By Lori and Kirk Halpern
A highlight of any bar mitzvah is the passing of the Torah from one generation to the next. On Oct. 10 in the historic synagogue of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, this tradition took on a significance spanning more than 150 years.
Many Jewish tourists to St. Thomas learn the history of this synagogue. It was built in 1803 to serve a Sephardic community of traders and businessmen. The shul went through a series of fires and rebuilding, but the Torah scrolls and Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) were saved.
The present building was dedicated in 1833. It is the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the American flag and the second-oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.
In 1864 a charismatic rabbi, David Cardoze, became the spiritual leader of the congregation. He served for 50 years until 1914.
Rabbi Cardoze is the great-great-great-grandfather of Samuel Brenner of Atlanta. Sam is the son of Dara and Bob Brenner, longtime members of Congregation B’nai Torah. Sam and his younger brother, J.J., attend Atlanta Jewish Academy.
Before Rabbi Cardoze died, he persuaded a young congregant, Moses DeCastro Sasso, to take over the rabbinical responsibilities. Rabbi Sasso also served for 50 years until 1964. Rabbi Sasso married the granddaughter of Rabbi Cardoze, and they had a daughter, Joy, Sam Brenner’s grandmother.
So Sam’s great-great-great-grandfather and his great-grandfather combined to lead the congregation for a century.
At times during that 100-year period, especially in the last 20 years under Rabbi Sasso, the Jewish community struggled to keep the synagogue in use because of the size of the congregation or the finances. But Sam’s forefathers, through determination and creativity, kept the shul open.
The small, non-air-conditioned building, a national historic landmark, is different from most synagogues. For one thing, it has sand all over the floor.
“Legend tells us that it is symbolic of the desert through which Moses and the children of Israel wandered for 40 years,” the synagogue brochure reads. “The more likely explanation has to do with the fact that during the Spanish Inquisition, when Catholic Spain persecuted all other religions and forcibly converted the Jews to Catholicism, Jews who opted to practice Judaism — an offense punishable by death — had to do so in secrecy. They had to do so in cellars of their homes and used sand to muffle the sounds of their prayer.”
It was only fitting that when Dara and Bob Brenner asked Sam where he wanted to celebrate becoming a bar mitzvah, he chose the synagogue of his forefathers, where his grandmother Joy was married. Now she would see her grandson read Torah there.
Marilyn Hankin, Sam’s maternal grandmother, who has Parkinson’s disease, was able to join the celebration, as was Sam’s 102-year-old great-grandmother, Sylvia Hankin.
(Sam is raising money and awareness for Parkinson’s for his mitzvah project. Visit www.apdageorgia.org to donate or get more information.)
Sam still has relatives in St. Thomas, and they were joined by 80 of the Brenners’ friends and family members, who descended on St. Thomas to see the Torah passed to Sam.
Sam was flawless when he read Torah. He had a quiet confidence as he smiled and led us through the service. After all, he was playing with a home-field advantage that goes back 150 years.
Sam’s father also read beautifully from the Torah that Shabbat morning. At one point he struggled with a word. Sam turned to his dad and said, “You got this,” and he did.
“There were emotions that struck me and stayed with me throughout the bar mitzvah service,” Bob said. “It turns out that not only did my grandfather serve the synagogue for 50 years after taking over from my great-great-grandfather, but it was his commitment to keeping the doors open and keeping the synagogue alive for future generations.
“I am told from family that even if no one showed up, or two or three family members had to come for a service, my grandfather made sure services took place. If not for his efforts and sheer determination, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see Sam, his great-grandson, lead a service at the very same bimah, reading from the same Torah and standing on the same steps of the ark. … It was one of the most emotional days of my life. L’dor vador was never a more appropriate term or sentiment than at that moment.”
The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas still has challenges for membership and financial resources. You can become a Chai member of the congregation for $36 a year or a Chai Life Time member for $360. To donate or learn more about the synagogue, call 340-774-4312, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit synagogue.vi.