A Torah scroll that survived desecration by British troops during the American Revolution is now on display at the New-York Historical Society, part of an exhibit connected to the society’s three-year, $65 million reopening.
The scroll from the Shearith Israel synagogue, the oldest Jewish congregation in the United States and New York’s only Judaic house of worship for nearly a century, still has burn marks on it from the British ransacking of the city in 1776.
In August of that year, shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington and his troops retreated to Manhattan Island after being routed by the British on Long Island.
Washington wanted desperately to hold onto whatever small scrap of New York he could, but by November his army had been booted from Manhattan. The British would occupy the area for the remainder of the war, according to The Jewish Week.
During the occupation, thousands of rebel sympathizers fled the city as British troops looted and pillaged, setting fire to homes, bridges and even Congregation Shearith Israel, which was built in 1729.
The synagogue had bought two Torah scrolls when it was built, one Sephardic and one Ashkenazi, since the community was split.
And during the Revolution, the British attacked both scrolls, though it is the Ashkenazi one that is now on display, according to The Jewish Week.
“They set one on fire, and they slashed the other with a sword,” said Rabbi Hayyim Angel, the current rabbi at Temple Shearith Israel.
Jewish law requires that desecrated holy texts be buried, but Angel and other scholars speculate that the community realized the historic value of the damaged scrolls and kept them instead, according to the publication.
It’s not clear where the scrolls were kept during the seven years of the British occupation. Most of the Shearith Israel congregants fled the city, since they were rebel sympathizers and some believe they may have taken the scrolls with them.
Another possibility is that the British forces protected them. The British employed Hessian soldiers, troops hired out by German rulers to the British to help fight the war, and at least one of them in the city was Jewish, said Debra Schmidt Bach, a curator at the society.
Whatever the case, the attack on the scrolls was probably not an anti-Semitic attack, according to Bach.
“It was part and parcel of the vandalism that was going on throughout the city,” she said.
Moreover, British commanders harshly punished the two British soldiers who attacked the synagogue. “One was lashed so severely he died from his wounds,” Bach added.
Other items on display during the exhibition include features Sabbath candle holders and a Chanukah menorah by famed Colonial silversmith Myer Myers; two portraits of Jews who fought in the War of 1812; and a book of poems by Emma Lazarus, a congregation member whose poem, “The New Colossus,” adorns the Statue of Liberty.
The exhibition opened Nov. 11 at the New-York Historical Society, and will be on view for about four months. The museum is located at 170 Central Park West.
(Above: The Shearith Israel Torah scroll that was burned by British troops in 1776. Photo by The Jewish Week.)