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Scroll Dedication Ceremony

Welcoming our Czech Memorial Scroll

May 1, 2023 at Ramapo College


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Download the Program in PDF Format

Read about our event and scroll in The Jewish Standard

On May 1, 2023, at a moving ceremony in Friends Hall, the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies welcomed a Czech Memorial Scroll to Ramapo College and placed it on permanent display at the heart of our collection in the Peter P. Mercer Learning Center.

The scroll, which dates from the middle of the eighteenth century, belonged to the Jewish Community of Kolín before the Second World War. It survived the furor of Nazism in the Central Jewish Museum in Prague and came to us on permanent loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in the United Kingdom.

Attended by over one-hundred participants, the dedication featured remarks from Ramapo President Cindy Jebb; Jakub Kulhánek, the Czech Ambassador to the United Nations; State Senator Holly Schepisi; Bergen County Commissioner Tracy Zur, and Dr. Avi Weber—along with a touching video message from the Mayor of Kolín, Michael Kašpar. Naomi Miller and Peter Candela enriched the day with a live musical performance.

Lois Roman presented a certificate on behalf of the Memorial Scrolls Trust to Peter Safirstein, chair of the Gross Center Advisory Board. We also received supportive letters from Senator Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, courtesy of their aids. Mayor James Wysocki surprised the Gross Center with a commemorative plaque on behalf of the Township of Mahwah.

The Gross Center thanks Cipora Schwartz and Dr. Susan Gaulden for their generosity which made it possible for us to bring our Kolín scroll to campus. Advisory board members Arthur Barchenko, Sharon Rubin, Stan Richmond, and Peter Safirstein covered our maintenance fees for the next five years.

Students and dignitaries standing outside on Ramapo campus, holding three Torahs and a framed certificate.

Students and dignitaries standing outside on Ramapo campus, holding three Torahs and a framed certificate.

Lois Roman (MST); Peter Safirstein, Chair of the Gross Center Advisory Board, and Director Jacob Labendz

Lois Roman (MST); Peter Safirstein, Chair of the Gross Center Advisory Board, and Director Jacob Labendz

Remarks by Dr. Jacob Ari Labendz
Director of the Gross Center


Thank you Lois [Roman] for representing the Memorial Scrolls Trust which has made today possible. Thank you Peter for your leadership on the Advisory Board and for your warm introduction.

Let me welcome you all, once again, to Ramapo College. You honor us with your presence. You honor communities and individuals lost to genocide. You reestablish our shared commitment to memory and to the future.

So-called “Holocaust scrolls” set me upon the path that has led me before you today. When I was twelve years old, my father alav ha’shalom, peace be upon him, and our friend Harry Rapaport took me to Poland. We returned with Torah scrolls that the Jews of Czestochowa had hidden during the war. The trip inspired my interest in Jewish history and antisemitism. I read from one of the scrolls at my bar mitzvah and keep a set of cherished pictures in my office.

Ten years after my bar mitzvah, I moved to Prague to work in the Jewish community. I learned the history of the Czech Memorial Scrolls and fantasized about ceremonies that would join communities together across oceans and bind them across time. As a scholar of Czech-Jewish history, I have used my training to help synagogues learn about the history of their scrolls and their communities of origin. Most recently, I presented at Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, which has become an important partner to the Gross Center through its Rabbi Israel Dresner Memorial Center. I also spoke at my mother’s synagogue, which still has one of the scrolls that we brought back. If your community has such a scroll, I would be delighted to work with you and to include you in a multisite, digital exhibition that I hope to create in the coming years focused on regional Czech Memorial Scrolls.

I cannot presume that everyone here knows what a Torah is. Before you rests the five books of Moses, the Torah, written by hand on leather parchment. Complex laws and traditions govern how these scrolls may be written, how they are to be used, and how one must dispose of them if they are too damaged for use or repair.

This Torah is pasul—damaged and unfit for ritual use. Were it in better condition, I would have preferred for it to have been placed with a community that could continue to use it. According to Jewish tradition, it would be appropriate at this point to bury the scroll, just as we bury human bodies. This scroll will go on to have what one author has called a “second life.”

