Scroll power: Nicaraguan Jews celebrate first Torah in 28 years
By Brian Harris
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MANAGUA, Nicaragua (JTA)—After 28 years without a Torah scroll, Nicaraguan Jews joyously welcomed a new Torah in a ceremony community members say helped rekindle the Jewish spirit in this turbulent Central American country.
The morning after the Dec. 16 ceremony, the Torah was used for the first time in a minyan, at the bar mitzvah of Joshua Kain Teplitskaia.
Some two dozen people, including a rabbi from neighboring Costa Rica, attended the service. It represented the first real service in the country since it last had a Torah.
“We are taking the Torah once again to Nicaragua,” said Rabbi Hersch Spalter, the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi from Costa Rica who presided over the festivities. “This is the rebirth of Judaism in Nicaragua.”
Never a large community, Nicaragua Jews began leaving the country during the political deterioration of the 1970s. After the Soviet-backed Sandinista Revolution in 1979, the few Jews who remained went into exile, taking their Torah with them.
Jews began returning to Nicaragua after the Sandinistas were voted out of office in 1990, but their Torah remained in Costa Rica until a suitable home in Nicaragua could be constructed for it.
With no synagogue or community center to serve the estimated 60 Jews in the country, this week’s festivities were held at the Torah’s interim home, the house of Jimmy Najman, a Shabbat and kosher observer who attends Spalter’s synagogue when in Costa Rica.
“It looks to be that little by little this community is growing,” Spalter told JTA. “For now it is perfectly fine if services are at the Najman’s house, so long as there are services.”
Najman’s son, Moshe David, is well versed in Hebrew and likely will lead prayer services for now.
During Sunday’s Hachnasat Sefer Torah ceremonies to welcome the Torah, the scroll was taken from its ark and paraded down the cul-de-sac the Najmans live on at the southern end of the city. Under a chuppah, the Torah was feted with songs while curious, non-Jewish neighbors looked on.
Each of the men took multiple turns dancing with the Torah while the women, segregated from the males by a row of potted plants, watched and in some cases, wiped away tears of joy.
The community’s dean, Max Najman, Jimmy’s father, said the ceremony was the first of its kind in Nicaragua in his lifetime.
The Torah is the gift of Chana Sorhagen, 90, who has never visited Nicaragua and met Najman only when she handed the Torah over to him in August.
Sorhagen, of Morristown, N.J., learned about the community from a friend and made contact with it through her local Chabad rabbi. Though she had planned to attend the event, in the end Sorhagen was unable to travel and instead spoke with the celebrants by phone.
“In August I got the divine inspiration to get a sefer Torah, but not for an area that already has one,” she told the celebrants gathered around the phone to hear her. “If you open your eyes, you will see the hand of God is in this. My wish for you is this Holy Scripture inspires you to live a Jewish life.”
“Really, since Mrs. Sorhagen called me in August, I couldn’t believe what she was telling me,” a beaming Jimmy Najman said, recounting how he traveled to the United States in August to fetch the Torah. “This obviously elevates the country to have a sefer Torah.”
Few in number, the Jews of Nicaragua are diverse in practice, ranging from the observant Najman to secular Jews with little knowledge of Jewish prayers. The country’s Jews also hail from diverse communities, with Nicaraguan citizens a minority among them.
The Torah’s arrival is forcing the community to talk about a final location for the scroll and construction plans for a new Jewish center.
While Jews here have been talking about such an endeavor for years, the significant distances between members’ homes and general inertia stalled concrete plans. The Torah’s arrival may be changing that.
“Once we have a lot, I know there are many communities that can help us build our religious, community and social center,” community president Eddy Translateur said. “We’ll get there.”