The relationship between the People of the Book and the Book has few parallels anywhere outside of Judaism. The Torah is said to be the soul of the Jewish people and the reverence Jews reserve for it suggests no less. Covered in velvet, crowned in silver, the Torah is the object of Jewish celebration and ritual. Jews dance with her when she is new, and bury her when she is too old to be used.
So it was a palpable joy that permeated the Jewish community of Zhitomir last week, when 17 Torah scrolls lying in disrepair for more than 70 years, were finally returned to this Ukrainian Jewish community.
The Torahs are part of some 265 pieces of scrolls stolen by the Soviet government and hidden in the Zhitomir archives. It took years of negotiations to secure the release of the first installment of 17 scrolls, a gesture that does much to strengthen the ties between the government and Ukraine’s Jewish community.
At a formal ceremony and press conference, Zhitomir’s governor, Sergei Nikolayovitch, handed the first of the scrolls to Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi Ezriel Chaikin, who described the Torah as a living book—it gives life to the people, and the people, in turn, give life to the Torah, he explained.
The governor pointed in praise to the Federation of Jewish Communities and Or Avner who work on behalf of the region’s Jews. 200 children—students of the Or Avner Chabad School in Zhitomir waited excitedly outside the archive, for their turn to kiss the scrolls.
Speaking at the news conference was also Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, Chief Rabbi of Zhitomir and Western Ukraine. These scrolls prove that Jewish life in the region is strong and growing, he said.“These scrolls will not be placed in another closet . . . there are communities waiting to use them.” The commission of a new Torah scroll–written painstakingly and meticulously by hand, costs anywhere upwards of $35,000.00, a steep sum for many of the new and fledgling communities in the Ukraine, who will now have the use of these scrolls once they are repaired.
After the festivities, Rabbi Chaikin inscribed the first letter of a new Torah scroll—the first in more than 80 years to be written in Zhitomir—which will be dedicated upon completion, to this growing Jewish community.