A former Westchester couple and their Torah scroll, each with roots in Russia, have new homes now. Edward and Renee Mendell, former residents of New Rochelle and South Salem, settled in London, Renee’s hometown, after Edward retired from the pharmaceuticals industry in 1986.
They recently donated their own sefer Torah, which they serendipitously acquired in Israel, to the Jewish Family Congregation in South Salem. The couple, who have sold their home in New Canaan, Conn., near the Westchester border, are co-founders of the Reform synagogue.
Their tiny Torah, about a foot tall, is housed in the congregation’s new mahogany ark, which was installed this summer as part of the building’s ongoing renovation program.
“The congregation is just thrilled” by the acquisition, said its rabbi, Carla Freedman.
And for the Mendells, their donation means they will remain spiritually connected to the synagogue from which they are physically separated.
Judaica collectors, they bought a set of Torah decorations — including a silver pointer and breastplate — from a favored Jerusalem silversmith in the early 1980s. The only thing missing was a Torah.
The Mendells returned to the United States, instructing the silversmith to inform them if he found a scroll to fit the ornaments. The call came a few years later.
A Russian immigrant who had been imprisoned in the Soviet Union smuggled the parchment of a Torah from his homeland wrapped in his prisoner’s uniform. He needed money and wanted to sell the scroll.
“It fit absolutely perfectly,” the silversmith informed the Mendells.“It was one of those magic moments when everything came together,” Edward said in a phone interview from London. He and his wife are descended from Russian Jews.
The Torah, still wrapped in the prison uniform, was shipped to the Mendells with the decorations and new wooden stakes.“I never met the prisoner,” Edward said.
The scroll’s history?
“I can’t tell you a thing,” he said. “It was owned by a Russian family.”
“It may be very old,” Rabbi Freedman said. “The lettering is exquisite. The lettering is tiny. It’s not easy to read.”
The scroll went on display in the couple’s home. “There’s a certain joy to owning a Torah,” Edward said.
About the same time, they helped found the Jewish Family Congregation. The synagogue did not have a Torah.
“I said, ‘We do. We will lend you ours to use,’ Edward recalls.
Wrapped in a new velvet cover, the Torah spent Friday nights at the synagogue, the rest of the week at the Mendells’ home, until the synagogue completed its ark.
A few years later, the couple obtained another sefer Torah. During a visit to the Westminster Synagogue in England, which preserved and distributed scores of Torah scrolls found in Nazi hands after World War II, the Mendells obtained a 161-year-old Torah from the Czechoslovakian town of Brno.
“We found the very last kosher Torah,” Edward said. The remaining scrolls in the Westminster Synagogue collection were damaged beyond repair, unfit to be read from during services.The Mendells sent the Czech Torah to their congregation and took home their Russian one.
After selling their home in New Canaan, the couple decided to leave their Russian scroll behind, at the synagogue. The two Torahs in the ark were recently joined by a third, commissioned for the congregation.
A formal dedication for the renovated building will take place in the fall, after the High Holy Days.
“Each scroll,” said Rabbi Freedman, “is a symbol of the longevity of the Jewish people. In our case, we now have Russian and Czech scrolls, representing communities where Judaism was outlawed. Yet both are currently housed in a synagogue, alive and well, and regularly used.”
Was it hard for the Mendells to part with their Russian scroll?
“No,” said Edward. “I felt it would make a lasting tie between my wife and me and the Jewish Family Congregation.”