Historic Torah Demonstrates the Power of Ordinary People

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From left: Dachau survivor Ernie Gross, New York City Fire Department Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Dachau liberator Donald Greenbaum and the American Legion’s Tom Shallow | Photo by Rachel Winicov

Commercial jets roared overhead, a rare sign of life amid empty industrial complexes and dormant naval vessels lurking in the water. The Navy Yard remained desolate June 25, save for a tiny chapel nestled between the Delaware River and Citizens Bank Park.

The Chapel of Four Chaplains buzzed with activity as about 50 guests, mostly retired veterans and military chaplains, partook in a ceremony to mark the passing of a historic Torah to Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the New York City Fire Department.

“It’s more than the five books of Moses. It’s a slice of Americanism, an object that Jews and gentiles alike came together to protect,” Thomas Shallow, co-organizer of the event and the chair of the Pennsylvania Sons of the American Legion, said of the Torah scroll.

Jews in Eastern Europe commissioned the scroll in the 1850s and regularly used it for services until World War II, when Nazi book burnings threatened its existence. The Knights of Pythias and the Cardoza Foundation rescued the Torah from Europe, bringing it to the U.S. for safekeeping. Tasked with finding it a home, the religious-focused organizations bestowed it upon the interfaith Chapel of Four Chaplains in Philadelphia in 1954.

The chapel commemorates four religious leaders who donated their life vests to fellow crew members when German U-boats struck their Army transport ship in 1943. One chaplain, Rabbi Alexander Goode, worked at Temple Beth Israel in York prior to the war. The others practiced various denominations of Christianity, but all four chaplains are remembered for their willingness to help those of all faiths, Shallow said.

“It was an act of selfless giving,” he noted, adding the chapel’s focus has evolved to “finding common people to do extraordinary things and acknowledging them.” Through scholarships, trainings for chaplains and outreach to veterans, the chapel finds individuals to emulate its namesakes.

The community-focused chapel does not regularly hold services and, as a result, the Torah has rested in a cabinet with another scroll for the majority of the past 63 years.

“The chapel has maintained and respected the Torah, but there was a dilemma,” Shallow said, explaining chapel leaders have long hoped to revive the Torah’s circulation but were pressed to find a worthwhile organization to receive it.

A year and a half ago, the chapel took inventory of its relics, Executive Director Christine Beady explained.

“I felt it was sort of a greedy thing, having two Torahs,” so she reached out to Shallow for assistance in relocating one of them.

Joseph Potasnik offered a solution.

Chaplain of the New York City Fire Department since 1999 and executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, Potasnik posited a traveling tour with the Torah, visiting congregations across New York and introducing the artifact and its history to thousands.

Chapel staff welcomed the idea.

“It’s kind of poetic, really,” Shallow said, in reference to Potasnik receiving the Torah. “The whole idea of the fire department is to preserve, to protect, to not let things go to ashes.”

He added, “The Torah survived because a chain of hands that wanted to see that it was protected.” Ordinary people were exceptionally dedicated to “respecting and protecting the Torah’s existence,” much like the creed of the fire department and of the four chaplains.

The chapel held a ceremony to mark the official transfer of the Torah to Potasnik. The celebration featured an array of speakers who mediated on the importance of honoring and remembering history.

Two honored guests, Donald Greenbaum and Ernie Gross, brought many in the audience to tears. Greenbaum took the microphone first, revealing he liberated Dachau concentration camp in 1945 with Gen. George Patton’s Third Army.

The 92-year-old regularly gives speeches, often with Gross, because “in 10 years, there will be no one left to tell the stories.”

Initially wary on sharing the details of his traumatic past, Greenbaum’s stance changed 20 years ago, when a Holocaust denier infuriated him. He slowly began to speak to others. Then, “a few years ago, my wife wrote an article in the Jewish Exponent about my time in the war. Ernie saw the article and reached out.”

Gross disclosed that he was among the survivors of Dachau.

“For 60 years, I was looking to thank the people who saved my life,” he said. “It was the first time I found someone.”

Born in Romania, Gross today preaches tolerance.

“Jews have a value called tzdekah, giving charity when you can afford it,” Gross said. “I tell the schools when we speak, there can be no bullying.”

Both men noted their relationship has grown into that of family.

“When I see Don, it’s like seeing my brother,” Gross said, noting three of his siblings died in Auschwitz.

Gross noted that he, as well, was perilously close to death in Dachau.

“I was standing in line to the crematorium,” he said. “I knew I was about to die, when the soldier next to me dropped his gun and ran.”

Initially confused, Gross soon noticed the approaching American soldiers.

Emotional declarations of “never forget” and a long standing ovation followed the men’s speeches. In the middle of the bimah, the historic Torah provided another testament to ordinary people’s power to save.

“The Torah is a treasure,” Shallow said, “but the living treasures are those that survived [the Holocaust]. They speak where the Torah can’t speak.”

Potasnik elaborated on individuals’ importance.

“We need to open doors for one another. We can be of different faiths, but as the chapel demonstrates, we are all part of one interfaith family.” To remember this, Potasnik and the New York Board of Rabbis commissioned a new cover for the Torah to commemorate the four chaplains.

Potasnik led the multi-denominational room in the Shehecheyanu prayer to close the ceremony and redress the Torah. Although the Hebrew befuddled some, the ending “amen” clearly resonated throughout the room.

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