitzvah ceremonies and, wanting to also allow their synagogue to use the Torah while ensuring it would stay in the family and not be given away, the group formed a nonprofit corporation to own and maintain the Torah.
Since then, the scroll has been unrolled at a Simchat Torah service in Portland, Oregon, and two generations of children have read from the Torah scroll when becoming bar and bat mitzvah.
“The kids have a sense of family history that I think is very valuable for them. They appreciate the fact that they’re using something that has been used by their forbearers,” Handelman said.
The Greenberg Torah was recently at Congregation Agudas Achim when Handelman’s granddaughter became bat mitzvah. It has since returned to Temple of Aaron Synagogue in St. Paul, Minnesota, where it is called “the traveling Torah” because of its use by Handelman’s family and also for High Holy Day services at a local college.
Mayer Family Torah
When Stan Mayer’s aunts and uncles sent his father from Ediger, Germany, where their ancestors had lived since the 1600s, to South Africa in 1936, their actions not only saved his life, they also saved a piece of history.
Once in South Africa, Julius Mayer saved enough money to prepare papers for another immigrant. Thinking things would not get too bad in Germany, his siblings stayed. But his brother met a woman in a neighboring village who was interested in going. Her father, Hermann Levi, agreed to send her if Julius promised to marry her once she arrived. The two married in February 1937, two weeks after she arrived.
Then came Kristallnacht on Nov. 9, 1938. Jewish men were rounded up and incarcerated so they could not witness or resist when attackers damaged and destroyed synagogues and Jewish homes, schools and businesses. The Mayer Family Shul in Ediger was not spared. The synagogue’s three Torahs were rolled down a hill and stomped on by Nazi jackboots.
The next morning, Levi checked on the Mayer family and found and gathered the remnants of the Torahs. He proceeded to build a hiding place in a piece of furniture and eventually took the Torahs to South Africa.
While two of the Torahs had sustained irreparable damage and had to be buried in Johannesburg, one was repaired in 1950, once Levi had saved enough to afford it. Levi donated the remaining Torah to a senior living facility where he lived, and it stayed there until Lothar Mayer, Levi’s grandson and Stan Mayer’s brother, brought it over to the United States in 2000.
In order to acquire the Torah from the facility, he had to identify it, which he did by describing a plate mounted on the end of the scroll. He also agreed that it would be kept in a synagogue and used, but will be owned by the family.
Lothar brought the Torah to New York, then Boca Raton, Florida. Now, Stan has it at Congregation Agudas Achim. It is scheduled to be introduced to the congregation March 24.
“Just by its appearance you can see it’s not a very modern one,” Stan explained, adding that the Torah is longer and heavier than recently made Torahs, the paragraphs are wider than what is currently written, and while it has been scrupulously checked to ensure it is kosher, it is obvious that it has sustained damage and been repaired.
“It’s a remarkable family heirloom. It’s real; you can see it and touch it. Normally one can’t because people die and all you have left is the cemetery. All I have left of my parents is the cemetery. But I do know that when I touch this Torah, that every member of the Mayer family touched it, read it, dealt with it, carried it,” Stan said.
“It’s a very emotional but very practical thing that we have now that our son and grandson and their families will have for many, many generations, if not forever, to come.
Papermaster Family Torah
Steve Papermaster explained that his great-grandfather’s story is the story of the Jews. This story of persevering, moving on, finding new homes and coexisting, all while maintaining Jewish culture, religion, focus on family and emphasis on education, In 1890, the Chief Rabbinate in Kovno, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, asked Papermaster’s great-grandfather, Rabbi Benjamin Papermaster, to move from Kovno to serve Jewish settlers in the western plains and Dakota territories, which would become South Dakota, North Dakota, parts of Western Minnesota, up to Winnipeg, Canada, and over to Sioux City, Iowa. as a mohel, a cantor and a shochet (ritual slaughterer), quickly complied with the request, packed up his Torah and a few other belongings, and set out for America. Not only did he see it as his duty to help this new community develop spiritually, it was an opportunity to escape czarist Russia and the possibility of being enlisted into the Russian army and sent to Siberia, and to make sure his sons would never face that fate.
Rabbi Papermaster started serving what would become the Western United States in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and spent the next 43 years establishing synagogues from Grand Forks to Fargo, North Dakota, and was a circuit riding rabbi in the area.
“He would take his Torahs, an ox, an oxcart, some horses at times, and just wander around where needed to help serve the Jewish families,” Steve said. “He was well known as the circuit riding rabbi of the West.”
