Eighth graders at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School are used to managing their schoolwork--but becoming the caretakers of a Holocaust-era Torah is a different level of duty.
"This is not the responsibility of doing homework or writing a paper; this is the responsibility of holding onto the life and culture before the Holocaust," said Rachel, who collaborated with her fellow eighth graders to design an ark, curtain, and mantle for the Torah scroll designated Survivor #1089. This Torah, now on permanent loan to Bernard Zell, is one of 1,564 Czech Torahs entrusted to the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust.
The Torah was scribed around the year 1850, and belonged to the Jewish community of Rychnov in the Czech Republic. Of the small town's several hundred Jews, none survived the Holocaust; no Jews live there today.
However, thanks to a rabbi who presciently sent the Torah to a larger city, it survived the Holocaust and was later restored by the Westminster Synagogue in England. It arrived in Chicago last fall, and the students' yearly interdisciplinary Jewish studies project soon revolved around how to showcase the precious scroll.
Their ark design presents the likeness of a clock labeled with Hebrew letters representing the numbers 1-12, symbolizing the long and storied history of Jewish life in Europe. Upon opening the ark, the curtain is wreathed in the image of flames that draw in the letters from the shattered clock, denoting the loss of Jewish culture and Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Finally, the mantle depicts modern Jews piecing together the broken clock--and living with the weight of what happened to it.
These pieces of art debuted alongside the Torah at a welcoming celebration for the scroll this past spring, at which people chanted its sacred script for the first time since the war.
For eighth grader Reah, one of several students who spoke that day, the event cemented how important it is to cherish moments of connection as a Jewish community that were not always possible.
"To have responsibility for this Torah means holding on to our past, holding on to our heritage, and holding on to the Jews that lost their lives fighting for Judaism," she said. "Being able to have this artifact in our presence means so much more than just an item; it shows how we keep going [to keep alive] what we believe in."
When Rachel took the stage, she encouraged younger students to enjoy their guardianship of the scroll. "Don't be scared to take on this much responsibility," she said. "Be excited to have this much responsibility for something that we all care so much about--Judaism, and our culture."