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Around The Fleet

Preserving the Torah

Reagan Sailors restore priceless religious artifact

His heart was racing. The shouts and echoing boot stomps of Gestapo officers grew louder as they stormed the streets and raided nearby homes. It was 1938 and the Jewish society of Eastern Europe was considered an enemy of the German state.

Hugo Albert, the non-Jewish caretaker of the Bad Kissingen synagogue during the era of Nazi-ruled Germany took a risk that would preserve a piece of history forever. He saved Jewish artifacts, including the only known sefer Torah, removing them from the burning synagogue during the Holocaust.

The Torah was given to the Hollander family before "Krystalnacht," (the night of broken glass,) where riots broke out in November of 1938. Fred Hollander escaped Germany with the Torah, where it eventually found homes in synagogues of Chicago and Cleveland.

Fred Hollander's stepson, Rabbi Michael Oppenheimer, a friend and supporter of Ronald Reagan, came into possession of the Torah. Recognizing it as a symbol of religious freedom and liberty, he loaned the Torah to the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), where the scroll has been safely kept in the ship's chapel.

The scroll will be on loan to USS Ronald Reagan for 50 years - the duration of the ship's service to the country. During that time, the Torah will serve the ship's Jewish Sailors as they worship on board. The sefer Torah has an estimated value of $50,000; to the Jewish community, it is a priceless religious artifact.

After a short hiatus, the arrival of a new lay leader has brought Shabbat services back to USS Ronald Reagan. Since the Torah is read during Shabbat, the ship's religious ministries department had the extraordinary artifact restored.

The handle of the scroll was repaired during the March 2014 underway, thanks to the dedicated craftsmanship of Machinery Repairman 3rd Class Patrick Gorman and Hull Maintenance Technician Fireman Evan Betz.

They manufactured a new handle from a piece of red oak and three different colors of paint were mixed to get as close to a perfect match as possible.

"It was a job that I knew I would never forget," said Betz, who grew up Methodist in the Midwest and has no connection to the Jewish faith.

"Of all the things I've made in my entire tour, this is the most significant so far," said Betz. "It wasn't really a job, it was something that is a job on paper, but in real life it was more of a huge opportunity to be part of a historical restoration on a scroll that is almost 300 years old."

Gorman helped Betz fabricate a new handle during the five-day restoration project.
Navy Photo

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) Chaplain Cmdr. Joel Newman ties a sefer Torah saved from the holocaust to a new handle that was fabricated on the ship. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jonathan Nelson

They drilled out the center of the handle and cut a piece of threaded rod to attach to it. After the paint was dry, they presented their work to the ship's chaplain.

They created a near perfect match. The owners of the Torah could not tell the difference between the original and new handle when a photo was emailed to them as an update.

"Fireman Betz took this project on with exceptional dedication and skill," said Cmdr. Roy Hoffman, USS Ronald Reagan's chaplain. "He has a lot of talent, so he knew what to do."

Betz had a plan and followed through on it until successful completion. The final result was exceptional workmanship from an otherwise inexperienced woodworker.

Chaplain Hoffman credits Betz and Gorman with creating an aesthetically pleasing and durable product. Restoring the Torah is a project that has a lasting effect and a profound impact on Jewish members of the ship.

Yeoman Seaman Apprentice Moshe Benkandil, the ship's newly Jewish lay leader said, having the Sefer Torah on board strengthens his resolve to lead worship for his Jewish shipmates.

"It makes me confident that this religion needs to have a service on the ship because the Torah is here," said Benkandil.

The Torah "highlights and deepens their connection with people from their own faith tradition" Hoffman added.

For centuries, the Jewish people have carefully hand-written the holy words of the sefer Torah on parchment paper. It is dated back to the time of Jesus Christ. The scroll was written with a quill from a kosher animal, stitched to two pieces of hardware with handles on each end and sewn together with sinew made from the leg muscle of a calf.

The Torah contains the five books of Moses. The term Torah is interchangeable with the Jewish Bible. However, it literally means the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - the first five books of the Old Testament.

During the time of the Holocaust, from January of 1933 to May of 1945, more than six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered under Adolf Hitler's regime.

The Jewish way of life was nearly extinguished. Jewish books and synagogues were burned. Property and Jewish businesses were confiscated, as thousands of Jews fled to Belgium, France and Holland.

Today, Jewish people continue to preserve their sacred heritage through the documentation and reading of the sefer Torah.

"It's not just a custom," said Hoffman. "It's the way that people of faith in the Jewish tradition have been able to tell their children and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren's children the story of faith."
Navy Photo

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) Chaplain Cmdr. Joel Newman, center, holds a sefer Torah saved from the holocaust alongside Hull Maintenance Technician Fireman Evan Betz, left and Machinery Repairman 3rd Class Patrick Gorman, right. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jonathan Nelson