Richmond, Va.
Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Alumni couple donate Torah that survived the Holocaust

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Virginia Commonwealth University announced today the acquisition of a Sefer Torah, a powerful symbol and moving presence in Jewish worship and community life. Presented by an alumni couple with deep connections to the university, it will be held and safeguarded by the VCU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

Donors Martin L. Johnson, M.D., and Olinda Young have ties to both MCV and Monroe Park campuses. Johnson completed his medical residency (house staff, plastic surgery, 1980) at the VCU School of Medicine, and Young holds two VCU degrees, a bachelor’s degree in education (1975) and a master’s degree in public administration (1981).

Johnson and Young are avid and eclectic collectors of global art, antiques and artifacts.

“We’ve spent 30 years collecting beautiful things,” Johnson said. “Now, at this stage in our lives, we want to share these beautiful things.” An interest in collecting old Bibles led to an interest in Torahs. He describes this Torah as “a monument to the survivors.”  

The Torah scroll, on parchment scribed in the customary Hebrew, was composed in Romania around 1750. During World War II, it was confiscated by the Nazis. It is believed to be from an area of Transnistria, known as the Romanian Auschwitz. Registration numbers and stamps confirm its provenance and also that the scroll was held by communists. It was repatriated to Israel in 2003. Israeli authorities released the scroll for private ownership. It is considered to be in excellent condition, according to the rare books and manuscripts appraiser who authenticated the artifact.

VCU Libraries will unveil the Torah, which is undergoing preservation, at a future event. It will be on display in the new library building, scheduled to open in 2015.

“We look forward to making this symbol of survival and hope available to our entire community for teaching, learning and remembrance, always with appropriate reverence and respect,” said University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider.

 For more photos of the Torah, visit an online album created by VCU Libraries.

VCU expert on Judaica explains the significance and meaning of the Holocaust Torah

Jack D. Spiro, Ed.D., D.H.L.

Religious studies professor Jack D. Spiro, Ed.D., D.H.L., the Harry Lyons Distinguished Chair in Judaic Culture at VCU and editor of VCU Menorah Review, answers a few questions about the Holocaust Torah.

How would you imagine or anticipate this artifact might be received by the VCU and metro Richmond community?

It will be received with profound gratitude and respect. It is the supreme symbol of Judaism and one of the Torahs that "survived" the burning of thousands.

Does a Holocaust Torah carry with it special meaning and symbolism? How so?

So much meaning it's difficult to summarize. Had there been no Holocaust, the Torah would have continued to be the supreme symbol of Judaism. It is read systematically every Sabbath and different portions in keeping with the themes of every Jewish holiday. It always occupies a central place in the synagogue with what is known as "Aron Kodesh"— a Holy Ark. There is simply no such thing as a synagogue without a Torah.

But how much the more so is a Holocaust Torah important because of the powerful metaphors associated with it. Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis. The Nazis and their perversely inhumane ideology are no more. But the Torah [is the] symbol of the sanctity of learning, and the basic values of the Judeo-Christian tradition live on through [it]. The Hebrew word itself means "teaching." Since there is no teaching without learning, it represents the central importance of education among all the values of Judaism. What could be more relevant, therefore, than to place such a symbolic object in the library of an institution of higher learning?

But another word of supreme importance in Judaism is "Zachor" -- "remember,” grammatically an imperative word. The Torah rescued from the total darkness of the Holocaust also represents this imperative.

What is the significance of this artifact to students and teaching?

It's quite possible that most students who take courses in religious studies at VCU, and even those who major or minor in religious studies, have never seen a Torah. Having a Torah on display with the ability of opening it and reading passages from it, will be a unique opportunity for students to understand it from a visual and tangible perspective. In addition, it becomes an opening through which they can be motivated to study the Holocaust and all expressions of dehumanization in the world.

About VCU and VCU Medical Center

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 226 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-seven of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University comprise VCU Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. For more, see

The atzei chayim are the two wooden shafts attached to either end of the Torah scroll, around which it is rolled. Each shaft is made long enough to extend beyond the top and bottom of the scroll, and is used as a handle with which to hold the Torah and to scroll from portion to portion.
A valuable treasure is not left exposed and vulnerable. We cover the Sefer Torah with multiple coverings, dressing it in a "cloak" before restoring it to its honorable place in the Ark and drawing the curtain. The mantel is an ornate covering that both protects and beautifies the Sefer Torah, typically made of velvet and embroidered with golden thread, silk, and ornamental beads. In Sephardic communities the Sefer Torah is encased in a wooden or metal casing rather than a cloth Mantel.
A yad, literally, "hand," is a Jewish ritual pointer, is used by the reader to follow the text during the Torah reading from the sacred scrolls. According to Zion Judicia, a reputable provider of religious articles, “It has iconic status in the Jewish faith, helping readers of authentic parchment Torah scrolls maintain ritualistic purity by avoiding contact with the sacred scroll and preserve the priceless and delicate vellum parchment and ink from damage resulting from manual handling. Using this ceremonial pointer when reading is considered a timeless hallmark of reverence and respect for the Torah.”