Members and friends of the Columbia Jewish Congregation gathered Sunday to laugh, cry and pray and to celebrate the acquisition of a treasure -- a rare Torah rescued from the Holocaust.
The parchment scroll, handwritten about 80 years ago, belonged to the Hasidic Jews in a region called Congress in Poland. In 1942, the Nazis killed most of the community's Jews.
During the Holocaust, the Torah, which includes the first five books of Scripture, was saved from the burning synagogue and hidden by a non-Jewish resident of the community.
"He knew it was sacred literature and didn't want it destroyed," said Rabbi Sonya Starr, leader of the Columbia congregation.
The hidden Torah was found years later by the man's son. Later still, the Torah was acquired by Wheaton rabbi and scribe Menachem Youlus, who restored it as part of his work with the nonprofit Save a Torah Foundation. He recently sold it to the Columbia Jewish Congregation.
The old scroll will be in constant use in its new home, a reminder of the history of a lost community.
"The best way we can honor those people who died in the Holocaust is by living our Judaism fully," Starr said. "It's a living tribute."
Sunday's dedication ceremony, called a siyyum, included speeches, prayers and a procession -- under a festive chuppah, or ceremonial canopy, handmade by the congregation's young people -- to bring the Torah into the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, the congregation's home.
Over its three decades in Columbia, the congregation, which includes about 300 families, has remained dedicated to the local interfaith community, Starr said.
"One of the nice things about the Torah was that it was saved by a non-Jew," Starr said. "To use it in an interfaith setting is wonderful."
Congregation board member Alan Pomerantz waited at the interfaith center and blew the ceremonial shofar, a ram's-horn trumpet, when the procession reached the door. He found himself deeply moved.
"As 250 people or so paraded . . . watching them come toward us with the chuppah . . . it's very hard to explain the emotions that went through."
The procession was followed by a short service and a big party, with plenty of food and dancing -- a fitting celebration, Pomerantz said.
"It was an incredible day all around."
-- MARY OTTO