If I were speaking at a synagogue, I would now introduce what I think is an original approach to reevaluating and enriching our relationship to such scrolls. But we are at a public college and the work before us is different. I hope this scroll will inspire students to seek truth in history, to think not only of the destruction of communities, but of communities lost to murder. This was the wish of the Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews, whose members and leaders found refuge and began new lives in the United States.

May this scroll remind our students that even as they study genocide in order to prevent it, they must focus on its victims if they are to achieve justice. We must guard ourselves against the tendency to objectify Holocaust victims as if they had been born into victimhood; as if they had already died before they had ceased to live—to borrow from the historian Doris Bergen.

I am optimistic. A student popped into the Gross Center the other day. He saw the scroll, which I had displayed just as we shortly will. He asked such sensitive questions. I felt his interest grow as he empathized through this scroll. I could not have asked for a better proof of concept.

This scroll comes from the City of Kolín, which is just over forty miles east of Prague. Jews settled in Kolín by the early 1400s. The community grew in numbers and significance in the fifteenth century, due to the city’s commercial importance and expulsions from nearby towns. Over the next three-hundred years, the Jews of Kolín weathered larger expulsions and returns, alongside their coreligionists across Bohemia—but also thrived. The Jewish community reached its largest size in the mid-nineteenth century, shortly after emancipation, with some 1,350 members, who composed 17% of the total population. The community, which had once boasted a yeshiva, shrank thereafter, as Jews elected to move to Prague. Kolín remained, nonetheless, an important locus of Jewish cultural and political life. In the 1930 census, 430 residents declared themselves Jewish by religion. Twelve years later, the Nazis deported 2,202 Jews from the Kolín region to Terezín. They murdered all but 134. Only sixty-nine Jews returned to the Kolín after the Holocaust, including Rabbi Richard Feder (1875-1970), who had led the community there for two decades preceding the war. The community soon ceased to function. Building on precedent from the 1980s, when Czechoslovakia was still communist, the City of Kolín and its citizens have recently invested heavily in memorializing their city’s Jewish past.

Now I have a special treat: greetings from Michael Kašpar, mayor of Kolín. I cannot wait to take study-abroad students to visit the original home of the Torah that they will see when they visit the Gross Center.

There is so much I’d like to tell you about the Gross Center and our programs. I would rave about our Kristallnacht commemoration with Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, which featured research conducted by Ramapo students in our collection of survivor testimonies. I would announce our Holocaust and Genocide Educator Workshop, which will take place one week from today. I would describe the digital resource area that we are working to construct in memory of Mignon Richmond. I would name all of our partners across the College and beyond.

Instead, let me tell you about our students. We often hear about antisemitism on college campuses. When the Kanye West thing was happening, students—erstwhile fans of Kanye—approached me for resources to help them understand antisemitism and avoid his choices. The Student Government Association unanimously approved a resolution calling for better lighting around a statue on campus that commemorates the Holocaust: “One Man in Memory of Six Million” by Judith Peck. I want to thank students Evelyn Voitsekhovich, Riley Stein, and Andrew Taranta for their leadership, as well as Arthur Barchenko, for his assistance with this project.

I have rolled our scroll to the final reading of the portion Ki Tietze, which I incidentally read at my bar mitzvah. It includes a commandment concerning the biblical nation of Amalek, which cruelly attack the ancient Israelites as they wandered in the desert. Across generations, the rabbis have associated Amalek with any foe that arose to destroy or torment the Jewish people.

The commandment reads, “Blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget! This seems contradictory. How can we promise to remember, what we must wipe out? How can we erase completely what we are commanded to remember? This scroll offers an opportunity to erase the memory of Amalek, by remembering what it sought to destroy.

I find great meaning in how we respond to genocide. We often label it as “inhumane.” Yet what is more human than genocide? We are the only beings that perpetrate such horrors. Could it be some communal delusion that allows us to call genocide “inhumane”? I think not.

