As the Jewish population in the San Gabriel Valley has shifted over time, so have the fortunes of area synagogues. One consequence of the long string of congregational mergers that started in the mid-’60s and continued through Congregation Shaarei Torah’s merger with Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center in 2010, has been a snowball effect: an ever-increasing collection of Torah scrolls.
Just before the merger with PJTC, Congregation Shaarei Torah owned 12 Torah scrolls in varying degrees of repair. It was a huge number for any one synagogue to maintain, and the Torah committee had commissioned sofers to inspect them all in both 2000 and 2008. One Torah, it was whispered, had been smuggled out of Germany during the Shoah under someone’s coat, but no one seemed to know much more than that for certain.
My husband and I had joined Congregation Shaarei Torah in the early 2000s. One Thursday morning, very early, I was set to read Torah for the weekday minyan, and the rabbi brought out a scroll I hadn’t seen before. It was shorter than any regular Torah I’d ever read from, and its plain wooden handles were very worn. When I unrolled it, something about its appearance, either the age-darkened parchment or the unusually simple, homely lettering style, almost like regular handwriting, made me shiver a little. I was suddenly sure this was the Shoah Torah, and after services some of the minyan members confirmed it.
In June 2012, PJTC’s new joint congregation gathered at Shaarei Torah to bring its collection of Torah scrolls back to Pasadena, carrying them by hand and, balancing tradition with the distance and hot weather, at least part of the way on foot. Recently I met with PJTC’s gabbai, Sondra Dreshner, to see if I could recognize the Shoah Torah again among the scrolls in Galpert Sanctuary and Knell Chapel.
Each of PJTC’s Torahs now bear identification labels on their lower handles that show which synagogue collection it originally came from, its description number from the sofers’ reports, and whether it’s kosher. The inventory labels are less romantic but more reliable than outward appearances for telling scrolls apart. Covers and decorations are easy to switch by mistake—and even the handles are no guarantee, because sofers sometimes replace them during repairs if the rollers, known as atzei chaim (“trees of life,” in reference to the “Etz Chaim Hi” prayer), are too worn to support the parchment safely. Still, the handles are entertaining.
As we looked for scrolls from Shaarei Torah, we found two with identical sets of carved antique ivory handle decorations; one from Shaarei Torah and one from PJTC’s original collection. They may originally have been a matched set, separated by time and reunited by the merger, or they may just have been fitted with matching handles from the same sofer’s stock during repairs, but neither looked like the Shoah Torah inside. A plain wood-handled scroll that might have also turned out to have clean light parchment and standard lettering inside.
The last Shaarei Torah scroll had darkened parchment and thick, slightly curved letters like the Shoah scroll’s lettering. But its loudly decorated handles had large beads like bright yellow dice and inscriptions that told a completely different, though still intriguing, story. This Torah had been donated to Temple Beth Israel in 1955 by William and Rose Glesby in memory of their loved ones.
The Glesby Family has deep roots in the San Gabriel Valley. William and Rose, along with their Russian-born parents and three other siblings, emigrated to the US from Winnipeg in 1918 and started Glesby Bros. Grain and Milling Company, a major supplier of both flour and specialized poultry feed, in Monrovia at the corner of Olive and Ivy Streets. William and his sons Robert and Jerry started the 3 G’s Liquor Store after WWII. In the 1990s, Robert’s daughter Ellen Glesby Cohen, a television writer, established the Lymphoma Foundation.
But none of this was finding the Shoah Torah I’d once read from, and it turned out that my husband Erich, who had helped with Shaarei Torah’s inventory before the merger, knew why. “I think we gave it back to the family,” he said as he pulled up old copies of the sofers’ reports on his computer. “Ask Mike about it.”
Mike Klekner had been in charge of the committee that oversaw Torah repairs before and during the transition to PJTC, and says Max Kahn was a long-time member of Shaarei Torah from before his own time. “Max was just a very nice man,” he remembers. “I used to sit near him at services.”
According to some of the documents he has kept, Kahn had brought the Torah scroll to Shaarei Torah’s predecessor, Foothill Jewish Temple Center, in the mid-1960s, and although it wasn’t deemed kosher for reading, he would carry it at Kol Nidre in honor of his family. In 2000, the congregation undertook repairs of as many Torahs as possible, Kahn’s among the first. Kahn’s family planned to join the sofer to write in the last letters, but Max passed away suddenly, so the family waited to complete the lettering at the time of his azcarah (unveiling the gravestone) the next year.
In 2009, Richard Kahn borrowed his late father’s Torah for his son’s bar mitzvah, and just before the merger with PJTC, he contacted Klekner again and asked if the congregation would consider letting his family have the Torah back permanently in memory of his father and grandparents. Klekner and the other Torah committee members, Susie and Barry Kustner (z”l) and Pearl Tyree, recommended his request to PJTC’s Board, and in 2014, the congregation returned the now-kosher scroll to the Kahn family. Richard Kahn’s letter of thanks included a surprise—the full story of its rescue.
On November 9, 1938, the Nazis vandalized and burned synagogues and Jewish businesses all over Germany and Austria in what became known as Kristallnacht. Any Jews who ventured outside were beaten. The next day, Jews were ordered to clean up all the debris.
Max’s family lived next door to the tiny synagogue in the small German town of Wawern, near Trier, about 30 miles from the border with Luxembourg. The morning after the attack, his father Benjamin discovered that five of the shul’s six Torah scrolls had been burned or torn apart and thrown in the street, but a smaller one, though damaged, was still in one piece. He decided to sneak it out of the ruined synagogue and hid it under his coat. It could have meant jail or worse if he’d been caught, but he took it home. A few months later, the Kahns, like most of the other Jewish families, left Wawern. They arrived in Luxembourg with the Torah scroll hidden in the bottom of a trunk, but could not stay long. As the Nazis began closing in on Jews in neighboring countries, the family left Europe and escaped to Bolivia. After the war, Max’s parents returned to Luxembourg, probably with his younger sister Herta, and settled there.
In 1946 Max, then 31 years old, made his way to Brazil and emigrated to the US in 1954. He settled in Arcadia, where he became a member of Foothill Jewish Temple Center in the mid-1960s and raised his children. But his parents were getting older, and in 1966 he went to visit them and came back with the Torah scroll his father had rescued. Richard Kahn’s letter to PJTC included a translation of the moving letter his grandmother Miryanne wrote to Max explaining the Torah’s history and telling him that they were giving it to him to take to his new synagogue. His parents passed away only a year or so later.
The German town of Wawern still stands, and so, after a fashion, does the memory of its synagogue, which the council rebuilt in 2006 as a memorial to its lost Jewish community on its original site. The replica has occasionally hosted cultural events, including a klezmer concert in 2011, but with no congregants it’s not really a working synagogue, and for the most part it remains closed to the public. By contrast, Max Kahn’s Torah is again in active use by his family and their congregation, and although it’s no longer present at PJTC, it has found its way back home.
DEBORAH NOBLE IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.