What would eventually be called Temple Micah opened virtual doors in a Southwest DC church in 1963 with borrowed Jewish ritual objects. Over its first eight years, the congregation acquired two of its own Torah scrolls, as well as ornaments, kiddush cups and other objects in silver, but didn’t have a permanent home in which to use them. In early 1971, Micah signed a five-year joint sharing agreement with St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church and quickly affixed a donated ceramic Israeli mezuzah to the door, planted a large sign on the lawn and installed an ark in the sanctuary. A story lies behind the acquisition of most of the items. Here are some of the stories we’ve collected so far. We’d love to document these events in more detail, so please share your recollections with us.
A group of congregants got together in 1964 to purchase the nascent temple’s first Torah scroll. The next Torah was our first Czech Torah, one of about 1,500 scrolls rescued during World War II and given on permanent loan to synagogues around the world. It was dedicated in 1968 after a two-year effort to obtain and repair it (See Vine story below, “Czech Torah Mystery Solved”). In 1974, Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman, the temple’s first full-time rabbi, returned from a sabbatical in Israel with a children’s Torah, a small but complete and kosher scroll traditionally held by a child during the Kol Nidre prayer on Erev Yom Kippur. Temple member Carl Abrams carved a breast plate and crowns for the little scroll out of wood.The fourth Torah is our second Czech Torah that took a similar complicated odyssey to arrive at Temple Micah in 1983 in need of substantial repair that took many months. Micah is one of very few synagogues given more than one Czech Torah scroll. (See Vine stories below.)
Czech Torah Mystery Solved
By Shelley Grossman, July-August 2016 Vine
The May-June issue of the Vine reported that the history of how Temple Micah obtained its first Czech Torah in the 1960s is clouded in mystery. (“Saved from Holocaust, Czech Torahs Serve New Generations at Micah,” May/June 2016, p. 1). Further research into temple newsletters and board minutes of the period as well as “Derech Micah”, Brenda Levenson’s history of Micah’s first fifty years (which is available in the library or online), revealed much of the story, and also provides another glimpse into the human side of Micah’s early history.
The temple–then called the Southwest Hebrew Congregation (SWHC)– learned in late summer of 1966 that it was eligible to receive one of the Torah scrolls saved during the Holocaust from the synagogues of Czechoslovakia. The scrolls had been transferred to Westminster Synagogue in London, which established the Memorial Scrolls Trust that continues to oversee the distribution of these antique Torahs.
Micah member Joya Rosenberg and her 5-year old son Philip were visiting in London, her home town, and agreed to undertake the paperwork involved to secure the scroll and to bring it back with her to Washington. However, the scroll assigned to SWHC– No. 1531, which had been rescued from the synagogue in Ivancice in southern Moravia–was in need of extensive repair and, worse, Philip came down with the chickenpox. The Rosenbergs had to change their plans.
The September 1966 Newsletter reported that the specially designated SWHC Dulles Airport Welcoming Committee had to cancel its planned ritual reception. Nonetheless, the October 1966 Newsletter announced that the scroll would be dedicated at Friday evening services on October 7. That announcement proved to be premature as the Torah wasn’t dedicated for another 17 months, on March 22, 1968. The reason for the delay remains unrecorded. The Bulletin, the renamed newsletter of the newly renamed Temple Micah, described the dedication ceremony as taking place under a chupah (a bridal canopy) to symbolize the marriage between the Torah and the community. Sid Booth, still a major presence at Micah today, led a procession to bring the scroll, adorned with a breastplate and rimonim (crowns) contributed by about a dozen members, to the chupah, where it was officially received by the temple’s president at that time, Stanley Siegel.
Gerald Liebenau Talks About Acquiring The Second Czech Torah
Saved from Holocaust, Czech Torahs Serve New Generations at Micah
By Shelley Grossman, May-June 2016 Vine
Two silent survivors of the Holocaust make their home in the Temple Micah sanctuary and inconspicuously attend every service. They are two of the temple’s four Torah scrolls. After enduring the horrific ordeal of the Holocaust, they withstood a lengthy and arduous journey to end up at Micah where they quietly serve not only their intended purpose of carrying the sacred words, but also symbolize the persistence and endurance of the Jewish people.
Their anonymity ended at the Yom HaShoah service on May 4, when they were prominently displayed and Rabbi Zemel held a special ceremony for them. Before World War II, they were owned and used by synagogues in what was then called Czechoslovakia. They were among 1,564 Torah scrolls from across Czechoslovakia rescued during World War II by the Jewish Museum of Prague and more than 20 years later sold by the Communist government to the Westminster Synagogue in London. That synagogue established the Memorial Scrolls Trust, which over the decades has made a permanent loan of about 1,000 of the scrolls to synagogues around the world.
The story of how two of the scrolls ended up at Micah is part mystery, part saga. The mystery concerns Micah’s first Czech Torah, Scroll No. 1531, which was rescued from the synagogue in Ivancice, in southern Moravia, in 1942 when the town’s remaining 150 or so Jews were deported to the Nazi death camps. Legend has it that Jews built the first Ivancice synagogue in 956, but recorded history of the Jewish settlement there begins in 1490. The Jewish community of Ivancice supported an important yeshiva at least through the 19th century although the Jewish population peaked at only about 800 individuals in 1830.
