Rabbi Earne asked me to drop what I was doing and come to Congregation Beth Am, which is very close to our home, to pick up one of our synagogue's five Torahs. With adrenaline and panic running through my veins, I looked to Joanna for guidance. "Absolutely," she said, "You go get that Torah." Amazed at Joanna's resolve, I wiped the ash off my car and drove toward the raging flames to get the Torah.
Early one morning in 1939, Joanna's grandparents, Morris and Frieda Erman, left Drove, Germany with only their son, Michael, and their community's Torah. The Jewish community of Drove entrusted their past and their hope to the Ermans and their journey to the United States. Morris and Frieda were allowed to leave Germany with only what they could carry on their laps: their son and their Torah.
As the eerie, dull orange sky dumped black-and-white ash on my car, I pulled into Beth Am's parking lot. Rabbi Earne handed me the Torah wrapped in two tallitot, and he told me, "Wherever you go, the Torah goes. You never let go."
With that, our odyssey with the Torah began. We were able to book a hotel room in downtown San Diego. We shooed bellboys away from the Torah, afraid they might set it down. We avoided evacuees with excitable dogs who were jumping up in laps. We settled into our room. The only place we could safely keep the Torah away from our curious son's hands was on top of the TV armoire. The next day, a large convention forced us from our hotel room, and we temporarily moved in with cousins, the Sieglers. The Torah lay across Mitch's desk and ensured that any work he did that day would be blessed.
More than 48 hours after we'd left home, the city lifted the evacuation for our neighborhood. As we packed up our belongings again, a now-habitual checklist passed our lips:
"You have Jacob?"
"You have the Torah?"
Throughout our odyssey, we didn't worry about the cell phones, the toys, the clothes or anything else. Those all could be replaced or re-bought. And during those days, Joanna and I slowly began to connect with Morris and Frieda's experience almost seventy years ago.
As we drove to the Earne's house to return the Torah, I thought back to Joanna's grandparents and I joked with Joanna, "You are genetically programmed to save Torahs in distress, aren't you?" She chuckled, "Yeah, I guess so."
You never let go.
Note: Frieda and Morris Erman's Torah remains in active use in Omaha, Nebraska to this day.
Brooks Herman is managing director of international operations for People to People International. He currently serves as secretary of the board of directors of Congregation Beth Am in San Diego.