Gettysburg College’s current and future Jewish students are the beneficiaries of a sacred gift from a synagogue in Johnstown, Pa.
A Torah scroll, a handwritten copy of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, was presented Friday to Rev. Dr. Kristin Largen, the college’s chaplain and associate dean of religious and spiritual life, by leaders of Beth Sholom congregation.
During a brief prayer service at Beth Sholom’s synagogue, Rabbi Irvin Brandwein said, “The Torah is the destiny of the Jewish people, not its collected wisdom. We think of ourselves as people of the book at the foot of Mt. Sinai receiving the law that God gives us.”
In accepting the gift at Johnstown, Largen said, “On behalf of Gettysburg College and our Hillel community, I am honored and humbled to receive this Torah from Beth Sholom. We are very proud to stand in the long and storied tradition of this community and are delighted to be united with you now through this gift.”
The chaplain and her husband, Rev. John Largen, transported the Torah to Gettysburg where it was received by David Bass, director of the college’s Hillel chapter. The Torah was installed in a specially designed cabinet called an ark, constructed by carpenters in the college’s facilities department.
As he received the Torah at the college’s Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, Bass said, “The Torah is central to Judaism. Its wisdom informs our lives, and its presence conveys sacredness in our practices.”
Bass looks forward to times when the scroll will be removed from the ark and used in Hillel’s services.
“We eagerly await the opportunity to read from our Torah at high holy day services next year. And we look forward to finding other opportunities to utilize the Torah within our Hillel throughout the year.”
Adding his appreciation for Beth Sholom’s gift, Bass explained the significance of this Torah, estimated to be at least 70 years old, being passed from one Jewish community to another.
“There is a central concept in Judaism of L’dor V’dor (from generation to generation),” he said. “That idea is fully conveyed with this deeply meaningful donation to our Hillel.”
For the past century, the philanthropic Hillel International foundation has fostered and supported campus ministries for Jewish students in North America and globally. Named for a first-century Jewish rabbi who formulated a version of the golden rule, Hillel supports students at more than 550 colleges and universities in North America and globally.
With roughly 100 Jewish students enrolled at the college in any given year, Gettysburg has a robust Hillel chapter led by Bass.
Director of Gettysburg College’s Hillel campus ministry David Bass and the college chaplain and associate dean for religious and spiritual life, Rev. Kristin Largen, prepare to place a Torah in the campus Center for Religious and Spiritual Life on Friday. The sacred scroll was a gift to the Hillel chapter from Beth Sholom Synagogue in Johnstown, Pa.
Faithfulness amidst challenges
Decline of Johnstown’s Jewish community mirrored the city’s overall population shrinkage as steel mills and industries closed.
But today’s lively Beth Sholom congregation of about 100 members continues the legacy of three predecessor synagogues in the western Pennsylvania community.
The congregations played key roles in serving their neighbors through Johnstown’s catastrophic floods and have been among the most generous U.S. Jewish communities offering support to many projects in Israel.
With more than a dozen Torah scrolls in its possession following the merger of the congregations, Beth Sholom’s leaders signaled their interest in donating one to another Jewish community. Hillel’s national network made the local campus group aware of the opportunity.
Notified that Beth Sholom had chosen Gettysburg’s Hillel to receive the sacred scroll, the campus group commissioned a green and gold cloth mantle in which the Torah is shrouded in the ark. The mantle bears the inscription, “Donated to Gettysburg College Hillel by Beth Sholom Congregation, Johnstown, Pennsylvania.”
Plans to send a delegation of Gettysburg students to receive the Torah earlier this year had to be abandoned when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring. But Largen and Bass hope a Hillel student delegation can visit Johnstown at some point to build stronger bonds with the historic congregation.
Largen will leave her post at Gettysburg early in 2021 to become president at Wartburg (Lutheran) Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Expanding support for students of all faith traditions will be part of her legacy, as evidenced by helping bring a sacred Torah to the college.
By Michael Cooper-White for the Gettysburg Times; reproduced with permission
Photos courtesy of John Largen