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A Cleveland Gentile with Chutzpah Talks Torah in D.C.: River Esquivel ’26 at Holocaust Art Restitution Project in Washington D.C.

“We exist to document cultural property losses suffered by Jewish individuals, families, and institutions between 1933 and 1945 at the hands of the National Socialists and their Fascist allies across continental Europe; to conduct historical research into the wartime and postwar fate of stolen, confiscated, misappropriated cultural property, and to advocate for restitution of such property.”

This is the mission statement of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project. I find that I carry this mission statement with me in my back pocket as I conduct my research and establish connections with those directly involved with Torah restoration–the cultural property that has become the focus of my work during my time here. Being an independent researcher isn’t like a 9:00 to 5:00 job. There have been whole days where I’ve had to just sit with my documented interviews and personal thoughts, while I wait for other connections and leads to respond in relevance to the investigative arch of my paper.

The experience of this has been enlightening. Without daily supervision, I’ve had to hold myself accountable to not only create a plan for research, but to intentionally engage with Marc Masurovsky (my mentor and alum of Antioch) as a way of documenting progress as well. There is no syllabus for this sort of thing; but the same amount of trust is given to me in the expectation that I’ll complete my work–even if I’m not sure what that work fully encompasses for the week. Consistent communication and taking things into advisement are skills that I’ve learned how to utilize in order to help myself from feeling like a fish out of water.

What drives me to tackle something like this is knowing that I’m creating something. And while the substance of this endeavor is not in my usual wheelhouse of creative writing, I find it myself enthralled with discussions around the Torah, which is so important to the community and the mission of HARP.

I’ve been spending time in a community outside of my own to better understand my subject. The Jewish community is of course cautious but those who I’ve spoken to have been so welcoming to me and all of my questions. I find that the more personal approach of interviewing has really ignited something in the amateur journalist lying beneath the serial screenwriter that came to D.C. with only a cursory understanding of the subject and equiped with just basic research skills.

Learning about the Torah organically, through people instead of just online, was important to me when I started pursuing an angle for my paper. Anyone could look up methods of restoration, or talk about the historical context of a tradition that spans nearly six thousand years, but hearing directly from Jewish people, listening openly to how they discussed what the Torah symbolizes and means to them, solidified my interest in the Torah and helped me understand its importance on a broader scale. As an atheist gentile, it’s easy for me to overlook the importance of religious texts as they are handled, with respect of course. I’m not burning Bibles or otherwise desecrating other religious texts, but it’s very easy to think of the Torah as just another piece of paper (or parchment, in this case), without any level of religious attachment.

Once I had a solid understanding of the Torah, it became much easier for me to ask questions about how the treatment of the Torah in an archival sense matters so much. That soon became the angle for my paper: the treatment of Torahs in museums, specifically the Museum of the Bible, which is a very… particular museum with quite the collection of Torahs, versus the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an institution that serves to memorialize a devastating period in Jewish history. I wanted to include an art museum as a more neutral part of the spectrum, but that became a dead end when I was informed the Torah of the Walters Museum in Baltimore has not been on display since 2008.

Still, I was undeterred. I completed my interviews and documentation of my visits to the museums, and now my remaining time is going to be spent writing this investigative piece for my mentor. I look forward to what I end up producing.

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