The Story Behind Temple Sinai’s Acquisition of the Lisbon Torah
The author of this report is Dr. William Jasper, a retired public health dentist who, between 1949-1966, served as a Navy dentist. This report will reveal his role in obtaining the Lisbon Sefer Torah and is written in the first person.
During the spring of 1955, as I was completing the General Dental Postgraduate Course at the Navy Dental School in Maryland , I received orders to report to the Newport News Shipbuilding Company to join the pre-commissioning crew of the newly constructed giant aircraft carrier, USS FORRESTAL CVA-59.
On October 1, 1955 , this ship (the Navy’s first post World War II carrier and the first designed for the operation of jet aircraft) was commissioned.
Following an intensive “shakedown” cruise to the Caribbean and through the following spring, summer and early fall, the ship was engaged in a series of special naval exercises. On October 29, 1956 , the world was jolted into geopolitical reality when it became obvious that the Egyptian army, under the unified command of three Arab nations, was preparing to attack Israel .
When it became clear, beyond all doubt, that the unified Arab command was waiting only for the most suitable moment to launch a war of extermination against Israel , Israel struck first.
At a minimal cost in human life, Israeli armed forces performed brilliantly, captured thousands of Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula plus vast quantities of equipment. The last Egyptian defense position in the Sinai, Sharm El Shiekh, fell on the morning of November 5th. The Sinai War had lasted only eight days.
As soon as the world, and especially the armed forces of the United States , was made aware of the conflict, President Eisenhower ordered American warships on the alert. Poised to provide support to our Fleet in the Mediterranean , a special naval task force composed of the new giant carriers Forrestal and Saratoga , plus numerous other warships, began operating in the vicinity of the Azores .
With the end of the fighting and a truce in effect, prior to returning home to the States, each ship was assigned to visit a Western European seaport for a well-deserved Rest and Recreation (R&R) shore leave.
As the Jewish lay leader, I had organized religious programs for the Forrestal’s Navy and Marine Corps Jewish personnel. As soon as the ship was notified that Lisbon , Portugal would be the port of call, plans were made to contact the Jewish Community in Portugal ’s capital city.
On arriving in Lisbon , I called the Jewish community’s center, Communidade Israelita De Lisboa, and soon found myself in the office of Dr. Elias Baruel (pronounced Barwell), a physician who also served as Center Director. The warmth with which I was received, plus the revelation how this tiny Jewish community, with overseas financial aid, had rescued hundreds of Jewish refugees fleeing from Hitler’s Europe , evoked great admiration for the heroism of the Lisbon Jewish community.
Among the several Jewish landmarks Dr. Baruel pointed out during a short tour was Lisbon ’s Sephardic synagogue, Sh’are Tikvah. When Dr. Baruel opened the Ark , I was literally stunned and almost breathless at the sight of row upon row of heavily ornamented Sefer Torahs. Simultaneously, the idea sprang into my mind, “why not one of these scrolls for Temple Sinai in Newport News , Virginia ?” After all, the American congregation to which my wife (a charter member) and I belonged had no Torah scroll and was, in fact, encountering trouble obtaining one.
When I posed the question to my host, he replied that these scrolls did not belong to the synagogue, but remained the property of the donor families. Besides, they couldn’t be sold. But, perhaps, a scroll could be presented as a gift! I contemplated this exciting possibility.
Later, through the American naval attaché, I received an invitation to break bread at the home of the synagogue’s rabbi. During this delightful meal, I reopened the subject of procuring a Torah scroll. He assured me that a scroll would be available; however, before such a transfer could be effected, certain requirements must be met. Basically, a letter from Temple Sinai containing the signature of all adult male members attesting to the need for a Sefer Torah was necessary. Time must then be allowed for a careful search for a scroll whose donor family had either disappeared or would grant permission for its relocation.
The Forrestal departed Lisbon two days later. On my return to Virginia , the joyful news quickly spread throughout the Congregation. Our obligation was soon accomplished, and the letter with all required signatures was air mailed to Professor Moses Bensabat Amzalak, then President of the Lisbon Jewish community. Four months passed with no communication and no Torah from Lisbon . Hope began to fade.
Meanwhile, the Forrestal returned to the Mediterranean to join the US Sixth Fleet for a six months deployment. Since, according to Jewish custom, Torah scrolls must be transported by hand and not mailed, they were waiting until someone from Lisbon was flying to the States.
On March 4, 1957 , Mr. and Mrs. Emanuel E. Falk of Newport News , my wife’s uncle and aunt, received the following telegram from Lisbon . At that time, Mr. Falk was president of Temple Sinai . “Abraham Koepke flying today Philadelphia .Phone Hancock 46345. Come fetch it. Baruel .”
After several unsuccessful telephone calls, Mrs. Falk located Mr. Koepke and asked if he had just arrived from Lisbon and if he had a Torah scroll for the new Virginia Congregation. His reply to both questions was “Yes; Yes, he had just returned from Lisbon and yes, he had the Torah scroll!”
The dream became a reality!
Later Mr. Falk wrote me:
“The people in New York who put the rollers on and the cover said that it (the Torah Scroll) is a museum piece and the only one of its kind they had ever seen!”
Mr. Koepke (or Koepka) estimated it was written more than 200 years ago in Morocco, North Africa . Made of leather, not parchment, it weighs about fifty pounds.The late Captain Joshua Goldberg, then Third Naval District Staff Chaplain, was asked to officiate at its dedication. He gladly accepted but requested that the ceremony be delayed until October 1957 to coincide with a scheduled NATO-Navy Chaplains conference in Williamsburg.
The Congregation agreed to his request for postponement.
That fall, the Forrestal was again at sea–this time to participate in a large NATO-naval exercise covering the entire North Atlantic . At the end of this vast exercise, when the Forrestal was docked at Southhampton , England , and in order to participate in the scheduled dedication of the Torah, I was officially detached from the ship and flew home via North Africa , Newfoundland , and finally landing at Norfolk ’s Naval Air Station in time for the dedication.
Accompanying Captain Goldberg at the dedication was Rear Admiral Harp, Chief of the Navy’s Chaplain Corps, Captain Dreith, Atlantic Fleet Chaplain, and Lieutenant Charles Mintz, Jewish Chaplain of the Navy Fifth Naval District. Rabbi of Temple Sinai was Allan Schwartzman. I had the honor of carrying the Torah to the bema.
This historic event was yet another evidence of Jews responding to a demonstrated need of their brethren. Lisbon’s Sha’are Tikva, a small congregation in the Old World , generously responded to a genuine need of a new congregation in the New World .