Wednesday, for the first time in more than 71 years, Rabbi Ezra Michael Finkelstein saw the sacred Torah given by his father for his bar mitzvah, when Ezra turned 13 years old.
No, his Torah – a scroll of with the body of Jewish religious writings – had not been lost. Rather, it's been in quite good hands.
Finkelstein's Torah became the Truman Torah, and it will now be on exhibit for nearly five months starting Tuesday at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. A ceremony Thursday morning at the museum marked the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah.
“It was a very emotional experience,” Finkelstein, 93, said Wednesday by phone after seeing and unrolling the scrolls in Philadelphia. “The last time I saw it was when it was used in the student chapel in the Jewish Theological Seminary.”
The Torah has been on display for decades at the Truman Library & Museum, which is in the midst of a renovation and loaned the artifact to the museum in Philadelphia. Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, presented the scroll to President Truman at the White House on May 25, 1948, 11 days after the State of Israel declared statehood. Truman, going against several of his advisers including his venerable Secretary of State, George Marshall, formally recognized Israel within minutes of its declaration.
How did Finkelstein's Torah become a gift to the United States president?
When Truman invited Weizmann to the White House, the president of the fledgling nation needed a gift in a pinch. Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and a leader in Conservative Judaism, took a call from the Israeli consulate in New York and offered Weizmann his son's commissioned Torah.
“I wasn't asked,” said Finkelstein, who had served in the Army at the end of the war and by 1948 was a college student at Columbia. His father assumed it would be OK, and Finkelstein learned after the fact it had been given. He wasn't thrilled at first, but “I got a kick out of it when on the front page of the New York Times was a picture of my sacred Torah held by two presidents.”
When Truman made the decision to drop the atomic bombs, ending the war, Finkelstein had been training to be part of the potential Japanese invasion force.
“Sometimes you surrender something for the greater good of the world in which you live,” he said. “Something that was a part of my life is a part of the history of my people.”
Not an easy decision
Though the United States recognized Israel immediately after it declared independence, Truman did not easily arrive at that decision.
The president, though moved by the plight of Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust, had also tired of hearing from some Jewish leaders since the early in his presidency. Votes from the Jewish population could be crucial in a re-election bid, but advisers also warned against distressing Arab countries that held large oil supplies, and if the U.S. would have to get involved militarily.
Eddie Jacobson, Truman's war buddy and former clothing store co-owner, appealed to the president in letters and visits to throw his support behind a Jewish state, and he also convinced Truman to meet with Weizmann.
“I think I am one of few who actually knows and realizes what terrible heavy burdens you are carrying on your shoulders during these hectic days,” Jacobson wrote in October 1947 before a United Nations vote on the matter. “I should, therefore, be the last man to add to them; but I feel you will forgive me for doing so, because tens of thousands of lives depend on words from your mouth and heart. Harry, my people need help and I am appealing to you to help them.”
In another letter later that month, Jacobson wondered how Jewish refugees could survive another winter.
“In all this world, there is only one place where they can go – and that is Palestine,” he wrote. “You and I know only too well this is the only answer.”
Truman wrote back that month that Marshall was handling the situation with the United Nations, and he hoped “it will all work out all right.”
“When I see you I'll tell you just what the difficulties are,” the president closed with.
Ultimately, Truman said he did what he believed was the right thing to do in recognizing Israel.
“This Torah represents the connective tissue between the United States and the state of Israel, at that founding moment,” Truman Library Director Kurt Graham said.
Graham said he knew the basic outline of the Torah story but recently learned a lot.
“We were closing for renovation, and we had people reach out to us and say they wanted to borrow the Torah,” Graham said. That included the National Museum of American Jewish History. “We were contacted some folks who knew about the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah, and here we are.”
“We're honored and proud to have the Torah on display here,” Graham said. “I hope the people of Philadelphia will become more acquainted with this story.”
Finkelstein had never planned to visit the museum in Philadelphia, but after learning his Torah would be there, his son Harvey made the necessary arrangements.
“As soon as I heard about it, I wanted to come see it,” he said. “I was quite moved by it, not only to see it but to touch it.”
Now he says he's starting to plan another visit – to Independence when the Truman Library re-opens. While he's traveled to many parts of the world, Truman's hometown isn't among them.
“President Truman regarded it as a very significant gift,” Finkelstein said of the Torah.
He then noted one of his planned remarks for Thursday.
“When you achieve something unexpected,” he said, “there's Hebrew blessing that translates: Praise God that has kept me alive, and brought me to this day, and I will be grateful to God.”