MILWAUKEE – Congregation Beth Jehudah rushed to move its Torahs out of the synagogue late Saturday night, Aug. 13, during the Milwaukee riots that made nationwide headlines.
There was some concern the building could be burned, not because Jews were targeted, but because some public buildings to the east were under attack. Twelve Torahs were driven in an SUV to a private home at midnight.
As a BP gas station burned a half-mile away at 3114 N. Sherman Blvd., synagogue Rabbi Benzion Twerski saw a private home as a less conspicuous place than a marked public building.
“Number one, first and foremost, we are most appreciative to the One above,” said Twerski in a phone interview. “There was a great fear factor but no one was actually affected by it.”
Congregation Beth Jehudah, 3100 N 52nd St., serves Orthodox families who often live nearby, with residents typically walking from their homes to the synagogue on Shabbat. Led by three generations of living Twerski rabbis (Michel Twerski, his son Benzion, and his son Chaim), the synagogue in the Sherman Park area exists within what residents say is typically a quiet, good-natured neighborhood.
Even during the riots, Rabbi Benzion Twerski recalls hearing nothing outside the synagogue, seeing no sign of trouble, other than the sound of a news helicopter overhead.
“It was frightening enough that we did take the Torah scrolls out of the shul building for several days,” Twerski said. The Torahs were returned to the synagogue after some time passed without rioting, on Tuesday, Aug. 23.
“We don’t have a fireproof safe for the Torah scrolls,” he said. “It’s very expensive to do, create a fire proof vault, but it’s something that we are now looking at very seriously.”
At Beth Jehudah on that Saturday night, services related to Tisha B’Av lasted until around 10 or 11 p.m. Twerski then made an announcement regarding the riots, advising that people should be careful while heading home.
Tisha B’Av, the somber 9th day of Av, is a day of mourning for the destruction of the great Temples in Jerusalem. Tisha B’Av is a dark, sad day, where thoughts can turn to catastrophe and suffering. In Milwaukee, the day started that Saturday night with the riots.
“It just has traditionally been a day of misfortune and tragedy,” said Twerski, who acknowledged that the timing of Tisha B’Av influenced the quick decision to move the Torahs after one congregant suggested it.
“It was Tisha B’Av night and moving the Torah scrolls out of the synagogue on Tisha B’Av night,” noted Twerski, with some gravity in his voice. “It was just that feeling of having to remove the Torah from its home.”