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A CELEBRATION OF THE ‘OSCOTT’ SEFER TORAH

Posted Thu, 03/07/2024 - 15:06 by Lazzaro

THE CELEBRATION

The Singers Hill Shabbat Mincha on10 February 2024 was unusual as it was unique.   Singers Hill Synagogue and the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) co-sponsored a celebration of the presentation of a Sefer Torah to Singers Hill by the Catholic diocesan seminary of St Mary’s College situated in Oscott, North Birmingham.  Singers Hill’s congregation was joined by twenty lecturers and seminarians from St Mary’s, Canon Dr Michael Dolman, the current Rector of St Mary’s, and by senior representatives from the Christian faith in Birmingham and CCJ members.

Twenty years ago, on the evening of March 15th 2004, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols (then Archbishop of Birmingham, now Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster), handed over the Sefer Torah, to Rabbi Leonard Tann z”l.  As is the tradition with a new Sefer, Rabbi Tann carried it into the synagogue under a bridal canopy.    

Our 20th Anniversary celebration of that event opened with a kiddush reception where the events of 2002 were recalled in moving letters read out at the kiddush from Monsignor Canon Mark Crisp, the Rector at St Mary’s at the time and Father Harry Curtis, the Librarian who found the scroll.  Unfortunately, Monsignor Crisp and Father Curtis were unable to attend the service due to prior commitments. 

The celebration then moved into the synagogue for the Mincha (afternoon) service with the ‘Oscott Sefer’, as it has become known, as the centrepiece.  The lehining (chanting) for the week’s Sedra (portion), Terumah, (Exodus Chapter 25, verses 1 to 16), was read from the Oscott Sefer.  At the end of the reading, the Sefer was triumphantly lifted for Hagbah to show the congregation and visitors three columns of the Sefer’s beautiful script.  Rabbi Jacobs followed this with a fascinating sermon on the centrality of the Sefer Torah to Judaism.  The beautifully, tuneful davening of Michael Rowe, supported by the Singers Hill Choir, completed a truly memorable service of celebration.

 

THE HISTORY

How the Sefer came into St Mary’s possession reads like an adventure story. 

As far as is known, the Sefer started its life in Jerusalem in the early 1960s.  However, it may be older.  The Sefer was purchased in Jerusalem sometime in the early 1960s by a certain Dr Alfred Shilling, a brilliant German Catholic scholar, who was building a comprehensive library.

The young Schilling was a Catholic seminarian studying for the priesthood when he had been pressed into the German war effort during WW2.  He became a conscientious objector and was serving with the German Red Cross when he was captured, together with one hundred other seminarians, after D Day.  They were imprisoned in a POW camp near Colchester.  Schilling recalled that the first thing he did when captured was to tear the Nazi eagle from his uniform.  Another inmate confessed that they had lived in fear of their lives in Germany as they were seen as enemies of the German state.  When they arrived in England, the seminarians were amazed and heartened to receive books, paper and blankets from the local Christian community and those of other denominations living near the camp.

The Camp Commander, a Captain Morley, noticed that he had these seminarians amongst his prisoners and arranged for them to be held together in the camp for the rest of the war.  As one of the leading Catholic seminaries in the UK, St Mary’s was contacted to see if they could help the seminarians continue their studies. 

Here, another amazing character enters the story, an English theologian of rare ability, Father Francis Davis, who was teaching at St Mary's College.  He was a typical Englishman, intelligent, critical and scholarly who possessed a generous pastoral concern like his hero, Cardinal John Henry Newman.  Father Davis readily responded to a request to help the seminarians continue their studies.   Every month, Father Davis would cycle from Oscott to Colchester, a distance of some 160 miles!  He taught the young men in their native German which he had learned from a Singers Hill member who was German.

Alfred Schilling emerged as the natural leader of the group already possessing a good knowledge of Hebrew, Greek and Latin.  He adopted the role of tutor to the group and even taught them the language and interpretation of Torah.  The scholarship and dedication of these two men, Alfred Schilling and Francis Davis, transformed the time that the group spent in the prison camp.  After the war, all the seminarians returned to Germany - sixty became Catholic priests, two became bishops and two became distinguished professors of theology.

The seminarians maintained links with St Mary’s after the war and visited Colchester and Oscott in 1990.   On the death of Alfred Schilling in 1999, arrangements were made by Cardinal Nichols’ predecessor as Archbishop of Birmingham, Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville, for Schilling’s rare collection of scholarly works to be donated to St Mary's College.  Buried in the collection was a Sefer Torah.

The Torah scroll lay in a basement storeroom at St Mary’s untouched for some four and a half years.  Father Harry Curtis was cataloguing the contents of the Schilling collection when he noticed a dusty, parchment scroll with what looked like Hebrew script written on it. The college contacted Rabbi Leonard Tann at Singers Hill and asked him to examine the scroll.  Rabbi Tann wrote at the time that when he took hold of the very fine carved wooden handles and rolled out the scroll on the table, he found very clear, well written Hebrew script on a quite white parchment.   On reading the script, he realised that he was looking at a Sefer Torah, the Five Books of Moses.  However, was it genuine?  A Sefer Torah has to be examined letter by letter to check its authenticity.  An examination of the Sefer was therefore conducted under the auspices of Dayan Ivan Binstock in London.   All the letters matched except for the whole book of Leviticus which was missing.   This was very strange.  Normally, a scribe will not release a Sefer Torah scroll for use or sale until it is complete.  Dr Schilling had purchased this Sefer in Jerusalem so one would have expected it to be complete.  One could speculate that, perhaps, this Sefer had been rescued in a hurry to save it from being destroyed during the war.  However, this is only conjecture.

Rabbi Uzi Brown z”l in Manchester was commissioned to write the missing book.  Despite Singers Hill’s offer to purchase the scroll from Oscott, Archbishop Nichols insisted that it be donated to the synagogue.  The evening of Monday 15th of March 2004 saw the moving ceremony of donation. The Sefer Torah has been in regular use in the morning services in the synagogue ever since.

 

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