Photo Credit: Kulanu Crew. This article was originally published in Kulanu Spring 2020 Magazine, and online https://kulanu.org/a-tale-of-two-torahs/
In January 2020, when flight AD2402 touched down at Santos Dumont Airport in Rio de Janeiro, most passengers were unaware they had become part of a mission to bring a Torah to northeastern Brazil. Its destination was a three-hour drive to Recife, home to the first synagogue in the Americas and to several centuries-old Jewish communities. One of these communities waited over 40 years to receive a Torah and this donation marked the culmination of the long-awaited dream of several generations.
A month earlier, as 2019 came to an end, a similar mission to the Philippines was carried out for a Jewish community that emerged there 24 years ago. In 1996, Rabbi Avraham Coalesce Browne (Rabbi Coalesce) arrived in General Santos City to become the spiritual leader of an emerging Jewish community, Q’hilot Benai Yisrael. As with many such communities in that country, they had no Sefer Torah.
“When I was asked to take the Torah to the Bnei Anusim community in Recife, I didn’t even think twice! My homeland is Recife, but I have lived in Rio de Janeiro for 28 years. I enthusiastically thought it would be an eternal link between the members of that community, the American community, and Israel. My grandfather would be so happy and honored with my bringing the Torah to Recife, where he lived!”
Back in Brazil, the Bereshit Olam community in the Recife area of Pernambuco shared a similar story. Although they did not have a Sefer Torah, they remained hopeful that someday they would receive one. In the meantime, they stayed committed to living the Jewish lifestyle practiced by their great- grandparents and passed down to them. As descendants of the Crypto-Jews (also known as Bnei Anusim in Hebrew, which literally means the children of the forced) of Portugal, they formally converted to Judaism and many now engage in Orthodox practice. Under the leadership of Carlos Maciel, the community has ended its isolation and continues to grow. They reached out to Kulanu with a request for a Sefer Torah.
Bonita Sussman, vice president of Kulanu, has been involved in securing a number of Sifrei Torah from donor synagogues in the United States. When the Tree of Life Synagogue in Oil City, Pennsylvania closed, Noah Levine of the Jewish Community Legacy Project (jclproject. org) told them of the opportunity to rekindle its light elsewhere. It was an unfortunate situation for this Pennsylvania Jewish community, forced to close down as membership declined. Yet, they are comforted knowing that two of their most treasured Torahs have found new homes in Brazil and the Philippines.
Moe Levine, a Kulanu volunteer, became the conduit for one Torah to travel to the Philippines. On the flight from JFK International Airport, Moe became acquainted with an Israeli passenger who helped him carry the Torah to its handover in the Philippines.
“It was nice to be part of bringing a sacred Torah from one remote community that was winding down to another that was trying to establish itself on the opposite side of the world.”
Rabbi Coalesce and his wife were overjoyed to receive the Torah and welcome Moe to their country. All the members of Q’hilot Benai Yisrael community were ecstatic and welcomed the Sefer Torah by celebrating for two days. So much joy was felt while removing the Torah from the brown-colored ark, circling the beit knesset (synagogue) seven times, singing several tehillim (psalms), dancing, and then sharing a communal meal. In addition, on each day a portion of the week’s parashah (weekly Torah portion) was read from their new Torah.
In January 2020, preparations were underway for Hana Fried, another Kulanu volunteer, to deliver the second Torah to Brazil, South America. For Hana, it was a historic trip connecting her back to the community where her grandfather, Moyses Vainstein, had made his home. After fleeing Russia decades ago, he worked in Brazil tirelessly for the Keren Kayemet L’Israel (Jewish National Fund) and the local synagogue.
As Hana began her long journey to the Torah’s new home, an observant Jewish man at Newark Liberty International Airport insisted on saying a short prayer with her. Even the flight crew understood how sacred the wrapped scroll was and treated it with respect, placing it in the compartment where they keep their own personal luggage.
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The leaders of the Jewish community, Carlos Maciel and Odmar Braga, flew in from Recife to greet Hana and the Torah at the airport in Rio de Janeiro. This was a defining moment for the Brazilian Jewish community of Bereshit Olam. This scroll, from a closing synagogue in North America, was breathing new life into a growing community in South America.
With this scroll, the members of the congregation have an opportunity to forge their own unique identity. They no longer have to travel to another synagogue to have access to a Torah. They can now focus on building their own community and maintaining the traditional approach to Judaism long practiced by their forefathers.
Likewise, in the Philippines, the Q’hilot Benai Yisrael members have been able to expand their practice. Now, ascending to the Torah when there is a minyan has become part of the Shabbat service, as has carrying the Sefer Torah around the beit knesset prior to the Torah reading. Many congregants are learning to read from the Torah and consider it a great mitzvah.
Expressing his immeasurable joy, Rabbi Coalesce said, “We give thanks to Hashem for favoring us by allowing Kulanu to assist our community in obtaining a Sefer Torah. I’m grateful for the love, friendship, time, and effort that Kulanu has invested not only for us but in all of Kulanu’s global communities.”
ABOUT THE WRITER: Avraham ben Avraham is a Nigerian Writer, Business Consultant, International Tour Guide and a Jewish Travel Blogger. He is the founder of the Jewish Nigeria Blog (his 2nd blog after the Jewish Standards). Avraham is also a contributory writer in the diaspora section of The Jerusalem Post Magazine. Some of his upcoming projects include: the Jewish Nigeria Online Forum, Jewish Nigeria Directory, the “Book of the Returning Jews,” and Parnasah Network (Nigeria). He is a member of the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce (New Jersey).
Upcoming Stories on the Jewish Nigeria Blog
- Fulfilling the Mitzvah of Brit After Celebrating the Giving of the Law on the Festival of Shavuot
- Jewish Nigeria Parnasah Network Upcoming Seminar for Youth Empowerment
- Pushing towards the establishment of a typical Jewish Nigeria community settlement
- The “Book of the Returning Jews of Nigeria.”
- The fight against Antisemitism
Memorable scenes from the Philippines and Brazil, as the two jewish Communities receive a Sefer Torah