A Sign Of Life In A Place Of Dying


It was a bold, and probably unprecedented, idea for a Catholic hospital.

The idea emerged nearly 30 years ago during a staff meeting at Calvary Hospital in the Morris Park section of the Bronx led by longtime hospital administrator Dr. Michael Brescia, himself a devout Catholic. How could the hospital best serve the needs of its Jewish patients?

By acquiring a Torah scroll for its inter-denominational chapel, Brescia decided.

Informed of the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London, which distributes scrolls that had survived the Holocaust, and intrigued by the spiritual symbolism of a scroll with Shoah provenance in a health care facility that deals mostly with hospice and palliative care, Brescia approached the Trust.

A year later scroll No. 515, from western Czechoslovakia, came to Calvary Hospital.

Housed in the chapel’s wooden ark, it was taken during the subsequent decades by the hospital’s Jewish chaplains to the bedside of Jewish patients who would hold it and kiss it and pray over it.

Last year, following a periodic status update on the scroll’s condition required by the Trust, Brescia learned that the Torah, damaged by its years of neglect in Nazi and communist hands, was not ritually “kosher” to be read from during worship services.

“We wanted a perfect Torah,” Brescia told The Jewish Week. “It is Hashem’s symbol. It is holy to us.”

So the hospital began a $65,000 fundraising project, and engaged a Torah scribe from Florida to repair the scroll.

In a ceremony a year ago at the 92nd Street Y, the repair process began, and in a re-dedication ceremony at the hospital to be held on Wednesday, Nov. 9 – the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” pogroms in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia – the repair process will end. With the filling-in of a few dozen letters on the parchment, the scroll will again be fit for reading, not just holding.

“We consider ourselves blessed” to have it, said Brescia, 83, who has served at Calvary Hospital “50-something years.”

“The Torah for us [Catholics] is the basis of who we are.”

Brescia said he knows of no other Catholic hospitals that have their own Torah scrolls. He said Trust officials told him that Calvary Hospital is among a handful of non-Jewish institutions around the world that have received a Holocaust Torah on permanent loan.

“Loans made to non-Jewish organizations were because they had a special Jewish connection,” Jeffrey Ohrenstein, trustee chairman for the Memorial Scrolls Trust, said in an email interview. “Calvary Hospital is a good example.”

In a place of dying, the scroll is a sign of life, said Rabbi Rachmiel Rothberger, the hospital’s Jewish community liaison. “We did it [scheduled the re-dedication ceremony] on Kristallnacht,” a date that marks the world’s acquiescence to Nazi Germany’s planned annihilation of the Jewish people and of Jewish culture, to make a statement about resilience. “You cannot destroy the Torah.”

“Now it can be used” when Jewish patients and their families wish to hold worship services, said Rabbi Rothberger, who has worked at Calvary Hospital six years.

He and two other rabbis on staff tend to the physical and religious needs of the Jews who constitute 10-15 percent of the 200-bed hospital’s patients every year, and to the Jews in Calvary’s at-home hospice care and at sites in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

In a hospital noted for its palliative care and end-of-life expertise — Calvary calls itself “the nation’s only fully accredited acute care specialty hospital devoted exclusively to providing palliative care to adult advanced cancer patients” — the Torah is a further sign of the institution’s ecumenical respect for Jewish tradition.

Under the auspices of New York City’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Calvary Hospital (calvaryhospital.org) offers a range of Jewish services, including kosher meals (provided by a caterer under Orthodox Union supervision, and by Satmar volunteers), a Bikur Cholim room stocked with kosher food and a “Shabbos lounge” where observant visitors can stay overnight. It also offers weekly “Oneg Shabbat” services on Friday mornings, a sukkah during the recent Sukkot holiday, a collaboration with Yeshiva University scholars to ensure that patients and family members are treated in accordance with Jewish law, a “Halachic End-of-Life Care” seminar earlier this year for community rabbis, and a “Jewish Practices at Death Protocol” for measures to be taken when a patient dies. It even has a manually operated Purell hand-sanitizer dispenser outside the Bikur Cholim room, for Sabbath-observant people who would not use the building’s standard electric dispenser on Shabbat.

