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The Torah Heard Round the World

My synagogue is using the scrolls my grandfather once used as a military chaplain in WWII. Now, once again, his Torah brings comfort during a time of danger and uncertainty.

Julian E. Zelizer
May 20, 2020
Courtesy Julian Zelizer
Nathan Zelizer, right, in South CarolinaCourtesy Julian Zelizer
Courtesy Julian Zelizer
Nathan Zelizer, right, in South CarolinaCourtesy Julian Zelizer

I stood with my wife, Meg, near the kitchen island of our rental house, a temporary pandemic refuge, watching our synagogue livestream Sabbath morning services. Since we fled New York City in early March, the entire experience has been surreal, joining part of a global community held together by Zoom. We depend on the virtual universe to keep us in touch with our regular social lives—online cocktail hours with friends and streaming shows that keep us entertained. Our work as professors is all online.

Midway through services, my eyes opened a little wider when our cantor chanting the prayers held up a small Torah, dressed in a maroon cover with a silver chest plate. This was not just any Torah. It was our family heirloom. The cantor of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue was cradling a Torah that had been through another major crisis: WWII. This sacred scroll had come into my hands through my late grandfather Nathan Zelizer, who brought it with him to the Pacific as a military chaplain in 1944.

This Torah, which my grandfather used to conduct services for soldiers facing danger and death, was now part of the heroic effort to deliver comfort to a community surviving COVID-19.

Nathan Zelizer was an immigrant who arrived in the United States from Poland in 1920 with his mother, three brothers, and sister. His father, also a rabbi, came a few years earlier. The Zelizer family settled on Dekalb Avenue in Brooklyn. The economic hardship they encountered in the U.S. felt overwhelming. One time, Nathan ate orange peels when he was desperate with hunger.

Education was a central value. He earned his undergraduate degree at NYU in 1929, his master’s degree at Columbia one year later, and in 1931 he was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

At the depths of the Great Depression, my grandfather took a job at Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio. The Conservative synagogue was on the brink of collapse. The membership had fallen from 200 families in 1929 to about 90, along with a whopping $150,000 mortgage for a new building. To make things work, my grandfather raised money for basic operations through weekly poker games. He handled routine staff jobs on his own, such as tutoring kids in Hebrew and recruiting members. Over the course of the decade, he placed his synagogue on sound footing. By 1940, membership reached over 400 families. He also started a family, marrying Florence Handler in 1936, the daughter of a scrap metal business owner. The couple had their first child, my father Gerald, on Dec. 14, 1938.

Despite the scars that he suffered, fearing for the rest of his life that the bottom could fall out at any moment, Nathan loved this country. He believed that for a Jew the opportunities were better than anywhere in the world.

Nathan Zelizer as a military chaplain
Nathan Zelizer as a military chaplainCourtesy Julian Zelizer

In 1944, the year after his second child, Deborah, was born, he volunteered for military service—one of more than 300 rabbis commissioned as chaplains in WWII. After the synagogue granted him a two-year leave, he moved the family to a military base in Charleston, South Carolina, for basic training. The Jewish Welfare Board, an organization created in WWI to help Jewish soldiers and train rabbinic military chaplains, provided him a Torah that he could use overseas. That’s when the Torah had entered into our family history.

In December 1944, Nathan led fellow trainees in a Hanukkah celebration. Soon after, he was sent out to the Pacific with the U.S. Army; he started using the Torah to conduct services for soldiers.

As Nathan traveled to places as far away as Tinian and Saipan, the Torah always remained by his side. It allowed him to physically transport the core of the Jewish tradition without having the formal architecture of the synagogue. The soldiers depended on the spiritual comfort that the prayers provided.

The war was personally transformative. It helped Nathan perceive the power of the interfaith community. Until then, my grandfather had seen Christianity through the prism of anti-Semitism. But working with Protestant and Catholic preachers opened his eyes to the commonalities of all religious tradition that could provide ethical and spiritual order in a broken world.

