Every Torah scroll has a story.

For many scrolls in use by synagogues today, theirs began only recently, when communities commissioned religious scribes to sit down and carefully write the 304,805 holy letters that make up a complete Torah. Others’ histories, such as that of a Torah scroll to be dedicated this Sunday at Chabad-Lubavitch of Owings Mills, Md., are down right remarkable.

The Jewish community in Owings Mills has rallied together to restore the scroll, which was rescued from the Soviet Union at the height of communist oppression by Chabad House director Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen’s father, Moshe.

Born during the reign of Stalin, Rabbi Moshe Katsenelenbogen’s parents, devout Jews who refused to adhere to authorities’ demands to stop encouraging Jewish education, were both killed in government purges: the father when Moshe was six, the mother when he was 17. Undaunted, the young man devoted his own life to spreading Jewish pride from behind the Iron Curtain, helping the Chabad-Lubavitch network of underground synagogues and schools. He eventually was arrested and sent to a prison in Siberia for seven years.

Upon his release, Katsenelenbogen applied repeatedly for a visa to leave Russia, and was finally granted one in 1971. His one request before leaving for England was to take with him the Torah scroll that he had personally carried out of a synagogue before its destruction at the hands of Soviet authorities.

After receiving the necessary papers releasing him from a Siberian prison, Rabbi Moshe Katsenelenbogen petitioned for an exit visa.
After receiving the necessary papers releasing him from a Siberian prison, Rabbi Moshe Katsenelenbogen petitioned for an exit visa.

The rabbi kept the Torah with him throughout the succeeding decades. A little more than three years ago, his son and daughter-in-law, Chanie Katsenelenbogen, moved to Owings Mill to open a Chabad House there. They borrowed a Torah scroll from the start, but in little time, attendance at their services grew – this past Rosh Hashanah drew more than 300 people. When the community began the search for a Torah scroll of their own, the Katsenelenbogens turned to their father.

“I had a dream that one day, my children would commit their lives to the same outreach that I was imprisoned for,” said the elder rabbi. Giving the Torah scroll to the Owings Mill Chabad House encapsulates that dream.

In disrepair from its more than 40 years in storage, the Torah scroll was sent to a scribe, who fixed its cracked letters. Local community member Lee Goldschmidt and his family donated the restoration costs in memory of his parents, Manfred and Lisl Goldschmidt, and Sandra Goldschmidt.

Rabbi Moshe Katsenelenbogen with two of his grandchildren
Rabbi Moshe Katsenelenbogen with two of his grandchildren

“I can’t think of a greater way to honor the memory of his parents,” said Nochum Katsenelenbogen, whose Chabad House today includes a Hebrew school.

On Sunday, the historic scroll will formally be welcomed to the Chabad House with a ceremony attended by congregants, local politicians and rabbinical leaders from across the state. Attendees will get the chance to fill in the scroll’s last new letters before parading it around in a joyous procession of singing and dancing.

“There are more than 20,000 Jews in this area,” said the Chabad House rabbi. “What we are bringing to the area is an unencumbered joy, a celebration of Judaism.”

For his part, the elder Katsenelenbogen could hardly contain himself.

“What a pleasure and what an honor it is to donate this Torah to a Chabad House and outreach center being run by my son,” he said emotionally. “Sitting on those wooden planks in the cold and miserable jail, eating sardines and hard bread, who would have believed that this could actually happen?”