Each year the 12th-grade students of the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester spend a week in Poland, on the way to Israel, learning about Jewish history at the site of death camps, synagogues and forests.
This year their most poignant lesson came at an antiques shop on a Warsaw side street.
They discovered a Torah scroll there.
On their last full day in Poland last week, after an emotional visit to a forest where Jews had been slaughtered during World War II, a few students were wandering through the capital’s historic Old Town section. In the corner of a window of an antique shop, near an army helmet and a wind chime, they noticed what appeared to be Hebrew writing. It was an upside-down sefer Torah, its wooden Etz Chaim poles resting at an angle.
The shop was closed.
The students rushed back to Elliot Spiegel, the school’s headmaster, and Rabbi Harry Pell, 12th-grade dean.
“They were very excited,” Spiegel says. “They said, ‘Why can’t you go and explain that the Torah belongs to the Jewish people and they have to give it to us?’”
Spiegel, Rabbi Pell and a Polish guide took a cab to the shop the next morning after Shachrit in Warsaw’s main synagogue.
They didn’t take any students along.
“We wanted to be able to negotiate with the owner,” and the presence of teenagers might interfere, Spiegel explains in a telephone interview from Israel, where the group traveled early this week.
“I brought my credit card,” he says.
In the window the Schechter delegation observed that the scroll’s few visible columns were opened to Yitro, last Shabbat’s Torah portion. They could read the panel with the 10 Commandments.
“We were rather excited,” Spiegel says. “We looked at each other and we gasped.”
They walked into the small, dimly lit shop. They said they were “interested in such a scroll. We asked to inspect it,” Spiegel says.
The owner, in his late 30s, helped the visitors unroll the scroll, about five or six panels at a time, on a long table.
“We looked very carefully at the stitching,” the sinew of a kosher animal that holds the parchment sheets together, Spiegel says. “It was in very good shape.”
Upon further inspection, it became clear that the scroll was not intact; most of the book of Numbers, and all of Deuteronomy was missing.
Some of the pages were “severely” damaged, Spiegel says. “It looked like it had been in a fire.”
The Schechter delegation stressed that the sefer Torah — or three-fifths of one — was not in mint condition.
The owner asked for $17,000. “We haggled a bit.” They settled on $12,500, far less than the price for a new, complete, kosher Torah.
The owner gave the visitors an antique yad, a Torah pointer, to go with the scroll.
“These people know” the value, and the significance of such Jewish artifacts, Spiegel says.
Spiegel used his credit card for the purchase. “We hugged each other.”
In the years since Communism fell in the early 1990s, bringing an influx of Jewish tourists, a wide range of Jewish items like kiddush cups or prayer books — or the occasional Torah scroll — turn up at antique shops and street fairs. While their exact provenance is unclear, most apparently were the property of Polish Jews before the Holocaust.
Western Jews, anxious to redeem these items, are a ready market, leading to the manufacture of counterfeit Judaica.
Spiegel says the scroll he bought, 3½-feet tall, is authentic. A silver engraving on the wooden rolls testifies that it was commissioned by children to honor the memory of their father in 1936.
The owner, “very friendly,” wouldn’t tell where he had gotten the scroll, “but he said it was on consignment,” Spiegel says.
He took off his jacket, wrapped it around the scroll, carrying it in the snow through the Old City square to a taxi, back to the kosher restaurant where the students were eating lunch.
“The kids rushed over to us. ‘What happened?’”
Spiegel explained. At the end of the meal — “a true seudat mitzvah,” or obligatory meal — the group toasted their holy acquisition over glasses of wine.
He took the scroll in a newly bought canvas bag on the flight to Israel.
Some of the students took it to a minyan at the Western Wall on Shabbat, their first in Israel. After reading the 10 Commandments from a kosher scroll, each took a turn chanting one of the commandments from the new scroll. “This was the first time it was used in 70 years,” Spiegel says. “The students were very emotional.”
He returns to the U.S. this week with the sefer Torah. “We’re going to restore it and use it in the school.” It will cost “at least $15,000” and take “a year or two.”
The repaired scroll will take its place in the Solomon Schechter School, which has buildings in White Plains and Hartsdale, in an elaborate welcoming ceremony.
It will bear a mantel that states: “Rescued from Poland by the class of 2007, 20 Shevat 5767, February 8 2007.”
It was no coincidence that the students, in their hour of free time in Warsaw, discovered the sefer Torah, Spiegel says. “It was bashert.
“This is a symbol of the Jewish people,” he says. “This is what we go to Poland for — to bring back something that was taken away.”