Torah rescued years ago finds a new home

Posted: May 01, 2012

About 8 p.m. on Feb. 2, 1988, David Sheinson answered the phone.

"Your synagogue is on fire!" his neighbor cried.

Sheinson ran out of his apartment and around the block to find fire engines dousing a four-alarm blaze at Temple Sholom, where he and his family had been among the founding members in 1941.

Along with a radio reporter and a firefighter, Sheinson, recalled Sunday, he sloshed through knee-deep water and rescued the congregation's Torahs, the handwritten sacred scrolls containing the first five books of the Jewish Bible.

Sunday, Sheinson, now 93, stood before several hundred Jewish residents of Paul's Run, the retirement community in Northeast Philadelphia where he lives, holding one of the Torahs he had saved 24 years before. From now on, it would belong to them.

Wearing a dignified black suit, tie, and white shirt, he hugged his thin arms around the parchment scrolls wrapped in gold-embroidered cloth, the wooden finials rising above his head. Sheinson struggled under its weight but held on for a few moments, defiant and proud to have survived to see this day.

"I am emotionally and spiritually overwhelmed. Lost for words. I really am not prepared to say too much," he said. Working a crowd of several hundred who had gathered to celebrate the Torah's arrival, he added, "However. However . . ."

Then he told the story.

When he and his wife, Shirley, 91, moved to Paul's Run last fall, they found that the Jewish residents there, about 80 of whom regularly meet to observe the Sabbath and holidays, had to be content with photocopied pages of scripture and, occasionally, a borrowed Torah.

Sheinson decided they needed one of their own.

The Oxford Circle neighborhood where he and his wife had raised their children in the 1960s and '70s had been a lively Jewish community, with an active conservative congregation that met at Temple Sholom.

But the demographics shifted, and most of the Jewish families left. In 2004, the building was sold and the temple merged with Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, its Torahs - about a dozen - going along for the move.

The Sheinsons, both sharp as ever and nearly as spry, had stayed in their Oxford Circle apartment until last year, when their daughter, Elaine Shechtman, persuaded them to move to Paul's Run.

There, they met many other former members of Temple Sholom, so it seemed that the most logical place to seek a Torah was Beth Sholom, where the old congregation's scrolls now abided.

Sheinson, working with a few "partners in crime," contacted Beth Sholom's Rabbi Andrea Merow and, with the approval of that congregation's board, the deal was sealed.

One of the organizers was Lillian Silverstein, a volunteer from Jewish Family and Children's Services, who has acted as para-chaplain for nearly a decade.

"Stand up!" Sheinson ordered the delicate, blue-eyed 86-year-old in a gray velour sweatshirt, who leaned on her walker to rise and accept applause.

"She has been keeping this alive, running Friday night services and on Saturday for those in assisted living," he said. "She had a fall recently and needs a walker. Probably chasing her boyfriend around!"

Silverstein demurred, shaking her head. "Sure. That's right."

Later, she rose again to give her own brief remarks, saying: "We are so happy. Today is one in eternity."

Sheinson's younger brother, Simon, 89, who reads the Torah selections every Friday night, and helped arrange for the Beth Sholom gift, also said a few words.

Although Paul's Run is run by a Lutheran nonprofit organization, about half its 500 residents are Jewish, said chaplain Stephen Weisser.

"God uses us, even in our old age, for his divine work," Weisser said, before leading the crowd in Hebrew songs and prayers.

"We are humbled to bring this Torah to you," said Merow, the last rabbi at Temple Sholom before moving to Beth Sholom. "The Torah is all of ours . . . and every Torah scroll should be in a place where it can be read and celebrated and learned from."

One of Temple Sholom's past presidents hoisted the Torah over his shoulder and carried it around the room, walking slowly up and down each aisle so that the congregants could touch it and then kiss their fingers. (Or kiss their fingers and then touch it. The rules weren't strict.)

Then everyone sang in Hebrew, "Renew our lives as in days of old."

Sheinson, holding hands with his wife, stood up, belting out the words, rocking side to side. Then in glee undiminished by age, he kicked up his feet, dancing.


Contact Melissa Dribben

at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com or dribbenonphilly@twitter.

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