After he returned to Tifereth Israel in 1946, the Torah remained a tool for him to bring religion to others in need who remained outside the sanctuary walls. He used it as the chaplain for the Ohio Penitentiary, where he helped Gov. Frank Lausche find inmates capable of rehabilitation. Nathan read from the scroll while preaching in the Chillicothe Correctional Institute, the London Prison Farm, the state hospitals of Central Ohio, and the Veteran’s Administration Hospital. The belief in God, he said, was “the driving force that makes you fight for what ought to be. Religion gives you a long-term point of view and minimizes the frustrations of the moment.”

The Torah’s journey didn’t end there. Upon retiring from his pulpit in 1974, Nathan and Florence brought the Torah with them to Florida. Nathan, who one colleague called the “Johnny Appleseed” of rabbis, wasn’t the type to retire; his unyielding drive to build Jewish institutions could not be contained. He established a synagogue on the west coast of the Sunshine State as well as several in the Boca Raton area. “God created the Earth out of nothing, and Rabbi Zelizer created synagogues out of nothing,” one rabbi recalled. But his colleague didn’t have it quite right. What allowed him to create new congregations was the fact that he brought the Torah with him, the foundation for any shul. It literally was a seed. He brought the Torah with him on weekend drives to Melbourne, Florida, where he served as the rabbi for Jews working at the NASA Space Shuttle project.

After my grandfather died in 2001, his wife, Jeanette, (he remarried after my grandmother passed away) gifted this beautiful Torah to my father, who was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 1964. Always believing that my grandfather would want the Torah to be living rather than some sort of museum piece, my father loaned it to his synagogue, Temple Neve Shalom in Metuchen, New Jersey, where it was used in the morning minyan.

But the Torah, like my grandfather, was never meant to sit still. So after retiring, my father gifted it to me. Meg and I loaned the Torah to our synagogue in Princeton, New Jersey, where it was used for the bnai mitzvah of our four children. Owning the Torah imbued family ceremonies with special meaning. Our rabbi, the late Adam Feldman, made sure to discuss the intergenerational connection of this sacred object, which always brought tears to the eyes of those in the sanctuary. When our son Nathan read his parsha from the same scroll his namesake used in the Pacific, we could see in real time how Judaism connects generation to generation.

The torah today
The torah todayCourtesy Julian Zelizer

When our family moved to New York, we brought the Torah with us and loaned it to our new shul, the Park Avenue Synagogue, as our Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove instantly understood the significance of this family treasure.

And now the Torah is back in action during a crisis. When I saw Cantor Azi Schwartz holding my grandfather’s Torah snug to his chest, I was overwhelmed by emotions about how our tradition has the capacity to travel over time and space in a troubled world. He has incorporated this scroll into some of the online services that we watch in our virtual world, part of how he brings relief to all of us who are trying to stay healthy and be patient until this viral storm passes so we can return to normalcy. As he held that Torah, the cantor offered a small taste of what so many observant Jews dearly miss, the spiritual wonder of attending services on Friday night and Saturday morning as we connect with our congregational friends and take time away from the demands of the secular world to pray and learn.

And yet, I couldn’t also help feeling that my grandfather’s Torah needs to be returned to a physical home as soon as possible. While the Jewish community is rightly focused on making sure that public health guidelines are followed, we must be prepared, when this pandemic is over, to do everything possible to repair our social fabric, which includes the synagogue, church, and mosque. Jews and other places of social bonds—educational, cultural, and other nonprofit groups—will struggle to survive when this ends.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the institutions that are so vital to the emotional health of our world—the places where people come together for common interests and experiences, the organizations that offer cultural education and celebration, and the physical religious rooms that help us achieve spiritual vitality. A new normal cannot exist without them. We can’t be virtual forever.

In the years ahead, we must do everything that is necessary to fix the broken spaces where Torahs like my grandfather’s are housed and where we come together as a people to worship. Just as my grandfather did almost 75 years ago, we will need to bring the Torahs back home, as soon as this war is over.

Julian E. Zelizer is a political historian at Princeton University. He is finishing a biography of Abraham Joshua Heschel that will be published by Yale University Press as part of the Jewish Lives Series. In July, Penguin Press will publish Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.