Czech Sifrei Torah Scroll
Our Community’s Czech Scroll
The Czech Scrolls which came to Westminster Synagogue in 1963 were from the two provinces of Moravia and Bohemia, with a few from the Sudetenland. These scrolls are all survivors of the Shoah (Holocaust) and are connections to the Jewish community that formerly thrived in that part of Europe. We are hosting scroll #221 of the Memorial Scrolls Trust collection from the city of Ostrava, which in the 1930’s had six thriving synagogues.
Emanu-El congregant, Anita Josefa Barzman, M.D., arranged for this scroll to come to Emanu-El and personally brought it here from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London, England. We are thankful for her thoughtfulness and dedication to this project. We look forward to honoring this scroll for the b’nei mitzvah of our members for many years to come, L’dor V’dor, from generation to generation.
This Czech Torah Scroll is on permanent loan to the Congregation Emanu-El San Francisco community. More information about the Memorial Scrolls Trust can be found on their website, here.
MY JEWISH JOURNEY – RESTORING A LIVING TORAH
“People ask me. Why am I doing this? For me, it has everything to do with being Jewish, and being able to connect to Jewish history, and above all, the Torah.”
– Anita Josefa Barzman, M.D.
It’s impossible to know just how you will react when faced with a personal tragedy. After navigating past the raw grief, is it possible to find greater meaning behind what transpired? Might it serve as a catalyst for personal growth—as a human being and as a Jew? If we desire a closer relationship with a force greater than ourselves, including our own Jewish faith, what we learn from personal loss can only serve to help us. For Emanu-El member Anita Barzman, that experience came later in her life, and eventually it ushered in a whole new level of Jewish fulfillment with her unique experience of transporting Czech Torah scroll (MST #221) from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London all the way to Temple Emanu-El (where it is now housed in our Rinder Chapel).
Born in 1954 on the East Side of Manhattan in the neighborhood of Stuyvesant Town, Barzman was the product of a Communist father, Sol Barzman, whose parents hailed from Belarus and a mother, Bella Prostakov, whose parents were from the Ukraine. Growing up, Anita’s parents would send her to Jewish summer camp and Yiddish school. But these were isolated Jewish moments in young Anita’s life. Neither of her parents were observant Jews. “I think because of my father’s politics, secular Jews like him adhered to other forms of thought,” said Barzman. “Since their passing, I’ve only been able to speculate why they didn’t want to join a shul. But there was such a pervasive feeling of being culturally Jewish living in Manhattan that I knew I was a Jew. In my own quiet way, I would observe Yom Kippur but for the most part, I was sort of lost to my Jewishness.”
Upon graduating from Hunter College High School, Barzman attended Tufts University, outside of Boston. Largely secular at this time of her life, Barzman continued to develop a very strong social justice component to her life. Over the years, her social consciousness led to a split between her inclination to be observant and concerns about some of the domestic policies in Israel. “I know it’s all very complicated. But policies enacted by Israel against its Palestinian neighbors deeply troubled me. I kept wondering. How can I affiliate myself with a synagogue because of my concerns about the State of Israel?”
While at Tufts, Barzman studied drama and English, with thoughts of pursuing a career in theater; however, the wave of modern feminism in the 1970s pulled her more toward women’s health and history. This awakening led Barzman to completely change direction and gravitate to the field of medicine. She attended Columbia University’s post-baccalaureate pre-med program, and in 1981 was admitted to UCSF here in San Francisco. Barzman completed her medical school studies in 1985, and then—because her spiritual journey continued to attract her to the study of human nature—she went on to complete a psychiatry residency in 1989.
Absent any Barzman’s relationship to Judaism remained fairly dormant up to this stage of her life, consisting mainly of attending Passover Seders, lighting Chanukah candles, and observing the yahrzeits of her father and maternal grandmother. Then, on March 22, 2015, her 92-year old mother Bella died. “My mother died in a Methodist nursing home in upstate New York. There was no chaplaincy to help my sister and me with my mother’s dying process. It was another moment of awakening for me.” Barzman contacted a rabbi who knew her mother in upstate New York. The rabbi chanted El Maleh Rachamim (meaning “God full of compassion”) and counseled Barzman. “I was so lost at the time. But I remember the rabbi saying to me that sometimes what people do after the death of a parent is to take something up to study. Being a perennial student, I told myself I had to learn Hebrew and join a Reform congregation.”
Just a couple months later, during Pesach in 2015, Barzman contacted Emanu-El Membership Director Terry Krauss, who encouraged Barzman to attend a Yizkor service. Barzman eventually met with Senior Rabbi Jonathan Singer, and then made the decision to join Emanu-El. She took it upon herself to begin learning Hebrew and also started attending Friday night Shabbat services. “I told Rabbi Jonathan about my previous obstacles in joining a shul. He responded that this was a very big congregation with members who have all different kinds of feelings and ideas. I started regularly observing Shabbat and took Rabbi Kushner’s Hebrew grammar class. Kushner said he was teaching people Hebrew so they can read the Torah. I said to myself, “You mean I can really read the Torah?”
For Barzman, studying the Torah became a serious endeavor in the pursuit of human knowledge. Within a year of joining Congregation Emanu-El, she found her way to shifting her work life from her previous solo private practice of psychiatry, Jungian psychoanalysis, and homeopathy, to joining the staff of HealthRight360/Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinics as their psychiatrist. To actively and explicitly engage in Tikkun Olam by helping underserved and marginalized people coincided with her study of Torah. “I felt I was led to my new work because of this arc of becoming involved in my own Jewishness. Now I’m feeling like every hour I’m doing something meaningful by spending time with these traumatized patients and in so doing am helping to repair our world.”
