Photo courtesy of the author
Rabbi David Wolfman leads Rosh Hashanah Services at Kehilat Shanghai, Shanghai, China, September 2015.Photo courtesy of the author
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A Torah Finds a New Home—and Invigorates a Congregation—in Shanghai

Smuggled to Brazil from Germany in 1939, the scroll was donated to Kehilat Shanghai and used during Rosh Hashanah services in the former Ohel Moishe synagogue

Rebecca Kanthor
September 17, 2015
Photo courtesy of the author
Rabbi David Wolfman leads Rosh Hashanah Services at Kehilat Shanghai, Shanghai, China, September 2015.Photo courtesy of the author

A well-traveled Torah relic rescued from Nazi Germany has made its way to China—via Brazil—to serve a lay-led liberal congregation in Shanghai, China, that was in need of a Torah in order to conduct Rosh Hashanah services. The Torah, which has seen several repairs over the years and dates back to 1939 Germany, was welcomed with open arms by members of Kehilat Shanghai during the fledgling congregation’s Rosh Hashanah services—the first to be held in the former Ohel Moishe synagogue, where European Jews took refuge during World War II, in over 60 years. The Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum is now housed there.

Kehilat Shanghai’s intimate and uplifting Rosh Hashanah services were led by Rabbi David Wolfman, visiting from Boston. During the ceremonies Wolfman invited all of the members of the congregation, including several children, to surround him as he read from the histroric Torah; In August, Kehilat Shanghai member Jeanine Buzali traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to accept the Torah donation from Reform congregation Associação Religiosa Israelita (ARI). Kehilat Shanghai’s president Arie Schreier then carried the torah around the room, weaving his way through the crowd.

“We had no idea we would be here for the giving of the first Torah which was very emotional for us,” said Karin Batterton, who was vacationing in Shanghai from Baltimore with her daughter and grandson. “We felt a real kinship and we were so glad to see that there was a community developing in an area of the world that we had no clue about.”

The Torah has now served congregations spanning three continents. It was smuggled out of Germany in 1939 by Siegfried Moses, a member of Berlin’s Wisenstrasse Synagogue. Moses had been granted a visa to Brazil, so he agreed to carry the Torah with him, taking on a great risk as there were severe luggage restrictions in place for immigrants from Germany, according to Ricardo Gorodovits, President of ARI.

“It was one of our first Sefarim used extensively in all our ceremonies from 1942 till recently,” Gorodovits wrote in an email. The community that attends ARI was founded by German immigrants. Today it consists of 900 families, making it the largest congregation in Rio de Janeiro.

When Union for Progressive Judaism vice president Rabbi Joel Oseran—who led Kehilat Shanghai’s first High Holiday services five years ago—suggested to ARI that they donate one of their Torahs to a congregation in need elsewhere in the world, they chose Shanghai. The Torah donation was a way of honoring one of ARI’s founders, Josef Aronsohn, whom along with his father, was a German refugee in 1940s Shanghai before finding his way to Rio.

“Aronsohn trained thousand of ARI kids in their Bnei Mitzvah, including Ricardo [Gorodovits] and myself,” said Raul Gottlieb, an ARI board member. He added: “We have more Sefarim than we need for our daily use and it is a pity to keep them unused.”

For Buzali, bringing the torah from Rio to Shanghai marks an important step in Kehilat Shanghai’s growth as a congregation. “I think this means we now have a responsibility to have a continued presence here,” she said. “We need to always have a community around this Torah to support it and make sure that it is used. I think we can do it.”

Rebecca Kanthor is an independent print and radio journalist based in Shanghai.