Philadelphia — Tears welled up in the eyes of Rabbi Ezra Finkelstein as he gazed down at the Torah that had been presented to him by his father for his bar mitzvah 80 years ago. He had not seen it since 1948, when it became a symbol of the bond between the United States and the newly established State of Israel.
“I was remembering the time when it was given to me in my grandfather’s house and all of the people who were there — my father and grandfather and a couple of uncles,” he said later of the event that occurred in 1940.
The story of the Torah and how a president of Israel came to give it to a president of the United States was the subject of a discussion and celebration last week at the National Museum of American Jewish History here. Three generations of the Finkelstein family were joined by an invitation-only audience.
The event included a morning prayer service led by Rabbi Howard Buechler and his congregants from the Dix Hills (L.I.) Jewish Center, and featured an aliyah for Rabbi Finkelstein, rabbi emeritus of the Midway Jewish Center in Plainview, L.I., in honor of his 93rd birthday.
The so-called Truman Torah, which was not used for the service so that it would not be accidentally damaged, was placed on a pedestal near a second Torah that was read instead.
The Truman Torah had been shipped to the Philadelphia museum last week, where it will be displayed until the September competition of a $30 million renovation of the Truman Library in Independence, Mo. Plans are for it to again serve in the Truman Library as the focal point of an exhibit about Truman’s decision to recognize the Jewish state just 11 minutes after its founding. In the meantime, the Torah will be displayed on the first floor of the NMAJH.
How the Torah ended up with the 33rd president begins with Rabbi Finkelstein’s father, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, who served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the primary institution of Conservative Judaism, from 1940 until 1972. After he had given the Torah to his son, it was kept in the students’ chapel at JTS.
It remained in use there until May 25, 1948, when Chaim Weizmann, president of the nascent State of Israel, presented it to President Harry Truman during a White House visit to thank him for recognizing the Jewish state two weeks earlier. It has been on public display in the Truman Library since the library’s opening on July 4, 1957.
Among the participants at the events last week was the interim CEO of the Jewish history museum, Misha Galperin, and Kurt Graham, director of the Truman Library. Graham participated with Rabbi Finkelstein in a discussion about the chancellor’s decision to give Weizmann the Torah that had been his gift to his son.
Initially, Rabbi Finkelstein recalled, the Israeli Consulate called his father to ask if he could arrange to have a menorah from The Jewish Museum in New York given to Weizmann so he could present it to Truman on behalf of the State of Israel; the two men were scheduled to meet at the White House later in the week. The chancellor explained that the menorahs had been donated to the museum and were not his to give away, but he said he would donate his son’s Torah instead.
“My father thought the Torah was a more meaningful gift in the sense that Torahs had been used in the past as a gift to a sovereign,” Rabbi Finkelstein recalled. “The menorah represents a military victory, a Torah represents the history of our people and what our people live for. He could have given a book, but he wanted to give something that was a timeless symbol of our people, and the only Torah he could give away was mine. It was not as much a sacrifice for me as for him because he was giving away something personal — his gift to his son.”
Rabbi Finkelstein said his father later told him that he had given away his Torah, but said he only understood its full impact a day later when he saw a copy of The New York Times.
“There on the front page was my Sefer Torah,” he said, referring to a photo of Weizmann presenting the Torah to Truman. “I knew he had given it to him, but I didn’t expect to see it on the front page of The New York Times.”
The rabbi recalled that when Truman visited the seminary a few years later, “the first thing on [my father’s] mind was to try to get it back. But the Torah was something that was important not only to me and to my father but also to President Truman.”
Thus, when the chancellor suggested that the Torah be put on display at The Jewish Museum in New York, where it would serve to inspire some 200,000 visitors a year, Truman is said to have replied that his planned library was expected to have 400,000 visitors a year. Then, when the chancellor said the Torah would have to be cared for to ensure the parchment did not deteriorate, Truman is said to have turned to him, pointed his finger and said, “Dr. Finkelstein, you are not getting it back!”
Rabbi Finkelstein said Truman clearly “wanted it very much and treasured it. It [the recognition of the State of Israel] was a very important moment in his life.”
Graham recalled what Truman told the Jewish National Fund at a dinner in May 1952. “I had faith in Israel even before it was established. I knew it was based on love of freedom, which has been the guiding star of the Jewish people since the days of Moses,” Truman said.
Graham, the Truman Library’s director, pointed out that Truman “operated from deep core principles. He understood the past. He read the Bible as literal history. It’s something he took very seriously. What a fitting gift Weizmann gave him. He was a man of the book who had become concerned about the plight of the Jews when they were in Europe. He would say, `The time to act is now.’
“This Torah represents the kind of connective tissue between the United States and the State of Israel at that founding moment of recognition.”
Clifton Truman Daniel, Truman’s eldest grandson, said in a phone interview with The Jewish Week that the gift of the Torah “always made sense to me. It was a beautiful idea — the gift of knowledge. I’m sure grandpa appreciated it because of his love of biblical history. To him, [recognition of the State of Israel] was historically the right thing to do.”
Rabbi Finkelstein reflected that although he “never met Harry S. Truman, he is the reason I am here now.”
He explained that as a soldier he was training in July 1945 to participate in the planned American assault on Japan that was expected to result in a massive number of American casualties.
“If Truman had not authorized the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I might have been on those beaches,” he said.
Many of the Dix Hills Jewish Center members who attended the two-day program used such words as “inspiring,” “meaningful” and “informative” to describe it. One of them, Gene Fossner, said he learned a great deal about Truman’s character and had not realized that in recognizing the State of Israel he was acting over the vehement objections of his State and Defense Departments — and an American Jewish community that was divided on the issue.