Steve explained that the Torah Rabbi Papermaster brought must now be more than 150 years old. Rabbi Papermaster had the Torah while training for the rabbinate, and used it until he died in 1934. “That little Torah went through everything, from coming over from Lithuania to making it through blizzards and snowstorms out in the middle of nowhere, trying to serve a bar mitzvah or a brit or all the normal Jewish events that you would want to have a rabbi and a scroll present for,” Steve said.
Over the years, the Torah has remained in the Papermaster family. Steve’s grandfather, Aaron Papermaster, used it to establish a synagogue in Sun City, Arizona; when Steve was involved in the founding of Austin’s Dell Jewish Community Campus and CAA’s current location, the Torah was used for blessings and events; and generations of Papermasters have used the Torah for various life cycle simchas.
“If a Torah could talk, this one would have quite a bit to say,” Steve said, adding that the wandering rabbi in the movie “The Frisco Kid” was based partially on his great grandfather’s life.
While the Papermaster Torah is at Congregation Agudas Achim for now, it still belongs to the family and may move in the future.
“It’s a remarkable family treasure, and an honor. It’s meant a lot to have it for generations and to know it was the exact same Torah my father and uncle and grandfather used for their bar mitzvahs,” Steve said. “My great grandfather used it but it played a role in so many lives for decades in different countries, joys and sorrows.”
Steve added that in addition to being a family heirloom, the Torah is a great reminder of Jewish history, with rabbis, laypeople and Torahs that did whatever it took to survive thousands of years.
“It’s a good guiding light and a good reminder that it takes a pioneer to break new ground, and it takes a pioneer to have foresight and fortitude to make sure things are there for new generations,” he added.
Susswein Family Torah
When Jews started moving out of Manhattan’s Lower East Side for other boroughs and the suburbs in the 1940s, the Susswein family got lucky. The Linsk Shul – made up of immigrants from Linsk, Poland, who began moving to New York in the early 20th century – disbanded and raffled off three Torah scrolls.
The $50 cost of entering the raffle was considered a lot of money at the time, but Gary Susswein’s grandfather, Joe Susswein, a Linsk native, took a chance and won a Torah.
Gary was told by family members that the Torah, which had been brought from Linsk, was the most beloved and most wanted of the three that were raffled off. At a time when money was tight, the Torah was held so dear the family splurged for a cab ride home instead of taking it on the subway.
Since then, the Torah was at the day school Gary attended growing up, spent time in synagogues, and has been used by the extended family for simchas. Gary read from it when he became bar mitzvah, and he and his wife, Melanie, read from it at their aufruf the week before their wedding in 1998.
“It was a presence in our lives, brought from family member to family member for different simchas and family occasions,” Gary explained.
Gary lost touch with the Torah until his son, Mitchell, was ready to become bar mitzvah in 2014. So Gary and Mitchell – along with Rabbi Neil Blumofe, who was also visiting his son in New York – traveled to pick it up from family in Brooklyn, which served as an opportunity for Mitchell to meet some family members for the first time.
When they arrived in New York, the Sussweins picked the Torah up from a sofer shop, where they had a chance to watch them do the last bit of repair work.
In order to transport the Torah, which had its own airplane seat, Blumofe loaned the Sussweins a waterproof bag he had used for kayaking in Greenland. Getting the bag containing the Torah through airport security was challenging. At first the security agents were suspicious, but Gary explained that opening the bag up, and showing and explaining the Torah to them was a special moment. The Torah created another point of connection when a woman walked up and asked why they were looking at a Torah. After Mitchell became bar mitzvah, Gary took the Torah to Washington, D.C., for his nephew’s bar mitzvah.
In January 2017, Gary, Melanie and their daughter, Liora, brought the Torah back to Austin for Liora’s bat mitzvah. While getting the Torah through airport security was easier this time around, it was especially meaningful because Liora was to become the first girl to become bat mitzvah over the Torah.
“It served to be a great way for my kids to be connected for the first time to many aspects of our family history and for me to reconnect with my cousins as we’ve kind of figured out the logistics and and the transport and the repair of this over the last few years, and really just a wonderful piece of family history,” Gary said.
The Susswein Torah has been in Austin since Liora’s bat mitzvah, but will return to the East Coast in the near future. In the meantime, Gary explained, the community, including close family friends and b’nai mitzvah students Gary sponsored has had the opportunity to use the Torah.
“To me that’s the most important thing, that it is not just some relic that we keep in the corner and dust off, bring out when there’s a simchah. It’s central to the community and it’s an important part of the daily minyan or Shabbat or holiday services. It’s always there ready to be used. That’s what gives it the most meaning to me,” he said. ■