Hillel Jewish University Torah

By Jamie Schacther

April 2018

Introduction

In February 2018, a 300-year-old Torah scroll that is said to have survived the Holocaust began its new chapter at the Hillel Jewish University Center in Oakland, Pittsburgh. This Torah scroll could date back to the early 1700s and served generations in the town of Suwalki, Poland. Legend has it that the Torah was miraculously smuggled out of Poland and in 1975. After the Torah underwent repairs, it entered Tifereth Israel Synagogue in New Castle, PA to be used regularly. In 1997, Tifereth Israel Synagogue and Temple Israel of New Castle combined to become once community under the new name Temple Hadar Israel. After an unfortunate closing of Temple Hadar Israel in 2017, the Torah has now been gifted to the Jewish students of Pittsburgh at the Hillel Jewish University Center, representing the amazing tenacity and resilience of the Jewish people.

The Town of the Torah

The Torah is said to have originated in Suwalki, Poland. Suwalki is located in the northwestern corner of modern Poland. Its border location between Prussia, Lithuania, and Poland made it a site of continuous warfare, resulting in a depressed population and leaving the area desolated by the early 14th century. When the warfare finally ceased in the 15th century, Lithuanians immigrated to the area to escape the impact of the constant wars and made up much of the populations. The Lithuanians gave it the name “Suwalki,” which means gathering of different types of people. Suwalki was the one of the most important towns in the area and grew at a faster pace than other towns in the region. The exact age of the Jewish settlement in Suwalki is not known, but Jews lived in the towns throughout the province.

Around 1750, a certain street was designated for Jewish residents, but the surviving records show no sign of Jewish life in Suwalki for more than 50 years after that time. It is possible that designation of a separate area in Suwalki encouraged Jews from the surrounding area to establish commerce in the city, as Jewish residents had done in surrounding towns. However, Jews either did not accept this invitation or they lived there for a short amount of time and were later expelled. As far as records show Suwalki had no Jewish residents––even by 1800s.

This changed in 1808 when 44 Jews were recorded to be living in Suwalki. This small number indicates that the Jewish settlement had recently began and that Suwalki, the largest city in the territory, was the youngest of all of the surrounding towns in terms of its Jewish history. While the Jewish communities in the smaller towns surrounding Suwalki had stagnated and dropped in population due to persecutions and restrictions, the opposite happened to Suwalki where the Jewish community quickly grew in power and influence. In 1827, Suwalki had 1,209 Jewish people; in 1856 there were 6,407 Jewish people; in 1857, 6,687 Jewish people; and in 1862, 7,165 Jewish people. At the beginning of the 1840s, Jews dominated economic life, so much so that the Polish governor advised not to initiate military service for Jews because that “could bring the economic downfall of the area.” In 1867, there were 12 Jewish owned factories in Suwalki, employing 54 Jewish workers. In the second half of the 19th century, many Jews in the surrounding towns near the Prussian border earned their livelihood by smuggling merchandise at a high profit. The movement of Jews over the border was beneficial since Jews were frequently fleeing from oppressive decrees and persecution in Russia. Thus, Jews escaped from poverty, idleness and forced service for 25 years in the Russian army. The Jewish community in Suwalki underwent periods of prosperity and peace as well as times of persecution, hunger, and deprivation.

From the 1890s through the first decade of the 20th century, the Jewish population swelled. By 1908, there were 13,002 Jews in Suwalki. As Jews prospered, they instituted and organized many charitable organizations, as it was an old Jewish tradition for the community to maintain a hospitality house and other charitable institutions.

There were about 27 synagogues and minyans in Suwalki and many other organizations included Torah study in their activities. Furthermore, there were many Jewish hospitals, old age homes, and Hebrew public schools. The Jewish community of Suwalki was actively involved in the Zionist movement.

By the beginning of World War II, the Jewish population of Suwalki stagnated because of Russia’s anti-semitic pogroms. As a consequence, Jews immigrated to many other countries including Palestine, South America, and a small number to the United States.

