In a ceremony marked by sorrow, celebration and Jewish solidarity, Jews from Kansas City last week brought a Torah scroll to Bulgaria to take the place of 11 priceless scrolls recently stolen from the Great Synagogue in Sofia.
The ceremony in the magnificent domed synagogue took place last Friday and coincided with commemorations marking Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The Torah, clothed in a brilliant, specially made royal purple mantle, was carried into the sanctuary and placed in the ark.
“When they pulled the red curtain and revealed that the ark was empty, my eyes just welled up,” said Patricia Uhlmann, one of two Kansas City community leaders who escorted the Torah on its long journey across the Atlantic.
“Everyone was crying,” she said.
“The scrolls that were stolen were very old and very valuable, but they had never been registered, so they can’t really be traced,” she added.
Uhlmann, who is on the board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, spoke to JTA in Sarajevo while on a JDC mission to Bosnia and Croatia.
The Kansas City Jewish Federation last year formed a partnership with the Jewish communities of Romania and Bulgaria that was designed to encourage exchanges and assistance.
When Uhlmann and other community leaders learned about the theft, they immediately began to check whether there was a Torah that could be donated. Within a few days, Rabbi Alan Cohen of Congregation Beth Shalom had found one.
“We are so pleased to be able to present this Sefer Torah to your congregation,” Cohen said in a message read out for him during last Friday’s ceremony in Sofia.
“We consider ourselves so fortunate to have the abundance necessary to make this gift possible, and to have a small part in the continued revival of your community and Eastern Europe.”
About 5,000 Jews live in Bulgaria, most of them in Sofia.
Like other communities in post-Communist countries, Sofia’s Jewish community has seen dramatic efforts at revival during the past decade.
There is a rich array of Jewish institutions and activities, including a school, a summer camp and a state-of-the-art community center.
With the help of JDC representatives in Romania and Bulgaria, arrangements were made to fly the Torah to Bucharest, Romania, and then take it overland by car to Sofia.
“Ironically,” said Uhlmann, “it turned out that this Torah is 93 years old – and that it came originally from Romania. In a sense, that means that I was taking it back home.”
Uhlmann was a prime mover in linking Kansas City with Romanian and Bulgarian Jews.
This international activism dated back to her first trip to the region, in 1996.
“What is so beautiful to watch is the development of the relationship with Kansas City,” she said. “There is a very connected, hometown feeling. We feel that we are all part of one Jewish family – that it is only by an accident of birth that we are in America and they are in Europe.