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Heeding the Call of the Torah

October 8, 2009 By:
Fredda Sacharow, JE Feature
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At Simchat Torah time, folks recall the value of their scroll projects. Photo courtesy of Temple Sholom in Broomall

With the scribe right beside him on the bimah guiding his hand, Rabbi Peter Rigler picked up the quill and oh-so-carefully filled in the Hebrew letter raisch -- "R" -- in the word Yisrael, helping to complete the Torah his congregation had embarked upon creating.

As the ink flowed, the former assistant rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park was ending a yearlong process and helping etch a memory that would last a lifetime.

Rigler's experience, although powerful and spiritual, was not unique.

Throughout the Delaware Valley, congregations are embracing Torah-writing and repair projects, with the twin goals of raising funds and building community.

Attorney David Seltzer of Huntingdon Valley had a similarly moving experience. He said that he can remember, even a decade later, where in the sanctuary he was sitting when the visiting scribe at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park finished writing what would be dubbed the "Congregation's Torah."

He remembers watching in awe as the parchment was unfurled, and how he searched for the words that had become "his."

Seltzer's family had sponsored the writing of Vayeshev, the Genesis account of Joseph's being sold into slavery by his brothers. It was Seltzer's Bar Mitzvah portion in December 1965, and interestingly, it would also become the Bar Mitzvah portion of his older son, Matthew, many Chanukahs later.

The sense of continuity -- with family, with Judaism and with Judaism's sacred writings -- was not lost on Seltzer.

"Every time we have services in the chapel and that ark opens, that Torah speaks to me," he said this week. "It's a spiritual relationship that's hard to put into words. I sense God's presence through that Torah."

A 30-year member of the Conservative synagogue and a longtime member of its executive board, Seltzer frequently leads services during the summer, when the rabbi and the cantor are off.

"To carry that Torah," he said, "is like friends being reunited."

The 613th Mitzvah

Over the past decade or so, other synagogues, such as Temple Sholom in Broomall, Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne and Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro have allowed members to participate in the 613th mitzvah described in Jewish law: to take part personally in the writing of a Torah, the scroll that contains the five books of Moses.

Working with highly skilled scribes, they have offered children, parents, teachers and lay leaders a range of opportunities, from sponsoring one of the Torah's 304,805 letters to underwriting an entire book, such as Genesis or Deuteronomy.

The projects can add considerably to synagogue coffers: $900,000 in the case of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel two years ago, and $335,000 at Ohev Shalom several years earlier. But most synagogue members and leaders emphasize the lasting educational and spiritual impact of the undertaking, rather than its fiscal benefits.

In the weeks leading up to Simchat Torah, which begins this year at sundown on Saturday night, some participants recalled the intense connection to Judaism they felt as they took part in the ritual.

"For many reasons, it was an overwhelming feeling," said Rigler, now the religious leader at Temple Sholom in Broomall. "Just the joy of it, for me, as a rabbi, to be able to create a Torah scroll ... I've only been a rabbi for seven years, but I think this will be a highlight of my career."

Lance Sussman, senior rabbi at K.I. and a prime mover behind his congregation's Torah project, experienced the majesty of the project in a particularly graphic way.

"I noticed that when families were signing up [to write their letters or words], they were coming to the synagogue dressed up on a Sunday, taking pictures. Nobody told them to dress up -- they just did it. I realized that it was important for them -- that people viewed this as a moment they wanted to capture," said Sussman. "That's when it hit me that it had touched their hearts."

'Awe and Reverence'

Typically, a Torah project takes between 10 months and a year from start to finish, veterans say, engaging all components of synagogue life.

In the classroom, children learn to appreciate the role of the Torah in Jewish life; in adult-education sessions, members discuss the impact of the scrolls in a historical context. Newly minted Bar and Bat Mitzvah students invariably laud the project in their customary speeches.

Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown is the latest synagogue in the Philadelphia area to launch a Torah project.

The opening ceremony and the first letter fill-in at the 820-family Reform synagogue will take place on Nov. 15. Shir Ami will offer its members 10 more opportunities for writing during the upcoming months, and plans a joyful closing ceremony for June 13, 2010.

The date was chosen for its significance: 6-13, or the 613th commandment.

Manager of the project Rori Levine of Holland, Pa., said that she took on the assignment as a way of preserving the past and guaranteeing a Jewish future for her two children, 8-year-old Max and 4-year-old Abigail.

"To me, spiritually, it's a way of leaving a legacy for my children, making a connection not just to our heritage, but to our synagogue as well," said Levine, adding that she is delighted that her children and their children down the line will be reading from a Torah their synagogue family helped create.

Meanwhile, through its Torah Restoration Fund, Beth David has involved its members in repairing the synagogue's Torah scrolls since 2000.

Rabbi Jim Egolf said that the ongoing work fills participants with a sense of "awe and reverence."

"As you might imagine, touching and being in contact with a Torah scroll, something that is usually behind the doors of the ark, is a moving experience," said the rabbi. "It brings to life the idea of praying with one's hands, even if you can't read the scroll or the prayers."

The congregation enlisted scribe Jen Friedman to oversee the project.

"Members cleaned the scrolls and worked to remove any marks or stains. They also sewed some of the pieces of parchment that needed repair, and with the soferet's assistance, could repair and watch letters filled in and corrected," explained Egolf. "Older children were included and overseen by adults as they, too, cleaned and worked on the scrolls."

In general, the Torahs that become the centerpieces of area congregations have their genesis in Israel; most congregations choose to work with a scroll already in progress, with letters left unfinished to be filled in by future owners.

To complete the actual lettering, many local religious leaders reach out to people like Gedaliah and Moshe Druin, a Florida-based rabbinic team that calls itself "Sofrim on Site," using the word for "scribes."

The father-and-son duo crisscross the country -- as well as Israel, South Africa, South America and Canada -- crafting the scrolls they refer to on their Web site (www.soferonsite.com) as "the holiest, most meaningful and divine object known to mankind, the heart and soul of the Jewish people."

'Close to Holiness'

Rabbi Gedaliah Druin said that the pair has collectively worked on thousands of scrolls over the past quarter-century.

He likened the projects that he oversees to nuclear reactors: "They really wake the whole community up."

Rabbi Kevin Hale, a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, is a scribe who regularly works on Torah repairs at congregations such as Congregation Beth Israel of Media and Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia.

Like the Druins, he also assists synagogues with their Torah projects.

"People who are honored with writing a letter are really moved," said Hale.

"There's a sense of coming close to holiness, being partners with God in creating a Torah," he continued. "One participant described his involvement in the project as the longest period of sustained happiness he could remember."

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