In September 1939, Poland was attacked by Nazi troops. Many of the wealthier people started to move out of the city and scatter over other sections of Poland. Jews remaining in Suwalki, many of whom were sick and elderly, were subjected to abuse and violence. The Nazis looted all Jewish stores.

Many people from Suwalki perished during the Holocaust. Survivors and their families who visit Suwalki today find that the once vibrant Jewish community in Northern Poland had vanished. Most of the new generations of people living in Suwalki have never encountered a Jewish person. The last memory remaining of Jewish people is an empty, silent cemetery where 32,000 Jews are buried.

The Storied Rescue of the Torah

Joseph Mirow and Janet Gutowska were born in Suwalki Poland and married in 1934. They made plans to leave Poland, initially planning to head to Palestine, but instead received tickets from Janet’s uncle Jack to come to the US. They joined him where he was living New Castle, Pennsylvania. Janet and Joseph settled in New Castle, made a life for themselves, and had two daughters. Throughout the post-war years, the Mirows kept in touch with relatives and others in Suwalki, sending packages to their Jewish and non-Jewish friends and relatives still remaining.

In 1725, a Sefer Torah was said to have been written and used by a community in Poland. By 1970, a distant cousin of Janet, Nochem Adelson, shared the story of a Torah that was handed down in his family for more than 200 years. Nochem believed that his father had hidden it before they were sent to the camps but had searched for it in vain for years. Upon remodeling an old family farmhouse, he found the Torah hidden in a wall, and later learned that a Christian couple had helped to hide it, knowing its significance. In 1974, Joseph Mirow told a non-Jewish friend, Frank Dubowski, the story of the Torah. Frank had plans to visit Suwalki but the Mirows heard nothing from him until he returned and told them that he had the Torah. At the time, religious artifacts were considered works of art by the Polish government and were not allowed to leave the country. Although details remain obscure, it is clear that Dubowski smuggled the Torah out of Poland. 

Tifereth Israel

Tifereth Israel, undated
Tifereth Israel via Rauh Jewish Archives

In Pennsylvania, a Jewish community emerged in New Castle after the area became an important industrial hub. Manassah and Sarah Heinlein are believed to be the first Jewish family in New Castle. Heinlein started a dry goods store with his father-in-law in 1848 and by 1860, Heinlein was employing Jewish teenagers as clerks. In the mid-1870s, a small group of Jews was regularly holding services in people’s houses, but whether or not they were able to have a minyan (a gathering of 10 Jewish people that is required for public worship) depended on the night. Over the next decade, Jewish peddlers and scrap dealers immigrated to New Castle, many of whom came from Lithuania. Many of these people opened shops on Long Avenue, which became the commercial center of Jewish life in New Castle. In August 1894, 40 members incorporated Tifereth Israel Congregation into a synagogue. Tifereth Israel grew quickly and by 1899, it established a cemetery. By 1901, the congregation had its own burial society. At that time, the congregation consisted of 140 members and was growing.

Beginning in the first decade of the 20th century, a contingent of Reform Jews began meeting in New Castle where they held services in private homes and rented rooms in meeting halls for the High Holidays. Eventually, the group attracted families of Eastern European ancestry who were attracted to the liberal theology of Reform Judaism. This group maintained a close relationship with a Reform congregation in Pittsburgh, Rodef Shalom Congregation.

In January 1962, the Reform contingency began meeting as the Temple Israel congregation, and the congregation was chartered in March 1927 with 19 members. Tifereth Israel and Temple Israel quickly expanded. During the worst years of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Tifereth Israel remodeled its building. It founded the Merry Eighteen Club for girls in 1931, a Sisterhood in 1934, a Junior Congregation in 1936, and a Men’s Club in 1944. By the end of World War II, the congregation was outgrowing its building on South Jefferson Street with 180 members. In 1958, a new building was dedicated to the members and Tifereth Israel shifted from its Orthodox origins and aligned its practice with Conservative Judaism.

