The Torah of my Forefathers
BY KALLY KISLOWICZ
My great-grandfather, Reuven Yonah Rubinovitz, was born in Lithuania in the 1860s. He was the rabbi of the shtetl in the town of Vasilishuk, and the father of six sons and one daughter.
In 1907, his two eldest sons immigrated to America. They settled in a small town in Pennsylvania, where they were the only Jews in the area. In 1913, Rabbi Reuven Yonah sent a Torah scroll to his sons in America to help them stay connected to their Judaism. The rabbi himself came to America with the rest of his family (including my grandfather) in 1921.
When he was well into his 80s, Rabbi Reuven Yonah decided to make Aliyah so that he could die and be buried in the Holy Land. He passed away in 1959, at the age of 96, and was buried in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, the rabbi’s sons stayed in rural Pennsylvania for decades. They were one of 45 Jewish families in their town of Vandergrift, and the Torah was their prized possession. My grandfather read from the Torah every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He used it to teach my father, my uncle, and all the Jewish boys how to lein for their bar mitzvahs.
Over time, the Jews from the town moved on. My grandfather moved his family to the nearby city of Pittsburgh, where it would be more likely that his sons would meet and marry Jewish women. In the 1980s, when the last Jews left Vandergrift, my father brought the Torah to Pittsburgh. It was lovingly restored, and it lived in a small synagogue for many years.
When I immigrated to Israel in 2016, I thought about the Torah. I thought about how my great-grandfather loved the Land of Israel so deeply that he wanted to die here, and how I was privileged to bring my family to live here. My father agreed that it was finally time to bring the Torah to Israel, and earlier this year we had the privilege of moving the Torah to its permanent home in my community in Efrat.
It brings me endless gratitude when this Torah is chosen to be used in our synagogue. Because it is so old, it is much heavier than the newer models – the person who does hagbah (raises the Torah in the air after it has been read) needs a spotter – so it is not taken out as regularly as its more modern counterparts. But I imagine the Torah doesn’t mind. I’ve developed an anthropomorphic relationship with this Torah, so I think of it, sitting in the cool dark of the aron kodesh (the Ark), speaking gently to the younger Torahs, saying wise things and telling stories that start with, “One time, back in the shtetl…”
I thought of the Torah on Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day), thrilled that for the first time in its long life it was spending this day in the place where miraculous history was made. I was highly aware of its presence in my synagogue on Yom Kippur, awed and humbled by the fact that my children and I are the fourth and fifth generations of my family to pray alongside this Torah, and the first to do so in our homeland.
And I was so looking forward to celebrating with the Torah on Simchat Torah.
On the night of Simchat Torah I teared up watching my sons take turns holding it. I loved watching them dance, and I was excited that the Torah would be read from the following day.
But instead of celebrating with the Torahs on October 7th, they remained in their aron while we ran to the bomb shelter as sirens wailed throughout the country.
In the days that followed, I thought about those who had died, I thought about the hostages, the soldiers, and the families they had left behind to defend this land that we love so desperately. And during many sleepless hours, I thought about the Torah.
I wanted to tell the Torah that I was sorry that it had journeyed so far from the Cossacks only to find itself threatened and terrorized by Hamas in its new home. I wanted to say that it was okay to be afraid, because the road and the obstacles ahead seem so long and insurmountable, but we will continue to pray and work together, doing all that we can to protect our people and defeat evil.
On that first Shabbat after the massacre, we read from Parshat Bereshit about how the world was dark and chaotic, but G-d created order and light with just a few words. The following week, we read about how G-d destroyed the world because it was full of hatred and violence, and He rebirthed it with a promise never to destroy us again. And this past week, we read the story of Abraham, who was aging and childless when G-d promised to make him a great nation, and that he would be strong and blessed in his beloved land.
And now I realize that the Torah does not need my words of comfort. The Torah’s words are a reminder and a comfort to me. The Torah knows that to be a Jew is to be lonely and misunderstood. The Torah knows what it means to tenaciously pursue justice and righteousness, even when others mistake your virtue for immorality.
As the weeks progress, I will listen carefully as the Torah speaks of my ancestors who were persecuted for being different, and hated for their unwavering faith in a G-d who cannot be seen. And I will pay close attention during the many weeks when we will read about my people on their long journey to the one place where we have been promised that we can live and practice our faith in peace.
I have no doubt that Rabbi Reuven Yonah would be overwhelmed with pride at the sight of his great-great-grandchildren, prospering in the land that he loved, donning the uniform of the Israeli army, prepared to defend everything that is right and good in this world. And despite the horror and depravity that we have witnessed, I have no doubt that the Torah is relieved to be here in the Jewish homeland, where it can steadfastly remind us that the road has always been long and arduous, but that we have prevailed again and again and again, and this time will be no different.
I don’t have to tell the Torah that life can be harrowing and incomprehensible – it already knows. I need it to tell me how to stay strong and how to remain just and kind and brave even when I am overwhelmed by feelings of despair.
I will keep showing up on Shabbat to hear how the story of my people plays out. Because the story of Abraham searching for his ultimate home, is the story of Rabbi Reuven Yonah finally making it to the land of his dreams, is the story of me and my children who understand how blessedly fortunate we are to be here at this time. Even now. I don’t know what the future holds. But I have faith that we will dance with our Torah on Simchat Torah next year.
Kally Kislowicz grew up in Pittsburgh, and made Aliyah from Cleveland to Efrat in 2016.