RIVERDALE; Painstakingly Restored, a Torah Will Return Home

The Torah was 150 years old and had survived the Holocaust in Hungary. After World War II it was brought to Honduras and treasured by a small Jewish community, la Comunidad Hebrea de Tegucigalpa, about 35 families of native Honduran Jews, American expatriates and Israelis. But during Hurricane Mitch in 1998 it was buried in three feet of mud and all but destroyed.

Now the Torah, which contains the first five books of the Old Testament, has come back to life, mainly because of Rabbi Manny Vi?as, a 32-year-old Miami-born Cuban-American living in Riverdale, the Bronx. For two years, he and 40 volunteers have painstakingly restored the scroll, and on Thursday it is to be returned to Honduras.

A trail of e-mails and telephone calls brought the Torah’s plight to the attention of Rabbi Vi?as, who grew up eating matzo-ball soup with plantains in a Spanish-speaking home and is an ordained sofer, or Torah scribe.

The first step in the restoration was cleaning. The volunteers included Michael Jordan, 15, of Riverdale, who was adopted into a Jewish home as an infant from Honduras, and Herman Kahn, a Holocaust survivor.

The volunteers spent hours carefully removing the mud and mold with scalpels and Lysol.

Then the rabbi dedicated thousands of more hours. Using turkey and goose quills and homemade ink, he restored the parchment, carefully reproducing the style of the original scribe.

His wife, Erica, and three young daughters soon grew accustomed to find him at work in the living room at 2 or 3 a.m.

”The experience of working on it has been so incredible,” said Rabbi Vi?as, who said such a task would normally cost $150,000.

A group including Rabbi Vi?as and Mr. Jordan will accompany the Torah to Honduras. They will also bring other Jewish congregations in Central America two Torahs donated by the former Nathan Strauss Jewish Center in Norwood, the Bronx.

The Honduran community has been overwhelmed by the generosity of Rabbi Vi?as and the others, said its leader, Phil Gelman.

”It’s been simply a remarkable expression of humility and commitment to people they never knew,” he said. SETH KUGEL


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