Revere

Closing of Century-Old Revere Synagogue Leads Torah on Long Journey to Kenya

Temple B'nai Israel was founded more than 100 years ago in Revere, Massachusetts, by immigrants fleeing persecution; after it closed its doors in 2019, a Torah scroll became destined for Kehillat Israel Kenya in the community of Ol-Kalou, but the delivery was marred by hurdles

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When a synagogue in Revere, Massachusetts, closed its doors for the final time in 2019, it was a devastating loss to the last 50 or so families who called the congregation their spiritual home. But the times had changed, the community dwindled and they knew it was time to shut down.

Now, as a result, its building and Torah scrolls are breathing life into two very different communities, from Revere to Kenya.

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Temple B'nai Israel was founded more than 100 years ago by immigrants fleeing persecution. Today, it belongs to the Bosniaks Society of Boston, a mosque whose immigrants also fled Eastern Europe.

"When the time came to sell the synagogue," said Debby Cherry, the temple's last president, "we were very happy to know that it would continue to be a house of worship."

But the temple community struggled over what to do with the five Torahs inside.

"The pages are written on parchment and are done by a scribe who cannot make a mistake," explained Cherry. "One error on a page and they have to start over."

Each week, Jews read a portion of the Torah, and over the course of a year, they get through the whole scroll.

Two of the sacred scrolls went to a former rabbi and his new synagogue in Washington, D.C. Another went to a Hillel in Delaware where there had been a fire. A fourth went to the United States Army, where a chaplain was looking for the holy object.

But what do to with the fifth Torah? It turns out a rabbi in Revere had a new connection in Kenya, and through a series of conversations and coincidences, he and Cherry learned there was a need for a Torah there, in a small community of about 60 Jews who had converted to the religion.

But getting it to Kehillat Israel Kenya, in the community of Ol-Kalou, became a logistical challenge of almost biblical proportions.

Plan One was to deliver it in person after packing the sacred scroll in a hard-sided golf bag.

"I was feeling incredibly responsible to make sure that this beautiful piece arrives in one piece and remains usable," explained Cherry. "And also just the sacred and holiness of what the item is and how it should be treated with reverence ... I checked my bag and hoped to see it when it got to Kenya."

But it did not arrive.

And so, the last Torah became a lost Torah.

"I just felt hugely responsible and it was incredibly frightening," recalled Cherry. "Where is this Torah? And more importantly, the disappointment to the people in Kenya, because here we are telling them, 'Yes, we have this Torah.' They have seen it online, they have posted on Facebook and they are excited, waiting for it to happen."

Days later, Cherry learned it was in Amsterdam, her stopover on the way to Kenya. Eventually, it was sent back to her home, where it remained for months. So she moved on to Plan Two.

"I thought, 'I'm not bringing this on a plane again. I've already done that once. This doesn't work.' So I went to FedEx," she said.

She was assured it would arrive in a week. But it was stuck for eight weeks in customs in Kenya. Eventually, her Kenyan fiancée picked it up.

Finally, this summer, three years after the Revere synagogue closed, Cherry and two Cantorial colleagues were able to deliver the Torah.

"They had prepared everything that they could do to receive this most holy gift. I could have been in a synagogue in Revere, in New York, in Paris or in Nairobi, and the Torah, just for us, just binds us through our religion. It is not ours. It belongs to everybody. For the time that we had them, 100-plus years, we held those Torahs only to disperse them to others in need as time went on," said Cherry. "I actually had butterflies in my stomach. I was quite nervous about the whole thing, just because it was the truly the end and the closing of the synagogue and the excitement that these people would have and the hope that they would be happy to have this gift. And they were just delighted."

The timing of this festive delivery meant that for the first time, on the High Holidays, the holiest of the Jewish year, the Ol-Kalou community could celebrate with a Torah scroll -- a beautiful moment in this Torah's journey.

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