The tiny coastal town of Calais, Maine (pop. 3,963), just across the St. Croix River from New Brunswick and abutting the rugged Atlantic Provinces of Canada, has little in common, geographically or spiritually, with Kibbutz Sde Elyahu in Israel’s Beit Shean Valley, hard by the Jordan River about 90 miles north of Jerusalem. Little, that is, save for a gun and camping equipment salesman named Harold Silverman.
And a Torah.
The story of how the last Torah of Calais, sealed in a New Brunswick bank since 1964, made its way to the Israeli kibbutz is the story of one man’s spiritual journey back to his Jewish roots, a little-known Jewish organization that finds a home for Judaica no longer used in the diaspora — and a stroke of luck. Or providence, as Silverman suggests.
“I was part of a plan I didn’t realize,” the former state legislator says, a “plan” that come this week will see the Calais Torah formally presented to the regional high school of the kibbutz that transformed Silverman’s life and helped him find his heritage 30 years ago.
The “plan” began to unfold in 1958 when Silverman, then plying his trade in Calais, where “hunting, fishing and camping was my life,” flew to Israel “to see what it was all about.”
Silverman, 65, grew up with little Jewish knowledge. He said his grandfather immigrated to Portland, Maine, from Vilna and raised a family there. But Silverman said his father moved to Calais because “he wanted more of the country-side lifestyle. I was raised there from the age of 2. I had no commitment to Judaism. There was no observance at home. The religious school was seen as medieval and a conflict between the religious world and the new America.”
Still, Israel beckoned. “But I didn’t find religion there,” Silverman says. He didn’t give up, returning three or four times over the next 10 years, each time failing to find a religious connection.
In 1968, he gave it his last shot. “I called the Jewish Agency and told its public relations man in Jerusalem that I was looking for my religious roots and that unless I found them, I would not come back. He said he would see if he could find something for me in Israel that was like Maine and would call me back.”
The next morning, a driver picked him up and took him to Kibbutz Sde Elyahu, a religious kibbutz near the storied Jordan. The driver then left him, saying he would be back in the morning.
“I had nothing with me,” he said. “And no one there spoke English, they lived by the Torah and worked the land — turning it back to its biblical heritage.”
Silverman, who at the time was single and in his 30s, said he was escorted to the common dining room after the members of the kibbutz had come in from working in the fields and recited afternoon prayers.
“I had never seen anything like it before,” he said. “I was from Maine and very provincial. That night, I was taken to a home with three young children and watched how the family lived and conducted themselves.”
That night he was escorted to a cabin with no glass in the window frames and holes in the floor.
“But I slept good and woke up to the sound of the trumpet. I walked out the door and saw a group of Israeli soldiers raising the flag of Israel. Wow! I never saw that as a tourist,” Silverman said.
That morning, he joined members of the kibbutz weeding carrots in the rain — and ruining his new pair of shoes.
“At the end of the day, the woman I worked in the fields with asked if I would come over and have tea with her family. And they adopted me. I stayed there for a week and got into their routine,” he said. “I then got a call from the man at the Jewish Agency asking what happened to me. I told him that it wasn’t necessary to send a car for me. I stayed there nine days, and every year since then I have come back to the same kibbutz and that same lifestyle.
“That started me in my search for my Jewish roots. I later met my wife in Israel and we now have three kids. … If I had been 10 years younger, I would have stayed in Israel. But it’s a hard economic lifestyle and we love the quiet of Maine, where the budget is low.”
It was in the quiet of Maine where Silverman nurtured his newfound Jewish roots. Though the Chaim Josef Synagogue in Calais ceased holding regular services in 1964 because of declining membership, the shul held High Holy Days services until 1972, and Silverman and family were in the pews. And following his kibbutz experience, Silverman has been returning to Israel annually, spending a month each year at Sde Elayhu.
So when the Royal Canadian Bank in St. Joseph, New Brunswick, which had been holding the last of the three Torahs from Chaim Josef free of charge in its vault, closed last year, an official of the congregation, Burton Baig, turned to Silverman.
“They didn’t know where to put the Torah, and I said it can’t be left in the vault because sub-zero temperatures would cause the ink to come off,” Silverman recalled.
He said that Baig had stored the Torah in the bank vault in the hope that one day the Jewish community of Calais would be revived and would need a Torah. The congregation’s two other Torahs were donated to a congregation in Montreal and to a nursing home in Boston, Silverman said.
But Calais never attracted more than a few Jewish families over the years. And when Baig said he had to find a new home for the Torah, Silverman said he spoke with an Israeli friend, who suggested offering it to the Menora Authority. It accepted it in January after a local rabbi inspected the Torah and found it to be in good condition.
When Silverman finally asked where in Israel the scroll would be sent, he learned to his amazement that it was headed for the very community that had turned his life around.
“I then drove 90 miles through the woods with the Torah and met the Menora Authority’s representative at the airport in Bangor,” said Silverman.
“He took the Torah on the plane with him, putting it in a hockey bag, and flew to New York,” he said.
In New York, Perry Davis, who runs a fund-raising consulting firm and is a volunteer for the Menora Authority, picked up the Torah and soon thereafter took it with him on his next business trip to Israel.
“The Menora Authority has transferred about 150 Torahs from Eastern Europe to Israel, but this was the first from the United States,” said Davis. “We were excited about it. There is a need for 200 Torahs each year in Israel.
“I carried the Torah as hand luggage. I wrapped it in towels and the crew put it in a special overhead area from me. When I got to Israel, I put the Torah in a duffel bag. At passport control, a stern-looking woman in the booth saw me holding the duffel bag the way you would a Torah. She asked if it was a Torah and when I said yes, she said, ‘Bring it here.’ She then walked out from the booth and kissed it.”
Davis said that when another passenger on the plane saw that he had brought a Torah, he quipped: “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have taken out plane insurance.”
Davis said he viewed the trip as a “labor of love. I had a tremendous sense of accomplishment in being able to restore this Torah to productive use.”
In Israel, the Menora Authority took it to a regional high school that serves 1,200 youngsters in the Beit Shean Valley.
The Torah is to be formally presented during the High Holy Days when Silverman and his family make their annual trip to Israel. And it will be dedicated to the memory of a 25-year-old Israeli major, Nadav Milo, who was killed in Lebanon in 1997.
Milo’s father, Avraham, said the family and the community were grateful to Silverman for the Torah.
“We were very satisfied to get it,” he said.
Milo is a member of Kibbutz Sde Elyahu, where 30 years ago Harold Silverman found his Jewish roots. Come Tuesday, the man from Calais, Maine, will have returned the favor.