The Journey of a Sefer Torah from Cairo, Egypt to Montreal, Canada
by Jacques Abourbih
The two decades following Israel’s war of independence in 1948 were a time of great upheaval for all the Jewish communities that had once flourished in many parts of North Africa and the Middle East. The story of the Sefer Torah that is recounted here begins in one such community, the Egyptian Jewish community. This community, one of the most ancient established societies dating back to before the 9th century C.E. , was very vibrant numbering over 100,000 members. Jewish institutions including schools, synagogues, hospitals, and old age homes had been established and the Jews had made over the years numerous contributions to the commercial, industrial, political and artistic life in Egypt. However, with the advent of Arab nationalism and the political turmoil following the war with Israel, Jews felt unsafe and no longer welcome in Egypt. Some were forcibly evicted following the war in 1956 while others were able to stay a few more years and leave in a more orderly fashion.
My family was among the later group. My parents, concerned with the safety and welfare of my grandparents and other family members, were hesitant to leave. There were also the unknowns associated with immigrating to a foreign land to contend with. Would my father be able to find work? Would we be able to adapt to a new way of life? However, these considerations were quickly swept aside as the situation for the Jews worsened. My parents began preparing earnestly for our exit from Egypt. Although other family members had immigrated to many countries among them Israel, Chile, Brazil, Switzerland, France and Britain, the choices for my parents were quite limited. In the end, my parents chose to apply to immigrate to Canada because we spoke French fluently and my aunt was already settled in Montreal and was willing to sponsor us. The necessary applications were submitted and after a tense year long wait, we received in 1961 the necessary visas conditional on passing the medical examinations. The next step in the preparation was to gather the belongings that we were allowed to take with us. The laws in Egypt were strict. Only a limited amount of belongings could be taken out of the country. The choice was quickly made to take mainly wool clothes, heavy coats and jackets. After all, we were going to the country that bordered the North Pole and that was blanketed in snow, something we had never experienced in Egypt!
As the Jewish community in Cairo was dwindling fast, there was concern for the numerous Sefer Torahs that were left behind in synagogues that no longer had active congregations. My father was approached and was asked if he would be willing to take two Sefer Torahs with him. He readily agreed. The two Sefer Torahs were packed along with our belongings. Finally, in May 1962, we left from Alexandria on a small Greek passenger ship. The ship made stops in Piraeus, Greece and Naples, Italy and arrived in Marseilles a week later. To our dismay, we found out that during the transit from Cairo, some of our belongings had been looted. Furthermore, some of the luggage had also been damaged during the loading and unloading from the ship. My father quickly surveyed the damage and hired a handyman in Marseilles to perform the necessary repairs. Thankfully, the two Sefer Torahs were in a trunk that had not been damaged nor looted. We spent a month in transit in France and at the end of June we left from Le Havre on a Cunard Line ship. We arrived in Montreal, Canada a week later where we were met at the docks near Old Montreal by my aunt. My mother asked apprehensively about my grandparents who had stayed behind in Egypt and to our great surprise, my aunt told us that my grandparents had been able to leave Egypt and had arrived in Montreal before us since they had been able to come by plane. On this positive and welcome news, we were able to put behind us the hardships that we had endured and to enjoy our newly found freedom in Canada.
My aunt had come to Montreal in 1957 and had worked for Rabbi Lavy Becker. In fact, Rabbi Becker had supported my aunt in her endeavours to sponsor us to Canada. Upon our arrival in Montreal, Rabbi Becker invited my family to join the religious services of the congregation that was to become Dorshei Emet. Our first Jewish High Holidays outside of Egypt were celebrated with the congregation in the auditorium of the JPPS School on Van Horne and Westbury in 1962. We were made to feel so very welcome by everyone. Since the Sefer Torahs needed a permanent home, my father donated one of them to Rabbi Becker’s congregation. The second Torah was donated to the small Egyptian Jewish congregation that met in the small Chapel of the Young Israel Congregation.
My family made a long voyage when it left Egypt for Canada. The two Sefer Torahs that we carried with us throughout our trip kept us out of harm’s way and allowed us to arrive to our destination safely.