The Olomouc Story is now famous in Dayton, Ohio!

Come again? Dayton, Ohio? You mean halfway between Indianapolis, IN and Columbus, OH? Just a hop, skip and a jump up the road from Cincinnati, OH, THAT Dayton, OH?

Well, yes…let me explain…

A few weeks ago, as I was researching the story of the 7 remaining Torah Scrolls from Ceske Budeovice, the home of Peninsula Sinai’s remaining Torah Scroll from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. One of those scrolls is housed at Temple Israel, in Dayton. Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz is the Senior Rabbi there.

I had a lovely conversation with Rabbi Bodney-Halasz about the shared legacy of our České Budějovice scrolls and of course shared our own remarkable story that included returning the MST’s scroll to its ancestral home in Olomouc.

Rabbi Bodney-Halasz was so taken by our story that she used it as primary source material for her Erev Rosh HaShanah Sermon on September 9, 2018.

With Rabbi Bodney-Halasz’s permission I am re-publishing part of her sermon here. I’m getting goose bumps just reading it again!

The major theme of her sermon was listening to the voices that call out to us during the Chagim, the Shofar being one of them. Our Olomouc story was another voice that inspired her (and us) this holiday season.

Excerpted from “Listen to the Voices of the Shofar”

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779
September 9, 2018
There have been a lot of voices in my head lately. Don’t worry, there’s no need to call the doctor yet! They haven’t asked me to do anything nefarious or risky. They don’t stop me from doing work or reading books. I mostly tune them out, which is far better than trying to decipher meaning from the equivalent of Charlie Brown’s unintelligible teacher….

Hearing, for most people, happens effortlessly. It is passive- the exact opposite of listening. Listening is done with intention. I admit, I don’t always listen to everything my ears hear, especially sports. But the act of listening is fundamental to Rosh Hashanah. Also known as Yom Teruah, the Day of the Shofar Sounding, Rosh Hashanah requires us to LISTEN to the shofar. In fact, a person who has not listened to the shofar, even if he or she went to synagogue, does not get credit for observing the holiday. Even if he or she hears the shofar being blown, but not with the intent to fulfill the mitzvah of “lishmoa kol shofar” … that doesn’t count either. [The rabbis have put a LOT of thought into this!] In fact, if someone were to blow the shofar into a ditch and only hear its echo, that wouldn’t count (Talmud Rosh Hashana 27b)…

…And now today, on Rosh Hashanah, we hear the shofar call out as untold generations of Jews have done before us. We listen, “lishmoa,” to “kol shofar”, the voice of the shofar. And if we listen closely, we can hear the “kolot,” voices, of all who came before us, reminding us to do as they did at this season – to listen, to wake up, to return, to act, to improve…

…Over the past year, the kol shofar and the voices of all who have heard its blast before me, have called out to me. Unlike the voices calling out scores and plays of Cubs games from my television, I had been listening for these voices. And because I was ready to hear them, they stirred my soul, inspired me, and renewed my faith.

The first is the voice of a new friend, Steve Lipman, who attends Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, CA. Steve reached out to me after returning from Olomouc [‘Ȏlȏmōts] in the Czech Republic. How he ended up there is nearly impossible to believe.

In 2016, the most incredible request was made to the Memorial Scrolls Trust, the organization that has placed Czech Holocaust Scrolls into the care of thriving congregations around the world. It read:

Dear Mr. Chairman, I received information from Mr. Gronsky regarding Torah scrolls from our former synagogue in Olomouc. We are now in process to get any suitable or new Torah for our community because we have just one kosher Torah scroll and its status is deteriorating. It would be for us great satisfaction to get one of the Torah scrolls which was used by our grandfathers in Olomouc. Our community has 164 members. We have regular Shabbat services, strictly kosher kitchen and we have about 30-45 participants in those services. Let us know if it is possible to receive one of the Torahs and what we should do in this matter.

One of the conditions is that we need a Kosher Torah. The community of Olomouc [‘Ȏlȏmōts], whose Torahs had been on loan to Jewish communities abroad that promised to keep alive the memories of all who once read from them, once again needed a kosher Torah…

…Incredible, wouldn’t you say?! Olomouc’s [‘Ȏlȏmōts] synagogue had been set ablaze at night on March 15, 1939 and was pulled down. At first, its scrolls were gathered in the emerging Central Jewish Museum in Prague. During the turbulent post-WWII period, the museum was nationalized, and the scrolls were moved to a former synagogue in Prague.

In 1963, under the Communist regime, the Torahs from Michle and other scrolls, a total of 1,564 pieces, were sold to the congregation of the Westminster Synagogue in London, which established the Memorial Scrolls Trust to preserve and restore them.