A hospital fundraising brochure, “Making a Gift to Support Calvary’s Mission,” features a photograph of a patient holding the Torah scroll.

The 26-inch-tall Torah comes from Domazlice (Taus is its German name), a village on the western border of the present Czech Republic about 90 miles from Prague. Like the other scrolls in the trust’s collection, housed at London’s Westminster Synagogue, it came into the congregation’s possession in 1964; it was made possible through the generosity of a philanthropic synagogue member who learned that the Czech government owned the 1,564 ownerless scrolls from synagogues in postwar-defunct Jewish communities in Moravia and Bohemia.

The scrolls had been collected and catalogued under Nazi aegis during World War II, then stored in a moldy Prague synagogue-turned-warehouse after the war.

The Memorial Scrolls Trust, formed by Westminster Synagogue, hired a sofer [scribe] to repair about 1,000 of the scrolls, and gave them – and those beyond easy repair – to shuls and schools and other institutions abroad that wanted to own such a historically significant item.

Domazlice, established in the mid-13th century, was originally part of the Holy Roman Empire, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it became part of the short-lived independent Republic of Czechoslovakia between World Wars I and II, was annexed by Germany in 1938. By 1945 it was aligned with the Soviet Union, and gained its independence with the fall of Communism in 1989.

The earliest known Jewish community in the village was in the 1860s, when a prayer room was established. By 1873, an independent congregation had 180 paying members. As Jews moved abroad or to larger cities, the Jewish population steadily decreased. Only a few dozen Jews lived there by the early 1940s.

A small synagogue in Domazlice, built in 1880, was destroyed by the Nazis in 1940. No known Jews live there now.

No one knows the history of the Domazlice Torah scroll, between its writing about 130 years ago – in the common “Beit Yosef Maharal” script style – and its time in Nazi possession, beyond its eventual journey to London, and then to Calvary.

When it arrived at the hospital, it was posul, too damaged to be read from, Rabbi Rothberger said, adding that it had “cracks, holes, creases and water damage.” But, the rabbi said, “it was repairable.”

Before it was sent away for repairs, Rabbi Rothberger and his chaplain predecessors would tell the scroll’s story of survival on their rounds of Jewish patients. “They felt very emotional,” often brought to tears, the rabbi said.

Especially Holocaust survivors.

“We’ve had a lot of Holocaust survivors here,” said Brescia.

In hospital lore is the story of one survivor, flat on his back, who heard the scroll’s story and suddenly sat up. “I came from that town,” from Domazlice, he declared. “I was bar mitzvahed with that Torah.”

Brescia and Rabbi Rothberger also described Jewish patients, moved by the scroll’s story, who became more observant or more Jewishly identified. “The Torah brought people back,” Brescia said.

At a series of Torah-repair events at the hospital in the past year, under the guidance of trained scribes from the Sofer On Site organization in North Miami Beach, Fla., people who helped ink in some damaged letters shared stories of deceased loved ones in whose memories they were contributing to the scroll’s repair.

The re-dedication ceremony on Kristallnacht will begin in a conference room, where the final lettering will be completed, then proceed through the halls, the scroll carried under a canopy, to the chapel. “There will be music,” Rabbi Rothberger said.

Brescia, who joined Calvary Hospital in 1962 as an attending physician and later became executive medical director in 1994, worked with young Tay-Sachs patients early in his career. And with the hands-on role he played in actually repairing the scroll, and in instigating the process in the first place, his career has come full circle, at least in a Jewish sense. At the kick-off event a year ago, he received the honor of inking in the first damaged letter.

It is likely that he will receive a similar honor on Wednesday, completing the repair.

“I did the first one,” Brescia said. “I’ll be glad to do the last one.”