Collector of Jewish souls: A rabbi’s treasures culled from around the world

Actualizado: feb 24

Por Deborah Fineblum (publicado en JNS, 25 de enero de 2021)

When he arrives in a new community, Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, 62, slips into detective mode: “I’ve found amazing old books, prayers, Haggadahs and more in those places.”

A 12-branch copper candelabra kindled on holidays by Jews in 18th-century Italy. Sheets of prayers handwritten in Hebrew by an unknown scribe in 15th-century Spain. An oven for baking matzah from 19th-century Portugal. A Passover Haggadah in Hebrew and Arabic from 18th-century Iraq, transported to India where it was discovered more than 300 years later.

These are among the thousands of treasures from the Jewish past that Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum has collected over the last 22 years. Treasures he’s discovered while mentoring the rabbis and teachers the outreach and education organization Ohr Torah Stone (OTS) has dispatched to Jewish communities around the globe. Many of the artifacts—well-loved and well-used by Jews in days gone by—were gifts from family collections. Others Birnbaum has found among the battered tin cups and moldy picture frames in junk shops, and still others he unearthed while exploring old genizas—repositories for sacred books and documents no longer fit for use.

The rabbi’s office in Ohr Torah Stone’s headquarters in Efrat, Israel, in addition to his walls and shelves at home, are a virtual tour of Jewish history around the world, including objects from India, Poland, Egypt, Romania, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Uganda, Jamaica, Georgia, Singapore, Ethiopia, New Zealand, Italy, Morocco, Poland, Tunisia, Portugal and Uruguay, too.

“Traveling as much as I usually do throughout the Jewish world and the lost tribe communities, I’ve enjoyed a life filled with every color of Am Yisrael,”

“Behind every one of them there is a story,” says Birnbaum. “Each one invites us into another time and another place where generations of Jews have lived. Each one says, ‘We were here.’ ”

Take the matzah oven, for instance. Covered with common roofing tiles, it was ingeniously designed to camouflage its function during a time when celebrating a Jewish holiday would easily have gotten Portuguese Jews into serious trouble with the authorities. An unexpected bonus came with this gift from an old Jewish family there: A box of 70-year-old matzah from the last time it was used.

When he arrives in a community to work with the OTS rabbis and teachers there, sooner or later, Birnbaum slips into detective mode. “Yes, we have a geniza, but it’s nothing important,” he’s been told numerous times. “But I’ve found amazing old books, prayers, Haggadahs and more in those places.” No wonder Rabbi Birnbaum’s been called the Jewish Indiana Jones.

Though possessing the soul of a collector, Birnbaum’s life’s work is actually as a collector of Jewish souls. Indeed, his gathering of bits and pieces of Jewish history is a natural outgrowth of his travels as director of OTS’ Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel Emissary Program.

A collection of ancient Jewish nooks (sefarim) from around the world. The hanging lamp on the right is from a synagogue in Greece. The lions and tablets on top of the bookcase are from a synagogue in Uruguay by way of Hungary.

“Committed to the rejuvenation and cultivation of world Jewish community” through the training and placing of rabbis and educators to serve communities on virtually every continent, the program has 277 emissaries in 300 communities in all. And it keeps the rabbi on the road more than half the year (in pre-coronavirus times) to support these young (mostly Israeli-born) emissaries.

Taking Torah on the road

Born into a strongly Zionistic community in Uruguay soon after his bar mitzvah in 1972, Birnbaum made aliyah by himself, living with a cousin until his parents and sister arrived two years afterwards. A dozen years later, he’d earned his rabbinical degree from Har Etzion Yeshiva, eventually becoming chief rabbi of his native Uruguay.

It was there that he took a walk with a visitor—OTS founder Rabbi Shlomo Riskin—one that was destined to change Birnbaum’s life. The year was 1996.

“I saw how knowledgeable and charismatic he was—a natural for outreach,” recalls Riskin. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe had told me, ‘Your new empire in Efrat will last until the coming of the Moshiach on the condition that you send out Israeli emissaries of Torah all over the world, as Isaiah teaches, ‘Because from Zion Torah will come forth.’ As soon as I met Rabbi Birnbaum, I knew he was the one to lead this.”