The trust lends them to Jewish congregations across the world, particularly here in the United States. The Memorial Scrolls Trust reached out to Peninsula Sinai, where Steve belongs, to ask that they take on the sacred task of making their entrusted scroll kosher again and then return it to its former home in Olomouc [‘Ȏlȏmōts]. The(ir) rabbi, (Corey Helfand) without hesitation, responded to this call. The scroll that Peninsula Sinai had agreed to restore had rested in their ark for 47 years. It had been in use at their community nearly half a century. And before that, it remained in storage for nearly a quarter of a century. This would be the first time that Torah had been home in 78 years, and it would also be the first Torah returned out of more than 1,500 Bohemian and Moravian scrolls stored outside the Czech Republic.

I could go on and on about the incredible journey to Olomouc [‘Ȏlȏmōts] and the celebration that took place less than a year ago when Steve accompanied that scroll home. But Steve was reaching out to me for another reason. Peninsula Sinai had not one, but two, Holocaust scrolls.

The second scroll in their care was from České Budějovice, (CHES-kuh BUD e-OH-vit-zeh), the same community from which our memorial scroll originated. According to Steve, who has done an incredible amount of research, there were nine scrolls from the town altogether. Five are in the United States, and two in England.

When he visited Olomouc [‘Ȏlȏmōts], Steve decided to take a trip to see the town of České Budějovice, (CHES-kuh BUD e-OH-vit-zeh). Unfortunately, Budějovice had not experienced the same revival as Olomouc. All that remains of the Jewish community there is a stone monument to mark where the ornate Gothic synagogue, built in 1868, once stood.

Steve and I spoke at length about the home of our sister scrolls. České Budějovice, (CHES-kuh BUD e-OH-vit-zeh) is a large town on the Vltava (‘vǝltǝvǝ) River about 90 miles from Prague. It was once the capital of Southern Bohemia and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire now in the Czech Republic. Jews had lived there since the 14th Century. Before WWII the synagogue was the centre of Jewish life, in June 1939 the congregation was closed down. Soon after, Jewish businesses and homes were confiscated and on April 18, 1942, 909 remaining Jewish individuals were deported to Theresienstadt. The Germans blew up the synagogue on June 5, 1942.

By the end of the war, only 120 of the 1,500 Jews of České Budějovice were still alive. In 1991, only one Jew, an elderly woman, remained in the town. It is Steve’s dream to one day reunite all the scrolls in Budějovice. The Memorial Trust offers a Bar and Bat Mitzvah twinning program for congregations like ours with Czech Torah scrolls. Appropriately titled “Message from the Scrolls – Unlocking the Silence,” the curriculum they provide shares the following with those considering taking on this project.

…this scroll is very different. For if it had a voice it would speak of the brutal way its community was treated by the Nazis. It would tell how it was rescued by the curators of the Jewish Museum in Prague before they were taken away. The scroll survived the Holocaust. It is the remnant of a once flourishing Jewish community in Europe.”
Indeed, as I was listening to Steve Lipman, I heard the voice of our own Czech scroll for the first time.

This beloved Torah scroll, (residing at Temple Israel in Dayton, OH) with its mismatched atzei hayim, has sat quietly in our ark for years. Our scroll, written nearly 200 years ago, has long taught us of the genesis of the Jewish people, our exodus from slavery to freedom, and our march to the Promised Land. But, thanks to a new friend who invited me to listen more closely, it has also told the stories of those who had once read from it in České Budějovice, (CHES-kuh BUD e-OH-vit-zeh)…

…Spearheaded by Fran Rickenbach, Temple Israel is partnering with WYSO to undertake a unique oral history project to collect and share the voices of our community. We will hear from and about the characters who have helped to build it and who continue to sustain us. We will work to capture the memories and legacies of our members and their families so that, when we, or our children, are ready to listen, they will draw us in and inspire us with their deeds, values, and rich memories. To the voices of our own memories I will include the voice of our Memorial Scroll, and have asked Steve Lipman to help me with this, sharing his personal visit to her home…

…The most important mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is to listen “lishmoa” to the shofar, that it may effectively wake us and call upon us to return to our Creator. This year, as we begin 5779, let us learn to listen a little better, with attentiveness, so that the sound of the shofar reverberates and resonates deep in our souls instead of falling upon ears that don’t listen. May the powerful blast, filled with the voices of all who have come before us, inspire us, wake us, and move us to live our lives with greater intention.”

Thank you so much Rabbi Bodney-Halasz for your inspiring words and telling the story of our remarkable shared heritage. I am awed by the kavod you have given us and our Olomouc story and I hope we continue to build the bonds between our two communities, halfway across the country from each other.

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