Rachel Jury, Head of Jewish Studies and Katie Rich, Director of External Relations
On Thursday, May 25, over 500 students, faculty and community members gathered to welcome Survivor Torah #1089 from the small town of Rychnov in the Czech Republic. This powerful and moving program symbolically took place on Erev Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the Torah's receiving on Mount Sinai.
We spent the morning welcoming, blessing, and celebrating this momentous addition to our community. It is customary when welcoming a Torah into a community to have neighbor Torah Scrolls greet it. We were honored to have community leaders from Anshe Emet Synagogue, Mishkan and Anshe Tikvah join us. Students shared their words of wisdom as they passed the Torah to the 7th graders, who will guard this sacred object next year.
In an incredible moment, the room was bursting with ruach (spirit) as the entire community, emotionally sang the Ve'ahavta in unison, reading the words directly from this historic scroll. The ceremony wrapped up with everyone having the opportunity to dance the Torah down the halls of Bernard Zell, to its new home, an Ark that was designed by our 8th Grade students (more on that below). Kehillah (community) in its truest sense!
During the school year, our students used an interdisciplinary model that combines art and history classes. The eighth-grade class of 2023 designed an ark, a curtain, a mantle and even a binder sash for our Torah. In groups and individually, students researched the history of Jews in Czechoslovakia, before, during, and after the Shoah (the Holocaust) and then created the designs. The design of the ark, the curtain, and the mantle and binder, represent a journey through centuries of Jewish life in Czechoslovakia.
The students came up with two themes that can be traced in all components–the ark, curtain, and mantle.
1) The clock: There is a clock with Hebrew letters that stands atop the Jewish town hall in Prague (possibly the only such example in the world).
2) The Golem: Legend has it that the story of the Golem—a mystical protector of the Jewish community—was created by Rabbi Lowe in Prague during the 16th century.
For the ark, focusing on pre-war life, the students inscribed the Amida prayer, “kadosh-kadosh-kadosh,” into a rainbow-colored arch held on each end by the hands of the Golem. The rainbow—a symbol of hope after the flood—stands for the recurring hope of the Jews throughout their 600-year presence in the Czech town. Life was calm, yet sometimes terrifying as the Jews were often forced to flee. Below the arch are the words “Zachor-We Remember,” emphasizing that we will not forget this history. Vibrant leaves climb up the edges of the ark and are interspersed with wilted leaves, conveying the dichotomy of calm vs fearful times yet again.
The ark curtain shocks us with the horror of the Shoah itself. The Golem is bowed over and distraught. Flames send sparks into a black night sky. The expired Prague Clock has stopped ticking at “יב (yud-bet),” midnight. The Salvador Dalí-esque clock melts into the flames. The Hebrew letter “ה (hey)”—representing God—is falling off the face of the clock and the Magen David (Star of David or Jewish Star) has fallen off the synagogue roof as the once vibrant village is turned to rubble.
The Torah mantle depicts the aftermath of the Shoah. The few survivors are not welcomed back, so the houses of Rychnov are depicted as faint outlines. In the absence of Jews, the synagogue is recommissioned as a meeting hall. The mystical Golem is reborn and climbs up a magical ladder to replace a missing piece from the Prague Clock. Like in a Chagall painting, the Golem’s ladder teeters from the synagogue roof reminding us of Jacob’s dream. The Golem holds a bucket with the letters “יה (yud-hey)”—a symbol of God. The colors of a new dawn light up the sky and the hands of the clock point to the letter “א (aleph),” signifying a new beginning.