Hillel receives WWII era handmade Torah mantle

Ilenia Pezzaniti

The entrance to the Cohn Jewish Student Center is perplexing. There are two doors: one on the outside, one on the inside. In between, a three-foot walk to the next door, flyers and pictures of student activities hang to the right. To the left, two buzzers await an eager push. Press one, and an assistant will open the locked door.

More pictures are tacked onto the walls inside of the Jewish Student Center. Baby-blue yarmulkes and bobby pins fill a basket. Through another door, offices are along both walls.

In one of the offices, Char Rapoport Nance, development director of Hillel, sits. Across the hall is another office with the door closed and the lights off. When Nance opens this door, the room becomes a time warp. Lying on the desk is a piece of history draped in a protective film. As Nance peels off the guard, she reveals the 100-year-old velvet treasure.

The dark red embroidered Torah cover was handmade in Poland and hidden from the Nazis during World War II. The Torah cover serves as a sort of “clothing” and “respect” to the Torah and its observers. Beading, gold-metal threads, fabric and piping were among the materials used to represent the artistry on the cover.

The Ten Commandments, a Lion of Judah on each side of the commandments, a three-dimensional crown, a vase of flowers and a name that has richly added to the significance of the donation of this piece to the Jewish Student Center, are furnished onto the cover, almost flawless.

“I was awestruck by the beauty of the Torah cover,” Nance said.

The Torah mantle that once brought honor to a Polish synagogue ark was also dedicated in memory to Yitta Sarah bat Rabbi Shia Mordechai HaLevi, which according to Nance translates as “Yitta Sarah, daughter of Rabbi Shia Mordechai of HaLevi”. Beneath the Yiddish name is her last name, written in English: COHN.

For Nance, one word describes the irony of the situation: beshert, meaning “destined”. “I was pretty close to tears when I saw that it had the name COHN embroidered on it.  I felt it was beshert – meant to be with us.  And that was a very emotional moment,” she said.

Nancy and Irwin Frank were the previous owners of the charming Torah cover, but have generously left it in the hands of the Cohn Jewish Student Center. Nance said “I think I can speak for my colleagues when I say that we are all very proud to have received this precious gift, and we appreciate the faith the Frank family has put in our work, as evidenced by this generous gift.”

However, the Torah cover serves as more than gift. According to Nance, the Torah is also a symbol of “resilience” for the Jewish community “and a way for us to keep in mind both the atrocities of the Holocaust and the endurance of the Jewish people and the laws by which we live.”

Due to the arrival timing of the Torah cover in May, at the end of spring semester, the Hillel organization has not had much of a chance to showcase the piece. “We really haven’t had an opportunity to do any programming around it or really discuss it with students in a formal or in-depth manner.  That will be on our plate for next year,” Nance said.

The Hillel organization aspires to make use of the century old mantle and preserve its beauty. Nance said, “We hope to be using the Torah cover during Shabbat and holiday services. We also hope to preserve it and care for it as needed by working with someone who will understand its intricate needle work. Mr. Frank also gave us a beautiful book that describes and explains how the needle work was done and what original materials were used.  We hope to give it a safe, permanent and meaningful home in the Cohn Jewish Student Center – something it’s not really had before.”

Contact news correspondent Ilenia Pezzaniti at [email protected].