A 200-year-old Torah that was once used by synagogues in Saskatchewan and Quebec finds a final resting place—at a museum in Winnipeg

David Vickar presents the Torah on behalf of the South Shore Jewish Community to his cousin, Gary Vickar, and Stan Carbone, director of exhibits and programs at the Jewish Heritage Centre in Winnipeg

A sefer Torah believed to have been written in Central Europe 230 years ago has been given a final resting place in a Winnipeg museum after its most recent users in the Montreal area gratefully returned the scroll to the Prairies after three decades.

The Torah had been given to the now defunct South Shore Jewish Community (SSJC) in 1994 by a closed synagogue in Melfort, Sask., that had been built by descendants of Jewish farmers who settled in the area in the early 20th century.

In a ceremony on June 25, the Torah was formally handed over to the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, where it will be preserved in perpetuity in the Marion and Ed Vickar Jewish Museum. Although in good condition for its age, the Torah is no longer kosher for ritual use and beyond restoration; the parchment has dried out, among other deterioration.

The SSJC, a mainly social and cultural organization that brought together the small and diverse Jewish population on Montreal’s South Shore, ceased operations in June 2022. A declining and aging membership, exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, spelled the death knell for the once-vibrant group that at its peak had some 130 member families.

The Torah was kept at the SSJC’s premises in a shopping centre in La Prairie and brought out mostly for holidays.

Harry Bolner, vice-president at its dissolution, said the SSJC did not know what to do with the Torah, any contact with the Melfort shul having been long lost. So the SSJC gave the scroll to a Chabad centre which had opened in nearby Brossard.

There it remained until last May, when Dr. David Vickar, a descendant of a pioneering family in Edenbridge, about 40 km from Melfort, came across a December 2021 article in The CJN about the SSJC’s planned closure, which mentioned the Torah. He was surprised to learn of the Torah’s existence.

He reached out to the author who put him in touch with Bolner, who was delighted by the prospect of the Torah’s being repatriated to its rightful place.

In April, Vickar, a radiologist in Edmonton who was born in Melfort, came to Montreal to arrange the scroll’s shipment to Winnipeg.

David Vickar, left, travelled to Montreal in April, 2024 to see the Torah and meet with Rabbi Zalman Samama and Harry Bolner.

Bolner said he bundled the scroll in bubble wrap and cardboard and sent it via Canada Post.

Vickar told The CJN that it is believed the Torah was used by Melfort’s Beth Israel synagogue from the time it was founded around 1952 until it was shuttered in 1986. That building was sold and trucked to Prince Albert, Sask., where it still stands today repurposed as a non-denominational wedding chapel, he said.

Otherwise the Torah’s provenance is a mystery for the most part. “There is no exact tracking of the Torah,” Vickar said, “We are not sure, but the understanding is it was probably brought from Edenbridge. That community built their Beth Israel synagogue in 1908 and may have acquired the Torah at that time. Again, whether this Torah came at this time is uncertain but considered likely.”

Bolner and Jacques Saada, the SSJC’s last president, participated via Zoom, as did Rabbi Zalman Samama of the Brossard Chabad centre, in the presentation, held in the Asper Jewish Community Campus’s Berney Theatre. Vickar expressed gratitude for the South Shore Jews’ long safekeeping of the scroll.

The occasion also included a reunion of former Melfort and Edenbridge residents or their descendants the evening before, with about 45 in attendance and others online.

Cantor Leslie Emery, of Winnipeg’s Congregation Shaarey Zedek and self-described “Torah nerd,” researched the Torah, consulting several experts, including one at Harvard.

They concur that the Torah was written circa 1794-1795, likely somewhere in the region overlapping modern-day Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, she said. That was the site of the Holocaust at its earliest which makes the scroll’s survival to this day all the more precious, Emery added.

She was touched by the inscription—in Hebrew—at the base: She is a tree of life for those who hold her, from Proverbs 3:18.

The style of writing is quite distinct, Emery noted, especially the very long columns, running 60 lines deep, and the rendering of certain letters. It was written in an era before scribes followed a more standardized format, and contributes to an understanding of the Jewish community’s historic diversity, she said.

Emery thinks there are few Torahs in North America of this vintage, and is glad the Jewish Heritage Centre, will be making the Torah available for scholarly study.

Saada, a former MP who is today president of the Montreal Holocaust Museum, said, “This moment is filled with many emotions. The Torah has been part of our lives for decades. But now it is regaining its home.”

The Torah was a unifying force for that diverse group of Jews, which included Ashkenazim and Sephardim, a full range of religious traditions or none, as well as language and political differences, he said.

The Torah was at the centre of significant moments in the SSJC’s history, Saada continued, but one especially emotional time stands out. One of the founders, Dutch-born Max Nyveen, was finally able to have a bar mitzvah, reading from that Torah, before his death in 2005 at age 88.

Saada added that during this difficult time when antisemitism is rampant, the Torah symbolizes the unity and resilience of the Jewish people.

The final remarks were delivered by Elaine Vickar, daughter of the late Marion and Ed Vickar. “I hope in years to come, when we think of these turbulent times for the Jewish people, we will be buoyed by memory of the past and the promise of the future.”

David Vickar said the proceedings, including the reunion the night before where attendees were invited to have their stories videotaped, were being recorded and made into a movie to be added to the Heritage Centre archives.