From New Orleans to New Jersey: A Torah Is Welcomed

by Rivka Chaya Berman - MONROE, NJ

November 15, 2005

As Eric Sion prepared to read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah, he could not have imagined that he would be reading from the last surviving scroll of a historic synagogue devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Before Katrina was even a freakish up swell of moisture somewhere out in the Atlantic, when mention of New Orleans conjured up Mardi Gras madness instead of shocking Superdome heartbreak, an act of kindness and Jewish unity occurred that brought a lone Torah scroll’s survival, a symbol of hope where all else has been lost.

It all began a year and a half ago, when Rabbi Eliezer and Chanie Zaklikovsky began seeking a Torah scroll for their Chabad house in Monroe Township, New Jersey. Leonard and Freida Posnock, who had been involved with Chabad of Monroe Township for several years, visited Frieda’s hometown of New Orleans. They noticed that Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie had a wealth of Torahs in their ark. The 102-year-old synagogue, whose walls of dedication plaques read like a Who’s Who of New Orleans’s business, political and social leaders, had followed the Jewish community out of the grittier inner city of New Orleans into Metairie. But lately the synagogue’s active membership had been dwindling. Frieda approached her sister Jackie Gothard, President of Congregation Beth Israel, to negotiate purchase of a spare scroll.

“At the time, we thought it would be a nice gesture of continuity to keep a Torah in use,” said Rabbi Zaklikovsky. “We had spoken of the possibility of bringing more of the synagogue’s unused items here to breathe new life into them, but that was before Katrina.”

Eric read the first portion in the book of Genesis, where the Creator forms magnificence from chaos, and as he read the circle began anew. The scroll that may have been the very Torah his great-grandfather read from on his bar mitzvah had a new life as a beloved first Torah in a growing community.

Eric’s grandfather, Leonard Posnock, was on hand for the celebration. “It was a very emotional moment for our family,” said Posnock. “We have a bit of New Orleans here, and it is from the synagogue where my wife’s family belonged their whole lives. We have gone m’dor l’dor, from generation to generation. That is the breath of the Jewish people, keeping our faith alive.”

The Posnocks along with the Chabad of Monroe Township community members were moved by the Torah’s dramatic history. As Katrina whipped herself into the history books with category 5 winds, the scroll purchased by Chabad of Monroe was safe. Thousands of miles away, in Israel, the parchment was being checked and refreshed in a scribe’s workshop.

Then the Seventeenth Street levee broke. Ten feet of water drowned Congregation Beth Israel’s pews, the Torah reading table, and surged into the ark. A volunteer with Zaka, an Israel-based rescue organization, waded into the flood to rescue the Torahs. Poignant pictures of the rescue were forwarded from email to email and beamed to cable stations. But the Torah’s letters had bled too hard from the force of the water. All – each of the seven Torah scrolls, some over 100 years old – had to be buried.

At the ceremonial Torah welcoming hosted by Chabad of Monroe Township, the last surviving Torah from New Orleans wore a gown of white velvet. As is traditional, the Torah is ushered into a synagogue under a wedding canopy. Chaya Shulsinger could not bear to see a Torah without its traditional silver regalia. “A Torah without a crown is like a bride without jewelry,” said Shulsinger. She and her husband Igal sponsored the Torah’s crown, whose polished silver glinted in the sunlight on the day of the festive Torah parade. “It was a beautiful celebration,” she said. “With a Torah that had been in Freida’s family all the years they had lived in New Orleans, it was all the more meaningful.”

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