Behind this rhetoric rests an implicit belief that we can be better; that we can transcend our nature. We fail in this when we project the capacity for evil onto others. In contrast, we rise up together when we acknowledge the danger lurking within ourselves and seek to blot it out. We fulfill the commandment when we strive to erase Amalek that dwells in our own hearts and in the structures of our societies. We must remember—we must live in contradiction—because this task is eternal. The early rabbis teach us, “In a place without humanity, strive to be human.” In the Jewish tradition, memory serves action. May this scroll remind us and our students of the work that lays before us.

[Musical Interlude]

Thank you Aunt Naomi and Peter! Give them another round of applause. Thank you for setting the tone for us so perfectly.

When bringing a Torah scroll into its new home, it is traditional to mark the occasion with a procession. We are pleased to honor the rising President of Ramapo Hillel, Spencer Seigel-Laddy, class of 2025, with carrying our new scroll during the procession.

Spencer will be joined by Rabbi Ilana Schartzman and Education Director Rebecca McVeigh of Temple Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, located just down the road in Mahwah. Rabbi Schwartzman and Rebecca McVeigh will carry their congregation’s memorial scrolls from Pilsen and Vodňany.

On such occasions, Jews traditionally escort their new scroll under a chuppah, a Jewish wedding canopy, which symbolizes the home, the community, and shared values.

Our chuppah has a fascinating story of its own, one which we hope to feature in a future exhibit. The brightly colored fabric was brought to this country in 1939 by Frank Kraus. Born in Czechoslovakia to a Jewish family, Mr. Kraus was on a business trip in the United States when Nazi Germany divided Czechoslovakia and occupied the Czech lands. Mr. Kraus remained in this country, established a family, built a new life, and served as mayor of Mahwah in the 1980s. We are honored that his daughter, Alice Palmer, will carry one of the four chuppah poles. Her husband, Tom Palmer, serves on the Board of Governors of the Ramapo College Foundation.

Roger Gross will represent his family, our primary benefactors, in carrying the chuppah. He and Alice will be joined by Bergen County Commissioner Tracy Zur and former Gross Center director Michael Riff. I thank Michael for his support and advice.

ALT: Alice will be joined by Bergen County Commissioner Tracy Zur and former Gross Center director Michael Riff. I thank Michael for his support and advice. The forth pole will be held by David Terdiman, Assistant Vice President for Institutional Advancement, who has worked tirelessly with me to expand the reach of the Gross Center and to secure its financial future.

I invite Lois Roman and Peter Safirstein, from whom you just heard, to join us at the head of the procession.

Please stay in your seats until the Torah and chuppah holders are assembled at the exit. We will use elevators to move the Torah and welcome anyone who requires an elevator to follow us. I ask that the rest of you use the stairs that are directly in front of you on the right, when you exit Friends Hall. Please assemble in front of the Student Center (the building we are now in), leaving room for students to enter and exits as they like.

The procession is about the length of a city block. The Torah and chuppah will enter the Learning Commons first. We will use the elevator to descend one flight to the second floor—the entrance is on the third. Those who are able should walk down one flight of stairs. We will reassemble outside the Gross Center and enter together.

Please note that our gathering exceeds the capacity of the Gross Center. We ask that you enter in shifts to view the scroll on display.

We have arranged for light refreshments to be available at the entrance, which you may enjoy as you wait. Thank you all for joining us today.

Become Involved

We invite you to sponsor our Czech Memorial Scroll for one month in honor or memory of someone or something dear to you. The minimum contribution is $360. Months may have multiple sponsors. The sponsors and their honorees will be listed on our website and displayed prominently in the Gross Center.

Sponsor our Scroll

We encourage communities with Czech Memorial Scrolls to contact us, so we may build on this foundation and create a multisite, digital exhibition. Gross Center director, Dr. Jacob Ari Labendz, is a scholar of Czech-Jewish history and will gladly assist you in researching the history of your scroll’s community of origin.