Calvary Hospital will restore storied Torah scroll

November 1, 2015


A sacred Torah scroll used for prayer and study in a 19th-century synagogue in a rural village that now is part of the modern-day Czech Republic has ended its remarkable journey in a 21st-century Catholic facility, Calvary Hospital in the Bronx.

Rabbi Rothberger

Scroll No. 515, which contains the Five Books of Moses, was written in 1880 by a Jewish scribe with a feather quill in indelible ink on specially prepared parchment.  It survived two world wars and Hitler's Nazis, who seized the scroll from the synagogue in Doma┼żlice (or Taus in German.) The Torah later was rescued and held in safekeeping in Prague and then by a London synagogue.

Scroll No. 515 made one last journey: to Calvary Hospital, where it is giving hope and consolation to dying Jewish cancer patients and others at the end of life.

"I think it's unbelievably beautiful, it's absolutely beautiful," Rabbi Rachmiel Rothberger says of the Catholic hospital's adoption of the Torah and the hospital's overall dealings with Jewish patients and families. "They're not only welcoming, they're embracing."

Arthur Fisher kisses the Torah scroll wrapped in a protective mantel during his inpatient stay at Calvary Hospital this summer. He was stabilized and discharged home.

Calvary recently launched a yearlong campaign to raise funds and restore the Torah to "Kosher" status so it will be in accordance with Jewish law and may be used in religious services. To be in compliance, every letter must be completely intact.

Calvary is hoping to raise enough money to cover the cost of the restoration, which may be up to $100,000. Any remaining money will be used to benefit all patients and families in the Calvary system, regardless of faith background.

"The restoration fits in very well with the mission of Calvary, which is 'where life continues,' '' says Rabbi Rothberger. "We want to continue the life of the Torah. If a Torah scroll cannot be used, tradition teaches us we have to bury it like a person or restore it to Kosher status. We are restoring it and we are bringing life back to a sacred Torah scroll," the Orthodox rabbi says.

"I can think of no greater place to do this than Calvary, which is dedicated to helping people continue their lives without pain. It's very special."

All embracing care

Calvary is the country's only fully accredited acute-care specialty hospital devoted to providing palliative care to adult patients with advanced cancer and other end-of-life and life-limiting illnesses.

Calvary provides care at its 200-bed main hospital campus in the Bronx, a 25-bed satellite facility in Brooklyn and at Calvary's 10-bed Dawn Greene Hospice in Manhattan. Calvary also offers home care and home hospice care throughout the New York area. The Archdiocese of New York is Calvary's sponsor.

Calvary has been welcoming patients of all faiths since it opened its doors in 1899, says Frank A. Calamari, its chief executive and president. "That's our raison d'etre," he says. "We embrace the opportunity to care for people of all faiths and religious backgrounds."

Rabbi Harold Stern visits with patient Fred Levine, who died of cancer at Calvary's Bronx campus in January 2013.

Religious and emotional support are critical components of Calvary's care, he adds.

"Many of our patients rely upon their faith in God to help them deal with the most difficult thing that happens to all of us — passing from this world," Calamari says. "Our mission is to care for patients who can no longer be cured and to treat them so they die pain-free, die with dignity and die in the loving presence of their family. It is to help families make the transition to a time their loved one will not be around; and, in our Judeo-Christian tradition, a time that earthly existence will end and life continue somewhere else for the individuals."

Catholics make up 49 percent and Jews make up about 10 percent of the approximately 6,000 patients treated at the hospital annually. The average in-patient stay is 26 days.

In 2012, Calvary entered into a partnership with Yeshiva University's Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary to reach out to the Orthodox Jewish community in New York.

Calvary seeks to assure traditionally observant Jews that they will receive care at Calvary that is in accordance with their faith traditions. For instance, in the Jewish tradition a light is turned on after death because the spirit of man is the candle of God, Rabbi Rothberger says. "A window is opened to give the soul room to move."

Among Calvary's services for Jews are:
  • Pastoral care daily by Calvary's three staff rabbis: Rabbi Rothberger, who is full-time, and Rabbis Harold Stern and Shmuel Zuckerman.
  • End-of-life counseling in accordance with Jewish tradition and law and anticipatory grief counseling for loved ones.
  • Kosher meals (In addition to two organizations that regularly donate Kosher food, a Chinese Kosher restaurant in New Rochelle, N.Y., delivers food to Calvary for a special treat.)
  • A "Shabbos" lounge for Jewish families who want to stay in an overnight room over the Shabbos, or Sabbath, or holidays.
  • A Kosher hospitality room stocked with food, microwaves, a sink and refrigerator (It is kept locked so that non-Kosher, non-certified food will not accidentally be put in the room.)
  • Celebration of Shabbos and all major holidays. Services are televised to patient rooms.
  • Removal of crucifixes in rooms occupied by Jewish patients.

Rabbi Rothberger and other rabbis carry the Torah to patients who want to see it and touch it as they pray. It brings a sense of peace, he says. For observant Jews, the Torah is the word of God.

Terri Levine, widow of a former patient Fred Levine, an engineer and lawyer who died of cancer at the Bronx campus, expressed her gratitude to Calvary: "My Freddie had a vivacious spirit and love for life. ... Freddie lived with a proud Jewish faith. Thanks to Calvary, he died with it, too."

The Torah rests in the ark in Calvary Hospital's multi-faith chapel.

A long journey
Calvary's 135-year-old Torah was one of 1,564 scrolls damaged during World War II that came from Prague and were accepted by Westminster Synagogue in London and then distributed world-wide by the Memorial Scrolls Trust.

It has brought inspiration to Calvary since the hospital received it in 1987 but has been too significantly damaged to use for religious services and rituals, Rabbi Rothberger says.

"Age will affect it, but the major damage is from what it went through with the Nazis in the Holocaust," Rabbi Rothberger explains. "There are creases in the parchment that have to be straightened out, holes in the parchment that need to be patched and letters have to be rewritten. They are cracked or faded. With a little TLC, it will be restored to grandeur."

Calamari says Calvary was honored to receive a Torah that bears witness to the Holocaust. "We were honored they even considered us," he says, adding that the hospital feels duty bound to safeguard and restore the sacred scroll.

Certified scribes
The repair work will begin this month by a team of rabbis who are certified scribes under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Druin, who heads a restoration service called Sofer on Site. (A sofer is a scribe.) Once it is repaired to Kosher status, it may be used in services. That work is targeted to be completed next June. Rabbi Rothberger says that the Torah scroll will not be made to look new.

"We want to maintain the effect of the specialness and age of this Torah," he says. "The fact is that it's a survivor."


Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.