Local Torahs serve as historical lessons for students

Local Torahs serve as historical lessons for students

History is often told through documents. In Oakland, that lesson is being shared through scrolls.

Throughout the semester, students in Rachel Kranson’s “Jews and Judaism: Modern” course at the University of Pittsburgh have been working on the Pittsburgh Torah Scrolls Project.

Per the assignment, participating undergraduates have handled archival materials, conducted interviews and read relevant articles in order to better understand the origin of particular Pittsburgh parchments.

“This semester, my students have been learning about how historians use primary sources, which are archival documents and artifacts through which scholars reconstruct the past,” said Kranson, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

As she explained to her students, not only are Torah scrolls sacred objects, but they can also be primary sources. By focusing upon the various parchments, “my students have been learning about Jewish migrations from Europe to the United States, about migrations within Pittsburgh from immigrant neighborhoods to more affluent urban neighborhoods and suburbs, about the spiritual priorities of Jews and how Jews build their communities.”

For weeks, Kranson’s students have traveled throughout the city, photographed Torahs, mapped locations and digitally marked each scroll’s travels. The students’ efforts will culminate in a public presentation on Thursday, April 20, from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. in the William Pitt Union Kurzman Room. The event will allow students to present their findings as well as serve as an official launch for an online exhibit, where digital visitors can learn more about the Pittsburgh Torah Scrolls Project, said Kranson.

The semester-long undertaking has been “enlightening,” said Zach Johnson, a student in Kranson’s course. “In the process of learning about the Torah scrolls, I’ve learned about other things like the Kollel [Jewish Learning] Center.”

The Kollel’s Torah, which was from Lithuania and delivered to Squirrel Hill via a congregation in Vandergrift, Pa., is one of 10 scrolls that Kranson’s students have researched. Other Torahs include one rescued from the Holocaust that is displayed at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh; a Torah at Adat Shalom in Fox Chapel that came from Congregation B’nai Israel in East Liberty; and a curiously scripted Torah residing at Temple Beth Israel in White Oak (deciphering that Torah’s design was the subject of an earlier story in The Chronicle).

The Torah scrolls being studied offer windows into worlds perhaps forgotten, said Adam Shear, director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Each scroll has its own history that involves dozens of Jewish lives from the parchment-makers to the scribes to the patrons to later owners and caretakers.  Some of these histories are triumphant, and some are tinged with tragedy,” said Shear.

“Not only is investigating these provenance histories a great way for students to understand modern Jewish history, but their research will be an invaluable source of reflection and collective memory making in the community.”

By focusing on local Torah scrolls, students are better understanding what is at heart in the historical enterprise, noted Kranson.

“We cannot understand the present without having a sense of what brought us here,” she said. “Telling Jewish history through the lens of Pittsburgh’s Torah scrolls offers a fascinating window into all of the forces — economic, social, and political — that made Pittsburgh’s Jewish community into the entity that it is today.”

>> The public is invited to attend the digital launch of the Pittsburgh Torah Scrolls Project on Thursday April 20, from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. at the William Pitt Union Kurzman Room. Contact Rachel Kranson at kranson@pitt.edu for more information.

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.

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