On Sunday, May 5, the Young Israel of Stamford (YIS) held a unique Hachnasat Sefer Torah. This ceremony usually marks the completion of a new Torah scroll. However, this Torah was completed 130 years ago and has a special history. As part of a Yom HaShoah commemoration, the Stamford community joined Rabbi Kohl and his wife’s family as they welcomed this Torah to YIS. The rainy weather could not hold back over 200 community members, families and guests from attending this simcha and dancing around the bima with this Torah.
David Katzenstein’s presentation entitled “The Berg Family Torah Dedication; From Germany to Africa to New Jersey to Maryland to Connecticut” detailed the Torah’s trek. Katzenstein is the father of YIS Rebbetzin Naomi Kohl. Her grandmother, Inge (Berg) Katzenstein, was born in 1929 in Cologne, Germany. Her parents, Klara and Josef Berg, were part of an observant Jewish family and active in the local Jewish community. According to Inge Katzenstein’s profile as a survivor volunteer at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Berg family was directly affected by the anti-Semitic legislation following the Nazi rise to power in 1933. On Kristallnacht, their home and numerous possessions were damaged or destroyed. By May 1939, the entire Berg family had immigrated to the British Colony of Kenya. They brought a 50 year old Torah the family had purchased in 1938 with them.
While in Kenya, the Bergs raised cattle and pyrethrum, a flowering plant used to make insecticide, on their 375-acre farm in Limuru, a small town northwest of Nairobi. The torah was used regularly by the family in Kenya. In 1947, the family immigrated to the United States and purchased a chicken farm and dairy business in Vineland, NJ. Katzenstein explained that the torah found a new home in the Jewish settlement area of unicorporated Brotmanville, NJ, on the outskirts of Vineland. In the 1960’s through the 1990’s the family members started to move away, first to Vineland proper and then on to Maryland. The Torah came with them. “It was brought to Silver Spring a number of years ago,” explains Kohl, “while my grandmother and her sister, Jill (Berg) Pauly, were living there for the past 20 years. It was restored 13 years ago and loaned to Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring. Now that my grandmother and her sister Jill have moved away from Silver Spring to be closer to their children, they wanted the Torah to go to the next generation, (me, for now.)” While in Silver Spring, the Torah was used a few times a year in their Kriat HaTorah rotation.
Kohl expressed, “The Torah will IYH be used at our shul, Young Israel of Stamford as needed but especially for my son’s bar mitzvah IYH next year. That is why we brought it here; because my grandmother wants her great-grandson to read from it for his bar mitzvah.” Kohl shared her feelings on social media "hard to put into words all the emotions from this morning’s Sefer Torah Dedication. From the powerful opening remarks by R’ Paysach Krohn, to my father’s tear-felt words describing the journey of our family and the Torah, to the tears in my grandmothers eye when my son opened the Torah and started practicing his Bar- Mitzvah parsha, 80 years after the Torah was rescued from Germany. Thank you to everyone who came to share, learn and grow with us, we are so grateful to HaShem for giving us this wonderful morning."
This special torah, wearing its blue mantel, now resides in the main aron kodesh of the Young Israel of Stamford.
By Judy Berger