It’s a match made in heaven. The “bridegrooms” are old Torah scrolls from defunct synagogues; scrolls that stand unused and forlorn in their lonely arks of velvet and wood, in buildings now silent of the laughter of children, or even the drone of elderly worshippers; Torah scrolls that have become worn over the years by loving hands that traced and retraced their holy letters, the sacred parchment rolled and unrolled a thousand times, tearstained by heartfelt pleas during a bar mitzvah, a baby naming, an aufruf.
In a wonderful partnership between college campuses and the Sandra Brand Torah Project, these precious scrolls are being lovingly repaired, restored and revitalized. Then the old scrolls are paired with their “brides,” the hundreds of Jewish college students brimming with youth and vitality, who are discovering their roots on Jewish campus organizations across the U.S. They are the recipients of these Torah scrolls which have been given new life by an indomitable woman who cares deeply about Jewish survival.
Mrs. Sandra Brand (Weintraub) is in her nineties and a Holocaust survivor. She lost her entire family including her husband and only child during the war and miraculously survived by posing as a Catholic for almost three years. About seven years ago, at an age when most people are content to rest on their laurels, Sandra initiated the Torah Project. She feels strongly that the impetus and idea “was transmitted to me by my father in some mysterious way. I’m not so smart.” Leyzer Brand was a pious, Chasidic Jew and growing up in Poland before the war, father and daughter would often clash about religion and values. “My father laid down a lot of hard rules and I rejected them” she says. “I was a bad girl.”
Sandra came to the U.S. in 1947 and immediately fell in love with her adopted country. “After only three days in this country, I knew I was at home,” she says. She married Arik Weintraub and began writing about her wartime experiences. Her most widely acclaimed book I Dared to Live was translated in several languages and won a literary prize. Slowly, she began to return to her roots. “I chose Judaism,” she says. “Not because my parents were religious or because anyone forced me to, but because I had lived as a non-Jew and practiced another religion which kept me alive, but I now realized that my father’s teachings were moral and spiritual and I wanted those values for myself.”
Sandra had an abiding interest in education and higher learning and sensed that the Jewish college students in the U.S. “know they are Jewish, but they know very little about Judaism.” She noticed that university libraries are replete with books on every religion, but the Torah scroll is located only in a synagogue. “I thought that in those schools where there are many Jewish students, there should be a Torah scroll too.” Thus began the Sandra Brand Torah Project that to date has provided Torahs to fourteen Jewish student organizations including the campus Chabad Houses at Duke, Harvard, Cornell, UVA, Wellsley and Suny at New Paltz, with many more to be added.
Maia Aron, the administrator of the Torah Project, and Rabbi Dovid Krautwirth, a certified scribe, research synagogues that are giving away or selling their old Torah scrolls and seek to match them up with Jewish student organizations that are in need of one.
“I have to assure the shuls that their precious scrolls are going to a good home,” says Aaron. “Our criterion is that there be a rabbi who takes responsibility for the scrolls and that there be a minyan on Shabbos. On the smaller campuses, we try to help them build up a minyan as well.”
Rabbi Eli Silberstein, director of Chabad at Cornell University says that the Torah Project “creates that rare connection with students who didn’t in the past identify with a synagogue. Some of the students are being called up for an aliyah for the first time in their lives, and here in our Chabad House, where they are already very comfortable, the Torah is sparking their Jewish identities and we have seen that this has a lasting effect.”
Harvard’s Chabad Rabbi Hershel Zarchi echoes those sentiments. “Here at our Chabad, the Torah doesn’t rest in the ark, it is alive, it is used, and the energy and synergy that Mrs. Brand wants to create with Judaism and with students is visible every Shabbos.”
Sandra Brand was witness to some of this energy at the two Torah dedication ceremonies she was able to attend. “I am so happy that I am still alive to see that the project is 100% successful,” she said.
“When I see the young people dancing around the torah and kissing it and marching with it, I feel that I have achieved my goal. And when I am gone, there will be someone else who will take over.”