When NewBridge on the Charles celebrates Rosh Hashanah beginning Sunday night, worshipers will read from a Torah that first unscrolled in a synagogue in the Austrian province of Bohemia at the time of the American Revolution.
Its hand-lettered Hebrew now faded to sepia, the 250-year-old parchment scroll survived the fall of the Habsburg Empire and the founding of Czechoslovakia — both in 1918 — and the horrors of the Holocaust that were to come. Now it is in the care of the Hebrew SeniorLife community in Dedham, thanks to the efforts of three women who until last year were strangers but today are so close that the NewBridge rabbi calls them the Torah Sisters.
In retrospect, the three women — Sheila Pallay, Judith Weinberg, and Marlene Yesley — were destined to team up; it was beshert, to use the Yiddish word. All three belonged to synagogues with Czech Torahs. And all three had honed skills in retirement that together would ensure the success of their NewBridge project.
Their partnership is embodied in a new quilted cover — “Something beautiful to dress this Torah after all it has been through,” said Weinberg, 71, who spent more hours than she can count stitching the mantle at her Pfaff sewing machine.
The Torah and other scrolls were among more than 200,000 Jewish artifacts confiscated by the Nazis and brought to specialists from the Jewish Museum in Prague to be cataloged and labeled. When the specialists were finished, they were deported to death camps; only a few survived. Meanwhile, the artifacts were warehoused in Prague. After the war, the Czech communist government moved the Torahs to a derelict synagogue for 20 years, and then sought buyers.
In 1964, the British philanthropist Ralph Yablon purchased 1,564 of the Torahs, which were then shipped to a London synagogue. Some were found to have been pierced by bullets and stained by blood. Tucked inside many were notes with messages like “Save us, save us.”
The Memorial Scrolls Trust was established soon after to preserve the Torahs and loan them to synagogues around the world. Over the last six decades, at least a thousand have found homes with American congregations, including one at Temple Sinai in Sharon — and that is where the story of the Torah Sisters begins.
At 75, Sheila Pallay carried the Czech Torah around Sinai’s sanctuary as she celebrated her bat mitzvah. That same year, the retired high-tech marketing executive obtained a certificate in digital photography from the Rhode Island School of Design after completing a project documenting the restoration of a 17th-century Czech scroll by Rabbi Kevin Hale, a Torah scribe based in Western Mass.
Pallay’s interest in the Torahs deepened in 2019 when she traveled to the 132 Czech towns that the Nazis used as collection points for Jewish artifacts. Photographs from the trip appear in “Light Beyond the Shadows: The Legacy of the Czech Torah Scrolls and the Renewal of Jewish Life in Czechia,” which she cowrote with Julius Müller, a Czech genealogist who was her guide and translator. The Memorial Scrolls Trust published the book in 2020.
Jews first settled in Czechoslovakia 1,000 years ago. Before World War II, the nation was home to 354,000, but nearly three quarters died in the Holocaust. Most of the rest emigrated. Today, the Czech Republic is home to about 4,000 Jews.
When Pallay moved to the Hebrew Senior Life community last September, she dreamed of bringing a Czech Torah there to celebrate her upcoming 80th birthday.
While visiting the campus as a prospective resident, she met Weinberg, 71, who had moved to NewBridge in May 2021. They discovered that they had both visited Soběslav, the original home of the Czech Torah on loan to Weinberg’s synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom of Needham.
“I mean who goes to Sobeslav on vacation?” she said of the town 70 miles south of Prague. “The fact that we had both been there was an immediate connection.”
After retiring as a Needham special education teacher, Weinberg pursued fabric art. When Pallay subsequently told her about her plans for obtaining a Czech Torah for NewBridge, she jumped at the chance to sew its cover.
The last piece of the partnership fell into place in March, when Pallay met Marlene Yesley, 83, in an art class. A longtime educator — including decades teaching at Newton North — Yesley turned to painting in her retirement and had moved to NewBridge four years before. She had visited the Czech Republic after her synagogue, Temple Israel of Boston, obtained one of the Torahs.
Based on Pallay’s concept of the tree of life, Yesley set to work designing the Torah cover. An old copper beech tree in a NewBridge courtyard served as her inspiration. She modified the image so that the branches would encircle the Torah, protecting it.
“I started with a much more realistic design, and with Sheila and Judy’s input abstracted it more and more,” Yesley said.
The tree has five roots to represent the Five Books of Moses, which make up the Torah. Yesley delineated the patterns of bark on the trunk and limbs, referencing the bark-like doors of NewBridge’s ark. After 50 hours of penciling and erasing on ever larger sheets of graph paper, Yesley inked the final drawing on sewing tracing paper and turned it over to Weinberg.
Rabbi Judi Ehrlich, the community’s chaplain, wanted the cover to coordinate with two already at NewBridge. Those have a burning bush design and were made from microsuede, a quarter-inch-thick synthetic fabric that is now hard to find.
The Torah Sisters made do with remnants of the other covers, ranging from inches to yards in size. Piecing them together was like assembling a puzzle. “We’d look at it and look at it,” said Weinberg, who had not worked with the material before. “I would not take a stitch until I checked in with them.”
To complete the tree, they trimmed to size velvet leaves of assorted colors that were part of a fabric found — appropriately enough — by Beverly Sky, who had designed NewBridge’s other Torah covers. While Yesley already had inked in the leaves, the trio together decided on which color to place where.
“It wasn’t so much a formula like a coloring book, as what we thought looked lovely,” Weinberg said.
Overall, the look is autumnal, fitting for a congregation whose members are in the autumn of their lives. The ground beneath the tree bears the Hebrew inscription l’dor vador (from generation to generation), the responsibility to pass on values and cultural traditions.
As the women collaborated on the project, they shared their own stories and talked about their families. Playing Jewish geography, Weinberg and Yesley realized their brothers had been friends as children in Dorchester.
The trio also bonded over their feelings about the Torah. Weinberg said, “I was the crier when we would get emotional about the Torah, just knowing that this was 250 years old and what it means to the Jewish people and … knowing people whose family have gone through the Holocaust, including some of my husband’s family.”
Pallay said, “We can emphasize that it survived the Holocaust, but for me I like to think about the 13-year-old boy in the 1800s who read from this Torah at his bar mitzvah.”
Pallay’s connections with the scrolls trust expedited the process. She and her husband, Herb, drove to New Jersey to pick up a Torah that had been returned by a synagogue that had closed. Like those at two synagogues in Sharon — Temple Sinai and Temple Israel — the scroll comes from Přeštice, a town 70 miles southwest of Prague.
“It’s just amazing that these three Torahs are together again,” Pallay said.
The Torah and its cover made its NewBridge debut June 4 on Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the five books of Moses on Mount Sinai. “When the curtain opened,” Pallay said, “there were joyous gasps across the congregation. People started crying. The three of us were so thrilled.”
Meanwhile, back in Přeštice, a church is preparing to display Pallay’s photographs of Czech Torahs, a sacred relic of the town’s past.
Steve Maas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.