April 8, 2024
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From Brooklyn to Teaneck to Gaza: A Torah’s Journey of Unity and Hope Amidst Tragedy

Steve and Chani Kahan with Chani’s 93 year old mother and the sofer at the Brooklyn Hachnasat Sefer Torah for Bnai Raphael Chesed Organization.

What do a childhood friendship spanning over 40 years, underwear, the war in Gaza and a Torah have in common? At first glance, very little. However, Teaneck residents Chani and Steve Kahan told the Jewish Link, that together, they created the most impactful story.

Steve grew up in Canarsie with his friend Rafi Hazan. About 20 years ago Rafi launched the chesed organization, Bnai Raphael. Through this organization, Rafi has been able to help feed thousands of people a month in Brooklyn. Rafi created a chesed store where he stocks extra items donated by customers as well as items he can purchase at a discount and put on the shelves. People come to this “store,” browse and take what they need.

But that wasn’t where the chesed stopped for Rafi. Following the horrific events of October 7, Rafi called Steve and told him, “I have stuff I want to donate to the chayalim in Israel. I have underwear, thermals, socks but I need help getting them to Israel,” shared Steve.

Rafi Hazan dancing with the Torah at the Brooklyn Hachnasat Sefer Torah for Bnai Raphael Chesed Organization.

Steve connected him with Ari Wartelsky and the Lev Achad duffle bag project in Teaneck and Rafi brought clothing, tools and medical supplies to Teaneck. He also donated 200 duffel bags and a whole pallet of gloves too.

Two weeks later Rafi called Steve again. Rafi reminded Steve that seven years earlier he had had the idea to write a Sefer Torah that the IDF could use. Over the years, donations were received, many only a dollar or two at a time, but everyone who donated wanted to be part of the mitzvah to help the IDF and save lives. According to Rafi, “Many Torahs are written by a “machar”, but this Torah was written by a community making donations of one or two dollars. We got over 2,000 people involved in purchasing letters to raise money for the cost of the Torah and then for the soldiers in Israel as well. I’m not a soldier but this is something I could do.”

Ari Wartelsky of Lev Echad (Tryon Avenue Duffle Bag Group) and the sofer at the Teaneck Hachnasat Sefer Torah.

Amazingly, the Torah was completed on October 9, just two days after the horrific events that took place on October 7. Rafi told Steve, “Listen, you did a good job getting the supplies to Israel. Can you help with the Sefer Torah?”

Steve reached out to Ari who said Abie Cohen of Teaneck would be very interested in bringing the Torah to Israel. Ari asked if his volunteers could write a letter or two or at least kiss the Torah before Abie transported it to Israel and Rafi agreed. That’s how the Torah ended up having two Hachnasat Sefer Torahs here before leaving for Israel.

Rafi hosted a Hachnasat Sefer Torah at the Kingsway Jewish Center. People who had donated money towards the writing of the Torah had the opportunity to write letters in the Torah. The looks on their faces as they saw this project, years in the making coming to fruition, spoke volumes. Then the Torah came to Teaneck where there was another Hachnasat Sefer Torah with a chuppah, singing and dancing where Ari’s volunteers had the opportunity to fill in letters. Through the videos of the dancing, you can feel the excitement as they dance the Torah to the car on its way to the airport.

“We saw hashgacha pratis time and time again during the whole process of getting the Torah to Israel,” Steve told the Jewish Link.

World’s largest Aaron Kodesh in Shurah base.

The story took a serendipitous turn when Steve met Rabbi Shai Graucher who just happened to be speaking in Teaneck. Rabbi Graucher, a prominent figure in supporting the IDF, connected the Kahans with his uncle, a brigadier general in the Israeli army, who enthusiastically endorsed the idea of bringing the Torah to Gaza.

Upon its arrival on the plane, the Torah was greeted with jubilation. El Al flight attendants repurposed their closet to safeguard it, leading to an impromptu celebration mid-flight.

“The general asked where the Torah was, and I told him it’s on a plane right now,” shared Steve. ”I sent a WhatsApp to Abie and asked him to take a picture of the Torah to let him know it landed. When I got the picture, I sent it to Rafi and the general and the general responded that he knew Abie! He also said that 15 shuls were destroyed, and they needed Torahs in Gaza.”

In the meantime, back in Israel, Rabbi Graucher made a shiva call down south for a bus driver who had gone to the area outside of Gaza to help and was killed. In addition to dedicating the Torah to the chayalim who were murdered and injured and the 1,200 neshamos who were lost that day, the Torah would also be dedicated in memory of the father of this family, Chaim ben Aryeh, z”l.

So now the Torah was in Israel and the general was working with the chief rabbi of the IDF to get the Torah a serial number. Once it got its serial number, it had to go directly into Gaza. “We had wanted to do the Hachnasat Sefer Torah in Ofakim but the rabbi only gave permission to do it at the Shura army base near Ramlah,” shared Steve. “Shura is where they brought all the dead and mutilated bodies of both civilians and soldiers. It’s a holy place. In fact, even though we originally were disappointed not to bring the Torah to Ofakim, Shura ended up being the right place. After all the soldiers at Shura have witnessed these past months, it meant so much to us and to the soldiers to have such a beautiful ceremony on their base. Not only that, but the Shura base is also host to the largest Aaron Kodesh which houses over 400 Torahs, some dating back 900 years and some to the Holocaust. We even saw a new arrival of a Torah from the North that was split in half by a rocket. We realized what a holy place we were in.”

At Shura, the sofer carried the Torah into the Shul and then the chayalim started showing up and filling in letters. There were speeches, reflections and of course, singing and dancing as Steve, Rafi, Rabbi Atlas and the soldiers danced with the Torah under the chuppah. The mix of joy, solemnity, hope in the midst of tragedy and the sense of unity and purpose all combined to make this event incredibly meaningful and moving for all involved.

Shura Army Base Hagbah.

“October 7 was supposed to be a day to dance with the Torah,” Steve’s cousin Chezzy, an IDF soldier, reflected. “The night of the Hachnasat Sefer Torah on the Shura base, many people got their Simchat Torah. They got to dance with the Torah.”

According to Chani Kahan, “The fact that it was finished on October 9 was min hashamayim! We had the Hachnasat Sefer Torah on the Shura base and the soldiers got to finish the Torah by writing the last letters. It was unforgettable for all of us!” Steve echoed the sentiment and concluded with: “The achdus was amazing. I hope it doesn’t change.”

As the echoes of song and dance fade away, the journey of this Torah from Brooklyn to Teaneck to Gaza remains a testament to the enduring spirit of community, hope and unity and the unbreakable threads of humanity that connect us all.

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