Calais Torah To Honor Slain Israeli :
Scroll Heads For New Home In Kibbutz Synagogue

By Diana Graettinger,
Bangor Daily News, Bangor, Me
front page Jan 4, 1999

A copy of the Torah, or Jewish holy scroll, that for years was a focal point of a now defunct synagogue in this border community is traveling to its new home in Israel thanks to the efforts of former state Sen. Harold Silverman.

Unlike Bibles that are reproduced by printing presses, Torahs, even today, are handwritten by scribes working with the quill of a goose on parchment. "It is a craft over 3,000 years old," said Silverman, a retired merchant. It takes anywhere from two to five years to complete one.

Silverman, who was a member of the Chaim Josef Synagogue , explained the history of the Torah's trip from Calais to Israel.

In 1924, there were enough Jews living in the St. Croix Valley to establish a synagogue. "They came from Calais and St. Stephen, New Brunswick. One family came from as far away as Grand Falls. From the American side, they also came from Eastport and Lubec," he said.

Twenty families got together and bought a Colonial-style house on North Street large enough for a synagogue and an apartment for their new rabbi. The second floor had a community center and teaching rooms. At first, at least a half-dozen members with strong religious educations led the community, Silverman said.

Their first permanent spiritual leader was Rabbi Jacob Kahlchein. Kahlchein, who was born in what formerly was known as White Russia, had immigrated to New York about the time the synagogue was established. When he learned of Calais' need for a rabbi to lead an Orthodox synagogue a few years later, he and his wife moved to Calais. They moved to Israel in 1950, two years after it became a nation.

After Kahlchein left, the synagogue was without a permanent spiritual leader; rabbis came and went, Silverman said. As young people grew up and moved away from the area, the synagogue became inactive.

Since the closing, the community has celebrated the traditions of its faith in members' homes.

"When it became inactive in 1964, it had three Torahs," Silverman said. "One was sent to a synagogue in Montreal ... one was sent to a nursing home in Boston, and the third was put in a box and placed in a bank in St. Stephen." The Torah was placed there by Burton Baig, who lived in Calais but managed a business in St. Stephen. Howard Urdang, a St. Stephen merchant, built the wooden container the Torah was stored in.

The Royal Canadian Bank in St. Stephen told the Jewish community it would store the Torah at the bank free of charge. "The dream was that someday the community could be revived," Silverman explained. The Torah remained in the bank vault for more than 30 years.

When the bank moved more than a year ago, Silverman said, he was asked to find a new home for the Torah.

During the past summer, he said, Shamai Keinan visited him from Jerusalem and they discussed the future of the Torah. Keinan is a member of an organization called the Menora, the Authority for the Repatriation of Diaspora Synagogues to Israel, a group devoted to relocating used ritual objects to synagogues in Israel.

Keinan told Silverman that the group had recovered Jewish religious items from Europe, but had not done much in the United States.

Silverman said he discussed the possibility of making a gift of the Calais Torah with Burton Baig, Baig's wife, Jessie, and Howard Urdang, and they agreed Israel was a proper home for it.

The next step was to make certain the Torah was in usable condition. Silverman asked Rabbi Henry Isaacs of Bangor to examine the scroll and he pronounced it in good condition.

"It still needs work on it," Silverman said. A scribe in Israel will read the Torah letter by letter when it arrives and restore any letters whose ink has faded.

The next question, Silverman said, was to determine where in Israel the Torah would be housed.

In September Silverman visited the Menora Authority in Jerusalem and was pleased to learn that the Torah would go to a newly built synagogue at a regional kibbutz religious school of 1,200 students. Silverman said he has been associated with the kibbutz in the Beit Shean Valley, close to the Jordan River and about 90 minutes from Jerusalem. Since tracing his religious roots to the kibbutz in the mid-1960s, he has returned every year to participate in its activities.

The story took on added dimension when Silverman learned that an Israeli family wanted a Torah that could be dedicated to their son. More than a year ago, 25-year-old Maj. Nadav Milo died in defense of Israel. "His mother was looking for a Torah in memory of his name," Silverman said.

Silverman's wife, Rachel, explained it was important for the memory of the fallen soldier that a Torah be dedicated in his honor. The major's name will be etched on the "Meel," a velvet cover for the Torah.

Rachel Silverman described the Torah's importance to Jews. She said God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. "Moses wrote the five books on parchment. He then put it in the Ark to keep it for all time," she said. Moses then gave it to the 12 tribes of Israel.

Silverman talked about the importance of the Torah to him. "The teachings and understandings of the Torah give mankind the treasury of knowledge of how to live with the Creator and the proper approach of how to live with fellow mankind," he said. "For me the Torah's knowledge is the foundation of my Jewish family lifestyle and the Jewish parental family table that it provides for my children, home and marriage."

The next step, Silverman said, was to deliver the Torah to Bangor so the Menora Authority could deliver it to New York. The Torah has since been delivered to the 5th Avenue Synagogue in New York where it awaits shipping to Israel. Silverman said on New Year's Eve that the Menora Authority was waiting for someone with the proper Jewish religious credentials to take the Torah from New York to Israel. He expected it would be delivered in early January.

But before Silverman delivered the Torah to Bangor, working with a yad -- a pointer used by the Torah reader -- he read from it to his three daughters, Reemon, 9, Keseah, 11, and Anav, 13.

A dedication ceremony is planned for September 1999 in Israel. The Silvermans plan to attend. A plaque will explain where the Torah came from. Written in English and Hebrew, the plaque will say, "This Torah is a gift from the Calais, Maine U.S.A. Jewish Community to the Land of Israel from the following families: Harold and Rachel Silverman, Burton and Jessie Baig, Howard and Janet Urdang and Nathan and Miriam Cohen."

There also will be a metal marker on the wooden part of the Torah that says, "The Calais Torah." A marker on the other side will say the "Milo Family" in honor of their dead son.

last updated : April 24, 2009

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