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KC native ushers Holocaust Torah back to Czech Republic

Rabbi Corey Helfand holds the Holocaust Torah he was returning to its home congregation in the Czech Republic.

Last week United Airlines helped connect the past and the future, and two Jewish congregations 6,000 miles apart, by helping a rabbi and a cantor from the San Francisco Bay Area transport a 200-year-old Torah scroll, a refugee from the Holocaust, back to its home temple in the Czech Republic. 

The rabbi who accompanied this Torah back to the Czech Republic is Rabbi Corey Helfand, who grew up in the KC Jewish community and is the senior rabbi of Peninsula Sinai Congregation (PSC) in Foster City, California. The Conservative congregation took care of the Czech Torah for the past 47 years.

According to The Hub, a publication of United Airlines, the Torah came from a synagogue from a village called Olomouc in the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia). Before and during World War II, Torahs and other artifacts were routinely confiscated or destroyed by the occupying Nazis, but this Torah and hundreds of others were hidden or taken out of Nazi territory for safekeeping.

The Olomouc Torah arrived in Foster City in 1970s, and as the Jewish community in Olomouc grew again, they reached out to the California congregation.

“They asked us if we could help restore this scroll to kosher status and bring it back to its home,” Rabbi Helfand told The Hub and ABC 7 in San Francisco, which also reported on the Torah’s journey. Rabbi Helfand was accompanied on his flight to Frankfurt, Germany, on Oct. 17 by Cantor Doron Shapira, who has a personal connection with the scrolls. His in-laws were among the Jews who escaped Olomouc, and they previously worshipped at the Olomouc synagogue.

PSC has nearly completed restoring the Torah over the past several years — the final work will be done in Olomouc, and the scroll returned to its home synagogue during ceremonies planned for later this month.

Michael Hayat, a United IT senior manager based in San Francisco, is a member of the Foster City congregation and worked with San Francisco Airport and United representatives to make sure the Torah would receive special handling on the United leg of the journey to Frankfurt, before heading to its final destination in Prague.

United customer service staff provided early boarding and a secure spot for the special carry-on, as well as arranged for the rabbi and cantor to have an empty seat between them, which was assigned to the Torah. According to an email sent to members by PSC President Irene Moff, the Torah had its own boarding pass with the name Torah, Torah. 

During the flight, the pilots and flight attendants checked on the rabbi, cantor and Torah regularly to make sure they had a comfortable flight. United worked with the TSA to make sure the scroll could get through security with no issues, and with Lufthansa, to ensure a smooth connection in Frankfurt.

“I am overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude for how everyone came together to make this a special flight for them,” Hayat told The Hub. “The United family came together and exceeded all our expectations.”

Rabbi Helfand has been with PSC for the past seven years, helping it grow from 200 to 325 families during that time. He received his rabbinic ordination in May 2011 from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America along with a master’s in Talmud and Jewish law and a certificate in pastoral care. He and his wife Jenny are the parents of Eden, Matan and Jonah. Rabbi Helfand is the son of Vicki and Richard Helfand.