Coupled with a powerful Hebrew/English software translator recommended by Rabbi Kushner (called Davka), Barzman is now on her third journey through the Torah; she studies Torah every day. She looks forward to eventually becoming Batmitzvah and being able to chant Torah during services. Barzman’s love of Torah parallels her fascination with 20th-century history, an interest that eventually led her to the Memorial Scrolls Trust. In late 2015, Barzman took a trip to England to visit her daughter Arianna who was studying abroad at the University of Sussex. While there, the closest Reform synagogue she could find to attend Shabbat services was Westminster Synagogue, near Hyde Park in London. In viewing the synagogue’s website, she discovered a page devoted to the Czech scrolls; the museum at Westminster houses 1,564 Czech scrolls that had been saved from Nazi destruction in Prague and miraculously found their way.
Excited by this discovery, Barzman scheduled a personal tour of the museum and was guided by Rabbi Ariel Friedlander whose father (also a rabbi) served at Westminster during the 1960s when the scrolls first arrived. The Memorial Scrolls Trust has lent out these surviving scrolls to congregations around the world so they can remain an enduring, living document, a testament to their surviving the Holocaust and serving as a connection back to Europe before the Shoah. Barzman later spoke with the Memorial Scrolls Trustee/Chairman, Jeffrey Ohrenstein to inquire if any of these scrolls had ever come to San Francisco. Other congregations do serve as homes to Czech Torah scrolls (including Beth Shalom), but as it happened, Emanu-El did not have one of these scrolls.
“I wanted Emanu-El to become my Jewish and spiritual home,” said Barzman. “We have three arks at Emanu-El and I felt compelled to bring up the idea of facilitating our congregation becoming home to one of these precious scrolls. I met with Executive David Goldman and Marketing Director Rob Freedman in January 2016. They were very supportive. I said I would be willing to pay the adoption fee and the annual fee for housing the Torah. I wanted to make this happen.”
A few months later, Emanu-El announced a very special trip to Eastern Europe exploring the rebirth of Judaism in such cities as Prague and Warsaw. For Barzman, it was an ideal timeframe. At the trip’s conclusion, she would stop in London and bring home MST #221 to Emanu-El. The scroll came from Ostrava, which is the Easternmost part of the Czech Republic. It was previously a coal-mining city that expanded in the late 19th century. At its height, six synagogues were in Ostrava, prior to their ruination by the Nazis. It is now the third-largest city in the Czech Republic.
There was one last-minute complication that had to be worked out before Barzman could bring Torah MST #221 to Emanu- El. Barzman was informed that the scroll could not be used because it wasn’t officially approved, so a scribe was sought out who eventually was able to restore it. “When I finally got to Westminster synagogue and saw the Torah itself, I had a visceral reaction as if I already knew this Torah. It was very powerful.” Barzman obtained a 40-inch-long duffel bag so the Torah could sit right next to her on the plane back to San Francisco. She made it through customs surprisingly with minimal hassle. “Customs agents were respective of this religious object,” said Barzman.
Barzman arrived back at Emanu-El with the Torah on the morning of Monday, May 15, and Fabian, one of Emanu-El’s custodians, helped her put MST #221 into the ark. When she was about to leave, Fabian asked Barzman if she were a rabbi.
“I wish,” I said to myself. But if I had to do this all over again, I would try to be a rabbi. There’s definitely an overlap with what I do today. It’s no accident that the person who invented psychoanalysis was Jewish. There is just so much wisdom and insight about human nature in the Torah, and in our relationship with the divine. One of my favorite passages is Moses’s conversation with God in the Book of Exodus. When God is going to reveal his presence to Moses and he has to go to the cleft of the rock. And Moses can only see God’s back and not the front. It’s so thrilling when you read it in Hebrew! For me, this is even better than reading Freud or Jung. It’s such an established heritage.”
To be able to bring back a scroll that had escaped Nazi destruction and make it available on loan to Emanu-El was not only an emotional and spiritual peak for Barzman, but it also served as a bridge to her Jewish heritage with its focus on European Jewry and, in particular, the tragedy of the Holocaust. “As Jews of the post-WWII generation, it’s absolutely part of our collective unconscious. As a young woman I had visited Dachau, and on the Eastern Europe trip I visited Auschwitz and Terezin. It’s such a visceral experience. I felt that when I was carrying the Torah back to San Francisco, there was a particular need to take care of it because it was also taking care of me. I hope that its presence in our congregation will bring greater immediacy to it, especially for those who use it for their bar or bat mitzvah who died at Terezin. I would want our kids to feel something about that today.”
For Barzman, connecting back to her ancestors has served as an anchor for her Jewish journey. Growing up in the 1950s with parents who weren’t religious created a spiritual disconnect for her. “I do think my parents’ generation had this feeling of ‘where is God’ or ‘maybe it’s not safe to be Jewish,’” said Barzman. “Something was lost.”
It took many decades of searching and wandering but eventually, Barzman found what she was looking for. “There was a lack in my life, in my health, both mental and spiritual. For most of my life, I’ve been homesick for something but didn’t know exactly what I was homesick for. Often as a young adult, especially on those Friday nights, I felt I should be going out to celebrate. Now, upon reflection, I realize what I was looking for was Shabbat on Friday nights. If I had been experiencing Shabbat for all these years, I wonder if I would have had a better life? Now my life is beautiful. I look forward to Shabbat every week. It’s feeding me. Spiritual health is so important and it’s not something we think about enough of.”