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The Cambridge Synagogue sifrei torah

Barry Landy, April 2016

There are a surprisingly large number of Sefarim in the Ark. There are five large ones which we use regularly, one further one which is no longer used, and several small ones which are never used.

I do not know the origin of the small Sifrei Torah; what follows are some of the histories of the remainder, oldest first.

The very tall Sefer Torah is the most recent arrival in our Shul, and is the oldest. Several years ago Trinity College approached Professor Stefan Reif to ask him what he thought they should do with a Scroll of the Law which was occupying space in their library and which they wished to see put to proper use; should they perhaps send it to Israel? Stefan told them to send it somewhere where it would be regularly used, and suggested the students' Shul in Thompson's Lane. They readily agreed to this and arranged for the transfer. The scroll had been given to Trinity in about 1903 by a vicar, and we did not know what to expect. When it arrived it also came with some splendid silver (a crown, breastplate and a pointer) and a black Torah mantle. All these were inscribed, indicating that the scroll originated in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands in 1812. The remainder of the origin of the scroll we can only speculate. Presumably this scroll was owned by an individual, who fled the troubles in Europe (especially the low countries) between 1812 and 1815, and went to England. As to how it left his ownership and became the property of a vicar we can only guess that the original owner became poor and sold the Torah to raise money with which to feed his family, as this is the only circumstance in which it is valid to sell a Torah outside the community.

The scroll itself is written in excellent quality ink on the finest parchment, so despite its age it still reads extremely well. It is in a Sefardi script written with Sefardi traditions.

Before reading it we took it to a scribe who told us he was grateful for the opportunity to examine such a beautiful scroll, and that he would not charge. He told us it appeared to be fine and that we should read it through for a year as the best way of checking it.

Strangely, when we first read it (Sedrah Bereshit) the reader noticed that a word was missing, and over the year that followed I read through the sedra after shul on Sunday and found several similar mistakes. I can only surmise that it had never previously been systematically read from.

The silver was unfortunately stolen just after the 1990 refurbishment, and was the cause of the installation of the grill to protect the ark. In February 2006 a new crown was presented to the Shul in memory of Dr Charles Levene to replace the one stolen 15 years before.

A medium size scroll, which usually has a light blue cover, has been in the Shul longer than I have. It was written by the private Sofer of Moses Montefiore. This Sofer wrote a lot of Sifrei Torah many of which Montefiore presented to various synagogues. The Sefer is written in a Sefardi script but with Askenazi traditions. It is still in excellent condition and is a pleasure to read from.

The third large scroll (a very large and heavy one) and a smaller scroll which is no longer in use, came from Llanelli. The large scroll has a mantle in memory of Abraham and Rebecca Palto, my father's grandparents.

Llanelli Hebrew Congregation was founded early in the 20th century by refugees from Russia, among them the parents and great-grand-parents of Barry and Julian Landy, whose fathers were born and brought up there. This community flourished and produced many leaders of Anglo Jewry, but by 1980 the community was no longer viable as almost all the Jews had moved away. I approached my uncle who was then the President of the Congregation and he gave us permission to take away "on permanent loan" anything of value to us. Stefan Reif and I drove to Llanelli and examined the Shul and its contents, and decided to take two scrolls, a number of Chumashim (many were affected by damp unfortunately) and a Sedrah board to inform the community of the portion of the week. We are still using this board.

The two Llanelli scrolls were inducted with great ceremony on 8 March 1982 in a service conducted by Rabbi Meir Berman (A'H) who was then minister of Wembley Synagogue and Rabbi Maurice Landy (A'H) retired minister of Walm Lane Shul. They had both been born and bred in Llanelli. The service was conducted by a student, and was attended by a large number of members of the Landy family, as well as many students and residents.

We thus acquired two scrolls; one small one in fairly poor condition which we no longer use, and the other a large and heavy scroll in good condition. It had been originally commissioned by my great-grandfather and was written in Lithuania in classical Ashkenazi style. My father presented the mantle in memory of his parents.

After the induction we then proceeded to use this scroll. The first week we read from it was Parshat Parah; it was read by Joshua Landy, making the 4th generation of members of the Landy family to read from the scroll. The second week we used that sefer was Parshat HaChodesh. This required winding the scroll back from the middle of Numbers to the middle of Exodus, passing the Song of the Sea just before finding the passage to be read for HaChodesh. I was away that Shabbat and the person winding the scroll failed to see the Song of the Sea (Shirat Ha Yam), which is very odd since it is written in a very striking and unusual layout. He got to the beginning of Exodus, went back and realised that the section he was looking for was missing! They used a different scroll for Parashat Hachodesh. Closer examination showed that approximately a third of the scroll was missing. A Torah Scroll is made up of a number of separate parchment sections sewn together and about a third of these had been removed.

My father (Harry Landy A'H) proceeded to investigate. He made enquiries in Golder's Green and North London and got people to pass the word around. Out of the blue he received a phone call "Stop asking around and wait for another call,". The second call came and told him to look in the attic of a Golders Green Sofer who had recently passed away. The widow took him up to the attic and there they found sacks of scraps of Sifrei Torah. They opened the first sack and right at the top were the pieces my father was looking for. They had plainly been placed there for him to find (shades of the story of Benjamin and the cup!). It should be emphasised that the Golders Green Sofer was totally blameless; the actual thieves had simply made use of this store of torah fragments.

