Adoption — or proper burial — of damaged Judaic texts


Last September when flash flooding struck the University City area, local resident Sydney Farber found that the rising waters left her mind awash in thoughts of Jewish tradition.

“It was so funny while I was with the fireman, he said we’re waiting for a boat,” she recalled. “I immediately thought that I’m waiting for Noah.”


Noah never arrived, but when Farber examined the damage the disaster left behind, she was saddened to find many Judaic books among those ruined by the deluge. She immediately phoned her rabbi to ask about proper disposal of the volumes, many of which contained Hebrew names for God and hence required a geniza burial.

In that sense the losses related to a project she’d already been working on for Shaare Zedek Synagogue, where she is a congregant as well as adult education chair. Earlier that year, she had noticed the poor condition of some of the books in the shul library.

“Some had bindings that were bad, pages that were missing, just things that you couldn’t repair,” she said. “I started going through the books and so many were falling apart. They had to vacuum the carpet everyday because of all the shedding.”

Farber, who has attended the synagogue since 2002, also noticed that the synagogue had three or four geniza boxes full of papers slated for burial but Shaare Zedek hadn’t had a geniza burial in the time she’d been there.

“They are sacred and holy. They have the word of God and you can’t just trash them,” she said. “All these papers are in boxes getting bigger and bigger and I thought that if we could combine the books, the chumashim and siddurim with the papers, we could make a geniza project and kill two birds with one stone,” she said.

Better yet, the old books may still get a second chance at life. Through Aug. 10, Shaare Zedek is opening up its doors to those who wish to “adopt” one of the volumes. Farber said there is no charge to do so and some of the books are still in usable condition. So far she has identified about 100 books to be removed from the library.

“Right now they are just sitting in the auditorium on the stage waiting, saying, ‘Take me home,'” she said.

Farber’s already claimed at least one for herself, a volume dating from the 1890s that has the last three pages accidently printed upside down. Farber said a number of the books date from before the 20th century but many are more recent.

“It’s not all old books,” she said. “Some are from 1950 or 1960 and they are just overused.”

Not that that’s a bad thing.

“Actually, you want a book to be used over and over and over,” she said.

The volumes will be available for adoption from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays. Any books still left by Aug. 10 will be sent to Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Cemetery for burial.

“Being an Orthodox Jewish cemetery, we feel it’s important to take care of religious documents,” said cemetery executive director Jim Singman. “We set aside specific burial plots just for geniza.”

Singman, a congregant at Shaare Zedek, said the decision to do the burial at his cemetery was an easy one.

“We happen to be really close to them and I’m pretty active in the synagogue, so when they asked would I get involved, I said, ‘of course,'” he said.

Singman said that though he knows of no particular ritual associated with the event, Jewish cemeteries do geniza burials “as a matter of course.” On average Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol holds about one such burial a year from various congregations in the area.

Geniza burial sites are not marked at the cemetery but the locations are kept on file in the plot books. Still, older sites are not always marked accurately. Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Cemetery is more than a century old and Singman said that workers have occasionally unearthed books while digging graves. When that happens, the site is left undisturbed.

Singman said the most important thing is that burying old books upholds the traditions of the Jewish people.

“It is an important religious duty,” Singman said. “We take our cue from the rabbis and they’ve said that this is something that needs to be done, a tradition that we’ve followed for probably thousands of years.”