The story of the Truman Torah

VADM Herman Shelanski (retired) and Captain USS Harry S Truman 2016-2019
It was President Truman who, despite contrary advice from his cabinet and closest advisors, was the first head of state in the world to recognize Israel on May 14, 1948. For this boldness, Hyman Weitzman, announced as the first president of Israel, presented the President with a Torah a few weeks later. It was a small family Torah from Lithuania that Rabbi Louis Finkelstein had commissioned for his son’s Bar Mitzvah. Upon receiving it, Truman jokingly said, “I always wanted one of these.” That Torah is on display at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.

As part of my Jewish heritage, Truman’s role in recognizing Israel and that our ship didn’t have a Torah on board inspired us to seek a permanent Torah for the ship. And we wanted one somewhat grander than the small Torahs that were typically available through the military. In particular, we wanted to find a Holocaust Torah.

We were lucky to get in contact with Mr. Mark Talisman, founder of the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Mr. Talisman and his wife organized a foundation to identify and preserve relics of hundreds of years of Jewish history from pre-Holocaust Europe residing in a warehouse at the Jewish Museum in Prague. These Jewish artifacts became known to the world only after the fall of the Soviet Union and eventually came to be known as the “The Precious Legacy.” It included thousands of Jewish artifacts from synagogues and personal homes, such as Sabbath wine cups, Torahs, etc. These were stolen throughout Europe as the Nazis eradicated the Jewish communities to whom it belonged. The purpose of the collection was to be for a Nazi museum, which was going to be named “The Extinct Race of the Jews.” Mr. Talisman picked a Torah from this collection that was going through repair and Koshering in England. It was a large, uniquely beautiful Torah from Lithuania that honored the heritage of the Truman Torah and my personal history of my grandparents emigrating from Lithuania. We shared the plan with the Jewish community and elicited excitement and promises for participation. The Torah was purchased by the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, with the generosity of many members to be on loan to the ship for the 40-year remaining life of the ship.

We thought having the original Truman Torah sit alongside the new Torah for the ceremony would be historical. Having been to the Truman Library during my official function as Captain, I knew the curator and contacted him to make arrangements. He relayed to me that artifacts from the library are rarely, if ever, released for public display. I convinced him that out of all exhibits, this was historical and was in honor of President Truman. I also guaranteed him that we would place a 24-hour military guard to safeguard the Torah and send a Navy aircraft to personally transport him and the Torah so he could ensure all the arrangements were satisfactory for the dedication.

On June 24, 2007, we opened the ship to the community at large in the Tidewater area, with over 600 Jews and non-Jews alike coming aboard to help us celebrate and sanctify the history and the Torah. Because of the tremendous response to our RSVPs, we held the ceremony in the hangar bays, each the size of a football field. With ceremonial flags draped on the overhead and hundreds of sailors in formation to the tunes of our local cantor from Beth El Norfolk, we proudly marched the Torah into the hangar to sit on the stage next to the Truman Torah. Senator Carl Levin (D-Minn), Mark Talisman, and I gave speeches as to the significance of this event.

We used this occasion to educate the crew on the Holocaust and tell the story of the role of the US Armed Forces, including the US Navy, in ending World War II and the Holocaust. It helped strengthen the bonds with the community and led to the understanding of our citizens on the unique and essential role our Sailors play in history. At the end of the ceremony, we carried the Torah to the ship’s small chapel, where we opened the Torah for the first time and read from it, giving an Aliyah to our distinguished guests.

Later that year, we made the first wartime deployment with the Holocaust Torah on board. At the end of that deployment, in May 2018, on the way back from Operation Iraqi Freedom on the 60th anniversary of Israel, the USS Harry S Truman was ordered off the coast of Israel for a diplomatic mission. We flew several members of the Knesset, Hebrew University professors, and Holocaust survivors on board for a two-day visit. It was another excellent learning experience for our Sailors to hear from survivors, professors, and government officials about the Jewish people and Israel’s past, present, and future. It was a fitting tribute to that history, in which President Truman played such a decisive role, that we could share with them our special Torah.

Today, once again, the USS Harry S Truman is preparing to sail in harm’s way wherever our nation needs it, with dedicated and patriotic Americans of our Nation.

On board, ready to sail with them, is this Holocaust Torah from Lithuania. A Torah that was supposed to be in a Nazi museum of the “Extinct Race of Jews,” an exhibit that would represent the victory of destruction, death, and hatred as the new world order, but now in an ironic twist of fate, that Torah is sailing on the most powerful ship in the world, within the most powerful Navy in the world, for freedom, friendship, and peace around the world.

Temple Israel and the Truman Holocaust Torah

While the USS Truman was undergoing repairs, Temple Israel safeguarded the Truman Holocaust Torah, reading from it on a weekly basis for the past three months. The scroll was returned to active duty on Sunday, March 3.

The Truman Holocaust Torah is read by Rabbi Michael Panitz during Temple Israel’s morning minyan Zoom services on Thursday, Feb. 29.
Temple Israel president Richard Yanku joins Rabbi Michael Panitz in taking the Truman scroll to Congregation Beth El’s executive staff. Congregation Beth El completed the transfer back to the carrier USS Truman on Sunday, March 3.