What happened to remove those sections from the scroll? It transpired that some time previously a group of people who said they were Chassidim visited Llanelli. They said they were aware that the Jewish population was dwindling and they were considering setting up a Kollel to revitalise the community. They asked if they could sleep in the Shul, and did so. After a number of days they left saying they realised that it would not be possible to set up the Kollel. Their purpose appears to have been to take sections of the scrolls. These are actually quite valuable. The large majority of scrolls are written in the same size and to the same pattern, so that sections of parchment are interchangeable, Thus when one third is stolen from each of three scrolls, one whole scroll can be made, and then sold. If no one ever tries to use the vandalised scrolls, no one will ever know.

Luckily the large Llanelli scroll is not written to the standard pattern and so the stolen sections were useless to the thieves, which is presumably why we were able to get them back.

The scroll and its missing pieces were soon reunited and we have been delighted to be able to read from it ever since, though those who have been asked to perform Hagbah (the lifting of the scroll) have not been so delighted as it is extremely heavy!

The story of the fourth sefer is also interesting.

The family of the late Professor David Tabor decided to present the Cambridge Synagogue with a new Sefer Torah in his memory and asked me to organise it for them.

The presentation itself took place on Sunday May 18 2007.

A group of residents and students representing all aspects of Cambridge Jewish life gathered at the home of the student chaplain, Rabbi Yehudah Fishman, where the process of the completion of the writing of the Sefer took place. We had a Chazan for the day, Graeme Alexander, who not very long ago was himself a student at Cambridge, and who then resident in Cambridge. I brought the scribe (Chaim Lopian) to the Chaplain's house, where he started by filling in most of the remaining letters at the end of Devarim. In the writing process these letters are left as outlines and the completion process fills them in. Then one at a time, starting with Daniel Tabor, people were called by name to have the honour of having one of these letters written for them. Those who had that honour were Mr Lush (David Tabor's nephew), Professors Reif, Goldhill, Pepper, Bleehen, Rabbis Fishman and Leigh, Messrs Landy, Squires, Lang, Stone, and Blaukopf, Chazan Alexander and three students.

At 11am the then Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, arrived and I escorted him into the house, where he wrote the final letter.

Once the Torah was completed, and the ink dry, all present, plus a considerable number of students and residents who had been waiting outside the house for this moment, set off in procession from 6 Alpha road to the Synagogue. Our route took us down Chesterton lane, over the footbridge, along Jesus Green (a nice irony!) and then up Thompson's Lane to the shul. On the way the Sefer was held by various people, starting with the Chief Rabbi, and was all the time underneath a Chuppah (canopy) and all the while songs were being sung, led by Graeme and others. We had a police escort to make sure that the roads were clear and as can be imagined there were some very interested onlookers.

Once at the shul we had a brief service conducted by Graeme Alexander during which a Hagbah (lifting up of the torah) was performed so that everyone could see the new scroll; after the service the Chief Rabbi addressed us, and following that there was a reception.

This was a very happy and united occasion in which all the facets of Jewish life in Cambridge came together to honour the Torah and the memory of David Tabor.

The back-story is not without interest!

Daniel Tabor and I started the process off as early as January 2007. The Sefer had already been found by Chaim Lopian; it was being written in Israel and was almost completed. What we had to do was to order the Atzei Chaim (wooden poles on which the scroll is rolled), silver adornments and two mantles. We also had to write and agree an inscription for all these things in memory of Professor David Tabor. The Atzei Chaim have silver bands containing the inscription; the silver adornments are also inscribed and the mantles are embroidered. By March all was settled and ordered and we were assured by Jerusalem the Golden (the shop in Golders Green) that everything would be ready in good time. Then things started to fall apart. The Atzei Chaim which arrived were the wrong length and had to be re-ordered. The other items showed no signs of arriving. Week after week went by; when I phoned Jerusalem the Golden and the sofer I received only negative answers. Finally, the Sunday before the ceremony the Sefer was complete, and the silver adornments ready, but still no sign of the mantles. I collected everything from London on Thursday 17 May, just 3 days before the ceremony, expecting that the mantles would finally have arrived only to be told by the shop that they had not. But "Dont worry!" they said (how could I not!!). "We will have a replacement ready for Sunday and deliver it to you in person". And that is indeed what happened. A seamstress embroidered the correct inscription on a new mantle and the boss himself drove up to Cambridge on the Sunday morning so that at 10am (phew!) I had an appropriate mantle (if not the correct one). Nobody noticed a thing, of course. It is so often the case that there is a major crisis at such events but there is an art in making everything appear smooth on the surface.

The proper mantle arrived about a month later and is now on the Sefer in the ark in Thompson's Lane. The following year (2008/9) we read the new Sefer through from the beginning of Bereshit until the end of Devarim and every time it is read we remember David Tabor (Zichrono Livracha).

The most recent scroll was presented to the community in February 2015 by Sandy Colb of Rehovot Israel. He and his son David are alumni of Cambridge and have done a lot to support the Cambridge student community over many years. This sefer was presented on honour of Sandy's father Frank.

The Torah was taken to the Lehrhaus in Trinity street where is was completed by a sofer attaching the parchment to the Atzei Chaim. The current Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Mirvis, was present together with many members of the community including Rabbi Leigh, Barry Landy, and Sandy Colb and family, together with many past and present members of the CUJS. Once completed the Torah was carried in procession up Trinity Street and Bridge Street to Thompson's Lane (with the cooperation of the Cambridge Police)

Once in the shul a service was conducted (Chazzan Colin Dworkin) to welcome the new sefer; Rabbi Mirvis spoke and Rabbi Leigh responded. Following the service there was a reception.

This sefer was used shortly afterwards for one of the four parshiot, and has been used as the regular shabbat sefer during the year 2015-6 (without any problems).



 

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