Here’s the intriguing part. According to the records of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, Torah No. 1531 was given on permanent loan to Temple Micah in 1966. But in 1966, a “Temple Micah” didn’t exist. The temple had only recently found a stable home at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Southwest DC, and didn’t even have its own rabbi. How was it able to procure such a special Torah and can’t relate any specifics of the story. Nonetheless, 50 years later, it usually sits comfortably in the second ark from the left, bearing a brass plate with its number and other information.
A lot more is remembered about Torah No. 360, which was rescued—also in 1942—from Kolin in central Bohemia. Kolin was a major Jewish center in Czechoslovakia with records showing Jews living there in the 14th century. It also had a prominent yeshiva and remained a stronghold of the Czecho-Jewish movement until World War II. At least six Torah scrolls were rescued from Kolin and now reside in synagogues in Arizona, California, England and Israel, in addition to the Micah scroll in DC.
Micah’s role in the story began in 1983, when Micah members Jerry and Vivian Liebenau (z”l) decided to visit their son Jonathan who was living in London. Jerry had been president of Micah from 1979 to 1981 and Vivian (who died in 2013) was slated to become president later in 1983. They had been told that additional Czech Torahs were available from the Memorial Scrolls Trust. As Liebenau recalls, their first challenge was finding Westminster Synagogue, which — like many European synagogues — was located anonymously in a large apartment building.
“When we arrived, we were ushered into a reception area where we were asked to fill out forms in which Vivian clearly established that she was an official of Temple Micah,” Liebenau said. They then stood in a long line. “Eventually, we were taken to a warehouse that contained only empty shelves. They told us all of the Torahs had already been distributed.” Frustrated, the Liebenaus completed their vacation and returned home empty handed.
Months passed and then out of the blue, Nancy Elisburg—temple president at the time—got a call that a Torah was waiting to be picked up at Dulles Airport. “I got the call not because I was president but because I lived not far from Dulles,” Elisburg reckons. She drove to the Dulles cargo area and confronted customs officials. As she continues the story: “They asked me what was in the box. I said, ‘A Torah scroll.’ They said: ‘What’s a Torah?’ I said, ‘A religious object used in Jewish services.’ Blank stares. Then I said, It’s the Bible.’ More blank stares. Finally, one of the agents said, ‘Is it something that is used at a Bar Mitzvah? I went to a Bar Mitzvah, once.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘OK,’ and helped me put it in my car.”
Elisburg took the box to the temple, where it was opened. “It was covered with [plastic packing] peanuts.”
A look at the websites of several synagogues that have a Czech scroll describe a formal ceremony to receive the scrolls. One temple has pictures of a solemn parade of men in dark suits with the scroll carried under a chupah into the synagogue. Micah’s scroll received a much more informal welcome.
But that was not the end of the story. The Torah that arrived at Dulles Airport was in very bad condition and had to be sent to a sofer (a Torah scribe) to be fixed and made ritually usable. “It was a short time after I arrived,” Rabbi Zemel recalled. “To make it kosher took a lot of work.”
Eventually, the Torah came back in good shape. Now it sits in the farthest left ark and, for more than 30 years in this, its second life, it continues to carry its sacred ancient task.
Nancy Elisburg Explains How We Found Our Ner Tamid
(In Israel) After an unsuccessful day of looking, I decided to go to one last shop. The storekeeper said he didn’t have one, but directed me to another shop called Tarshish. There, the owner said “Just a moment – I think I have just what you need.” Rummaging through a box, he pulled out the Ner Tamid we still have today.
Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark)
Ark and Torah scroll ornaments
Torah scrolls need to be stored in an aron kodesh (holy ark). In its nomadic days, the young congregation required an ark that could be moved from place to place. So Bert Schuchat, one of the founders, got a portable china cabinet from her mother, which served the purpose. Upon entering the agreement with St. Augustine’s, the congregation appointed a seven-member committee chaired by Lee Cron (z”l) to design a permanent aron kodesh. The group worked for a year to come up with a unique ark that would express the developing Micah Way and fit with the contemporary style of the shared sanctuary. New York designer Murray Gelberg and local sculptor Don Turano conceived and implemented the design. Slightly reconfigured, it remains the focal point of our own sanctuary on Wisconsin Avenue. It is made of locust wood, a member of the same family of trees as the acacia wood of the ancient Ark in Jerusalem and has four separate cabinets designed to be reminiscent of the Judean Hills. For years, a drawing of the ark by Rochelle Stanfield was used as a temple logo. Until the congregation acquired four scrolls, one of the sections was used as a display case.
Torah Scroll Mantles, Ornaments and Other Objects
To go along with the new ark, the Torah scrolls got new matching mantles (covers) in richly patterned violet-colored velvet designed by the internationally-known fabric artist Jack Lenor Larsen. Individual families as well as groups of members donated silver breast plates, rimonim (crowns) and yaddim (pointers) in traditional and modern styles for the scrolls as well as a silver case for a Megillah (Purim scroll), kiddish cups and other objects including a “house ring”, a ring topped by a tiny model of a home used in Jewish weddings beginning in the Middle Ages. On the night of Nov. 1, 1980 much of this silver was stolen. The congregation, always strapped for money, nonetheless was able to raise sufficient funds to replace most of the stolen objects within a few months.
In 1976, the Temple erected a 6-foot tall, 9-foot wide metal menorah on the roof of the St. Augustine’s building as a public symbol marking it as the location of a synagogue. Members of St. Augustine’s were so pleased with the joint arrangement that many of them contributed to the cost of erecting the menorah. When Micah moved to its own home on Wisconsin Ave. in 1995, the menorah was mounted on the wall outside the social hall.