When New York businessman Menashe Shurka first started looking to buy a Torah scroll more than a year ago, little did he know that news of his find would spread throughout Long Island’s North Shore as the “miracle of Port Washington.”

As he tells it, all Shurka wanted to do was give his Bar Mitzvah boy a special gift, one that would strengthen his spiritual resolve as a Jewish man. But when hundreds of people flocked to Chabad-Lubavitch of Port Washington on Sunday to celebrate the Torah’s dedication there, they saw a 175-year-old scroll that managed to unite disparate elements of a family rooted in Iran and Persia.

“Thank G‑d, we are blessed,” says Shurka, whose son Yosef celebrated his Bar Mitzvah on June 13. “My son has everything he could want, and I wanted to give him something special. A Bar Mitzvah is not about DJs and dancing, but a spiritual process that he’s going through.

“And we never had a Torah scroll in the family.”

That’s what he thought.

Last year, Shurka called a friend of his in Israel who deals in old and rare Torah scrolls. The father wanted a Torah written in the Yemenite tradition, in deference to his wife’s background – her family came from Yemen – and the tradition’s authority when it comes to scribal arts.

Sometime later, the friend called back to tell Shurka of a scroll that was without a case and was roughly 120 years old. Despite its age, it “looked in pretty good shape,” says Shurka, and he agreed to have rabbinical authorities verify the Torah as kosher. In the meantime, he did his own investigative work, tracking down the scroll’s previous owners in an attempt to ascertain its history.

With echoes of an Indiana Jones-style quest, Shurka’s search took him to an Israeli family by the name of Ezra – who had most recently owned the scroll – to another family by the name of Reddi.

“A man told me that he didn’t know much,” says Shurka, “but heard that it was brought to Israel by a ritual slaughterer by the name of Zechariah Cohen in 1950.”

Cohen’s son sent Shurka to his older brother, who sent him to a Rabbi Kalazan, a distant cousin of Shurka’s wife known as a scribal authority. Kalazan remembered the wife’s grandparents, noting that they were friends of the Cohens. Shurka, sensing that he was getting closer to finding out the Torah’s origins, asked Kalazan to examine the scroll.

One day, with the Torah sitting in front of him, Kalazan called with interesting news.

“This is not a Yemenite Torah,” he told a surprised Shurka. Judging only by the scribe’s script, “the person who wrote it is not Yemenite, but Spanish or Persian.”

More amazingly, Kalazan, noting small changes in the handwriting in the Book of Numbers, asserted that two different people wrote the scroll.

His job finished, Kalazan emphasized that despite the discrepancies, Shurka had a beautiful Torah on his hands and certified it as kosher according to the strictest of standards.

Shurka turned to the rabbi once more for a seemingly unrelated matter: A book had turned up that belonged to his wife’s grandfather indicating in its inscription a connection between the Kalazan and Ashwal families. Did Kalazan know of the Aswals?

“Oh yes,” the rabbi replied. “The Ashwals used to be potters and some of the Kalazans were traders, taking the pottery from Yemen to locations throughout Asia. Today, they’re known as the Madmonis.”

The revelation struck Shurka like the gong of a bell. The friend who had brokered the Torah purchase was a Madmoni, as was the Yemenite rabbi of a synagogue in Rishon LeTziyon that Shurka had frequented as a boy. His friends, it turned out, were family after all.

The Torah sits in a 400-year-old case.
The Torah sits in a 400-year-old case.

Back in the Family

As the Torah made its way to New York, Shurka had his friend track down a suitable case. He wanted something ornate and Yemenite in style, perhaps along the lines of a silver case used to house a 750-year-old Torah scroll that Shurka remembered seeing as a boy.

The friend called back to say that he had something better: The case itself; the synagogue had discarded it five years ago.

Everything arrived at the beginning of June with just a week to go until the Bar Mitzvah.

“But the Torah didn’t sit right inside of the case, because it was too thick,” relates Shurka. “So I say to myself, this case is 400 years old. I’ve got an old Torah and an old case that is not in very good shape. To make the Torah fit, I’m going to need to unroll it completely and then try to roll it tighter.”

When he opened up the scroll, Shurka made an amazing discovery. Several sentences had been scrawled on the back of the parchment at the end of the Torah.

What he found took his breath away: “Rabbi David Kalazan, son of Yosef, born on the 21st day of Sivan in the year 5557 and Rabbi Yosef Kalazan, son of David, born on the 21st day of Sivan in the year 5580, wrote this.”

The Torah was written by his son’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, who was born 200 years to the day before his progeny.

When he got up in front of his guests in June, Shurka revealed the story for the first time. Not even his son and wife knew of the Torah’s significance. According to attendees, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

“The story is not natural,” says Rabbi Shalom Paltiel, director of Chabad of Port Washington, who officiated at the Bar Mitzvah and presided over Sunday’s formal dedication of the scroll. “I’m not a big miracle kind of guy, but when I told the story to my board this week, they went crazy.

“It’s also shaken up the family,” adds Paltiel, who says the Torah scroll will be used during prayer services. “The father, for instance, now puts on the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin every day.”

For his part, Shurka says that he feels the hand of Divine Providence in the acquisition. There were too many points of connection, he emphasizes, for it not to be.

“Call it what you want to call it,” he says. “I call it a miracle.”