Temple Israel was also expanding as the congregation organized a Temple Youth Group in 1939, founded a Sisterhood and Men’s club, and fielded a basketball team. The congregation grew from 14 members in 1926 to 120 members in 1951.

The theological differences between Tifereth Israel and Temple Israel diminished after Tifereth Israel joined the Conservative movement, and the two congregations merged their religious schools in 1973. Due to lawsuits from members, the two congregations did not successfully merge until 1997. The combined congregations sold the Temple Israel building, moved into the existing Tifereth Israel synagogue, which housed the Mirow family Torah, and changed the name to Temple Hadar Israel. In the years following the merger, the Jewish population of New Castle began to decline as birth rates fell, major industries left the region, and college graduates resettled in other cities.

In May of 1975, the Mirow Family Torah joined the family of Torahs at Tifereth Israel Synagogue in New Castle, PA, with much joy and celebration. About 20 years later, Tifereth Israel Synagogue (Conservative) and Temple Israel (Reform) of New Castle combined to become one community under the new name, Temple Hadar Israel. Due to its dwindling age and membership, Temple Hadar Israel unfortunately closed at the end of 2017.

Hillel Jewish University Center

Temple Hadar Israel wanted to gift this Torah to an energetic Jewish community that would find meaning and purpose in using it. In February 2018, the Mirow children, sisters Ina Silver and Deena Epstein, along with the community of Temple Hadar Israel, presented the Mirow Family Torah to the Jewish students of Pittsburgh so that they may use it and learn from it for many years to come. The weekend that the Torah arrived was dedicated to Jewish education and worship. Jewish college students began Shabbat that weekend by singing along to a klezmer duet as the storied 300-year-old-Torah scroll was welcomed into the Hillel Jewish University Center. Students witnessed the white-covered Torah scroll as it entered the building. Some commemorated the occasion with photos of the Torah and Temple Hadar Israel congregants, and some even observed the scroll as it was placed in the ark next to other scrolls at Hillel JUC. Over 200 Jewish students attended this Shabbat dinner and shared in this experience. The following day, some Temple Hadar Israel congregants joined Hillel JUC college students in reading from the Torah in its new home. Though bittersweet, the Mirow sisters took comfort in the knowledge that the Torah was welcomed by a vibrant Jewish community––they noted that their parents would be pleased. Today, the Torah is used by Jewish students of Pittsburgh, serving as a constant reminder of the Torah’s most treasured place in the history of the Jewish people.

Further Reading

Eilender, Kasriel. “A Brief History of the Jews in Suwalki.” Kehila Links, JewishGen Kehila Links, kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/suwalki/History.htm

Crescimbeni, Antonella. “A New Chapter for a 300-Year-Old Torah.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9 Feb. 2018. https://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2018/02/09/A-new-chapter-for-a-300-year-old-Torah/stories/201802090201

“New Castle.” Rauh Jewish Archives, 22 Nov. 2017, www.jewishfamilieshistory.org/town/new-castle/

Smith, Peter. “A New Chapter for a 300-Year-Old Torah.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9 Feb. 2018. https://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2018/02/09/A-new-chapter-for-a-300-year-old-Torah/stories/201802090201

Tabachnick, Toby. “New Castle Congregation Defies Pressure to Close Its Doors.” The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, 23 Aug. 2013, jewishchronicle.timesofisrael.com/new-castle-congregation-defies-pressure-to-close-its-doors/.

How to Cite

MLA: Schacther, Jamie. “Hillel Jewish University Center Torah.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, 25 January 2020, https://religyinz.pitt.edu/hillel-juc-torah/.

APA: Schacther, Jamie. (2020, January 25). Hillel Jewish University Center Torah. ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/hillel-juc-torah/.

Chicago: Schacther, Jamie. “Hillel Jewish University Center Torah.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, 25 January 2020. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/hillel-juc-torah/.