Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, No. 2 / Summer 1997
Czech Scrolls Project Offers Precedent
Czech Scrolls Project Offers Precedent for Vilna Torahs
As officials, scholars and religious leaders ponder the fate of the Vilna Torah Scrolls, they may consider the effective precedent of the still active Czech Scrolls Project begun in 1964. The project has successfully restored and distributed over 1500 Torah scrolls collected in Prague during the Nazi occupation and stored in the city until an international effort revealed their existence and "rescued" them.
In the early 1960s, British businessman and philanthropist, Ralph Yablon, negotiated the acquisition and removal of about 1500 Torah scrolls from Prague to London where they were entrusted to Westminster Synagogue. There they received thorough examination and documentation. Following this preliminary study, restoration and conservation began.
Moving the scrolls from Czechoslovakia was a highly publicized event and world-wide requests for the scrolls began soon after. A committee, under the current direction of Ruth Shaffer, bears responsibility for the upkeep and distribution of the scrolls. Today, the scrolls have been permanently loaned to important institutions and Jewish communities throughout the world. Priority has always been given to congregations in need of a Sefer Torah for use in services. However, because many of the scrolls are unacceptable for this purpose, some have been distributed to institutions desiring a physical memorial to the communities destroyed in the Holocaust. Special allocations have been made to synagogues with members with personal links to the communities from which the scrolls originated. There are no restrictions based on congregations being Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, though requests from individuals are greatly discouraged. Recipients are invited to make a contribution to cover restoration and shipping costs.
In 1988, the committee established the Czech Memorial Scrolls Center -- an exhibition space where visitors can learn about the restoration process, the communities in Bohemia and Moravia from which the scrolls came and the procedures for distributing the scrolls to various institutions. Even before the formal exhibition space was opened, visitors from all over the world, including school groups and individuals from diverse backgrounds, visited the Center.
Recent inquiries from various communities (primarily in the US) have prompted the Jewish Museum in Prague to request that Jewish communities around the world who possess scrolls or other items from dissolved Bohemian and Moravian synagogues contact the museum in order to further their research and documentation efforts.
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