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Times of the Islands Magazine

Holocaust Torah Survives Hurricane Ian

Nov 16, 2022 10:48AM ● By Francesca Block

In the wake of hurricane Ian’s devastation, the congregants of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands were consumed in prayer over three main fears: their friends, their beloved Sanibel community, and their Torahs.

When the hurricane struck Sanibel’s beautiful sandy shores on September 28, it left a path of almost unrecognizable destruction across the normally picturesque and joy-filled island. As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis put it, the small barrier island was hit with a “biblical storm surge.”  Houses were flattened or swept away in 150-mph winds, people lost their lives, and debris lay scattered across every corner. Scot Congress, a Bat Yam member who stayed behind during the storm, recounted looking out of the window of his home as soon as the storm subsided and seeing water just three inches below his 14-foot-high home: “I felt like a boat in the middle of the gulf,” he says.

Warnings prior to hurricane Ian’s landfall were short and high-alert. In the rush to board up homes and evacuate to safer ground, Bat Yam member Howard Lorsch took time to go to the temple’s home, which it shares with the Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ on Periwinkle Way, in the hopes of preserving a holy item that had survived destruction once before: a 19th-century Torah stolen by the Nazis.

Bat Yam was fortunate to receive one of the 1,564 scrolls left by the Nazis in London’s Westminster Synagogue following the Holocaust. The scroll originated from a small shul [synagogue] in Boscovice, about 100 miles south of Prague.

Lorsch stored the scroll in the safest place he could imagine with such short notice, a vault belonging to jewelry store owners and Bat Yam members Scot and Melissa Congress.

After hurricane Ian ripped through Southwest Florida—less than a week before Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar—the island and its residents reeled from the sheer destruction and loss of life.

Even from hundreds and thousands of miles away, however, Bat Yam members failed to give up hope that their precious Torah scrolls had survived. Though Sanibel was closed off from the public after the hurricane, the Congresses contacted Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruane for help with access. Within a day, the Congresses were on a sheriff’s boat headed to Sanibel, putting their own safety at risk to recover the Torahs from their jewelry store vault.

As they timidly stepped into Congress Jewelers on that sunny, eerily quiet day—seeing their lives’ work in shambles before their eyes—Scot and Melissa opened the vault and were greeted by a miracle. Wrapped in garbage bags, the historic Torah scrolls were completely dry. All of the jewelry in the store survived as well.

“We were just so relieved,” Melissa says.

As the congregation gathered via Zoom to honor the high holy day of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Steven Fuchs welcomed each member of the now spread-out community, each of whom tuned in from wherever they could find safety and shelter. “We will be here as a synagogue, whether it is here in the diaspora or once again in our congregational home,” he began.

The entire Torah recovery effort was documented by NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and aired on October 3.


Francesca Block is a resident of Sanibel, studied journalism, public affairs, international relations, and Chinese at Princeton University. She is digital and social media editor for TOTI Media.