The Gift of a 100-Year-Old Sefer Torah
It was almost Shabbat on Fort Drum, a military base in Watertown, New York. Rabbi Moshe Lans, a US Army chaplain endorsed by the Aleph Institute, was preparing for Friday night services when his phone rang.
A young yeshiva student was on the other end.
“Hi Rabbi, I’m with some friends at a hotel upstate for Shabbat, and the guy who was supposed to bring us supplies didn’t show up,” he said. “Do you have challah, grape juice, prayer books, and a Torah we could borrow?”
Chaplain Lans chuckled. “I might be able to help you with challah, grape juice, and prayer books. But a Torah is kind of another story. Unfortunately, we don’t have one on this base.”
They arranged to meet in the parking lot of Fort Drum, where Chaplain Lans handed them his wife’s freshly baked challah and other Shabbat necessities.
On Saturday night after Shabbat ended, Chaplain Lans opened his email and saw a message from Mark Gronich, a reporter for the Jewish Press. With the news so full of gloomy updates about the pandemic, Gronich had been searching for something uplifting to write about. While traveling, he had bumped into a group of yeshiva students in his hotel who invited him to join their Shabbat meal. After hearing the boys’ tale and tasting the delicious challah made by Chaplain Lans’ wife, military veteran LCDR Leah Bracha Lans, he realized that this was the inspiring story he needed.
Chaplain Lans and his wife agreed to be interviewed, but the story didn’t end there. Gronich wanted to know why Chaplain Lans didn’t have a Torah.
“They’re very expensive,” Chaplain Lans explained to Gronich. “And we don’t usually have a minyan on this base, so we just borrow a Torah when we need one.”
Gronich was determined to rectify the situation. He reached out to Congregation Beth Israel in Schenectady and asked if they would consider donating a Torah to the US Military. The congregation was overjoyed at the opportunity and donated a 100-year-old Torah that had come from Europe and survived the Holocaust.
The Aleph Institute, a nonprofit which serves people in isolated environments including the military, stepped in to negotiate the transfer.
“We had to work through complex military channels to get it done,” says Chaplain Lans. “I couldn’t just accept a gift on behalf of the US military. Instead, the Torah was donated to the US Military through the Aleph Institute. Aleph appointed me as its custodian as long as I am in active duty, and once I retire, they will designate another chaplain to ensure its proper care and usage.”
Rabbi Elie Estrin, US Air Force Chaplain and the Aleph Institute’s Military Personnel Liaison, hired Natan Katz, a professional sofer (trained scribe who writes Torah scrolls and other Jewish artifacts), to gently and precisely restore each faded letter. Finally in early August, the restoration of the Torah was complete. The Torah will be transported to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, where Chaplain Lans serves as chaplain.
“The Torah itself notes the importance of spirit, ideals and motivation in battle. This is represented by the fact that a Jewish king is instructed to have a Torah scroll with him especially when he went to war,” says Rabbi Estrin. “The sefer Torah symbolizes that while soldiers have a duty to fight, they must always remain true to their G-dly and ethical codes. There is something incredibly powerful about the fact that this Torah now belongs to soldiers fighting for the United States of America, where it will serve as an eternal reminder of our sacred values.”
“Only G-d could orchestrate such wonders and miracles,” says Chaplain Lans. “This Torah was collecting dust for years in the back of a synagogue. Through a series of Divinely orchestrated events, it will once again fulfill its holy mission. I am honored to be entrusted with the care of the sefer Torah, and pray it will bring many souls closer to our Creator.”