Torah Alive! is celebrated at United Hebrew

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

“And now write this poem for yourselves and teach it to the children of Israel…”

– Deuteronomy 31:19

The 613th commandment makes it the responsibility of every Jew to write a Sefer Torah in their lifetime when they have the knowledge. United Hebrew Congregation’s Torah Alive! celebration provides the opportunity to be part of that once-in-lifetime experience. Late last month, the congregation had the kick-off weekend for their year long journey of celebration and education as they write a new Torah Scroll. They witnessed the moment when visiting sofer (Torah scribe) Neil Yerman led I.E. Millstone in outlining the first letters of Bereshit (Genesis) in the new scroll. Multigenerational, interactive activities brought the congregation together throughout the weekend for social and educational experiences.

The congregation decided to write a new Torah because they needed to replace their smaller Torah Scroll which is primarily used for bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. It was determined that that particular scroll is the original Torah for the congregation and approximately 200-years-old. Through the course of time its ink has faded and the parchment is somewhat brittle. While it had been maintained over the years, it was no longer possible or practical to repair it. Once the new scroll is completed, the historic scroll will have a place on honor in the congregation according to Rabbi Howard Kaplansky.

Once the decision was made to write a new scroll the membership looked for the best sofer for their congregation. They investigated the possibilities by conferring with other congregations and colleagues. The first person they found was sofer Neil Yerman who is participating in the educational programs with the congregation and supervising the writing of the scroll. Through Yerman they found soferet (female scribe) Jen Taylor Friedman.

“We felt having a female scribe was an opportunity for our congregation to make a statement to ourselves and about ourselves,” Rabbi Kaplansky said.

“Making a Torah is very exciting,” Friedman said. “Each day I complete something else. I keep writing and watching it grow. It is something Jewish scribes have been doing for thousands and thousands of years.”

It is also providing a tremendous opportunity for Friedman: this will be the first Torah she has ever written. Those associated with the project said they are not aware of any other Torah completely written by one woman. The membership is able to keep up with her progress on her web blog site (hatam-soferet.livejournal.com).

Throughout the year the synagogue is providing several opportunities for members to be involved in the process of writing the Torah. Many people are already involved in the process including a very large core committee who are working on the various aspects of the year long celebration. The congregants will also be able to physically participate in the writing of the scroll.

“One of the major purposes for doing this was the opportunity for people to come closer to the Torah,” Rabbi Kaplansky said. “To understand its place in our spiritual history, as well as our physical history.”

“There is a spiritual realm in writing the letters,” Yerman said. “We write in memory of ones we have loved and there is joy and sorrow in this profound understanding. Sorrow for the loved ones who are no longer with us; joy in participating in this central Jewish act.”

“I was fortunate to be among those congregants who were the first to write in the Torah,” synagogue president Ron Gieseke said. “I had an overall feeling of being closer to God. I know members who choose to take advantage of this opportunity will also come away with a special understanding.”

Yerman has already visited the congregation twice and presented educational programs for all ages. One popular lesson he does is called TSI: Torah Scene Investigation. He unrolls the scroll, shows how he dates the scroll, looks at the style of writing, the physical instruments used to write the scroll, about the work of the scribe, the history of the writing and the development of language.

“I have heard Yerman speak seven or eight times,” Gieseke said. “It is not a pre-packaged speech. Every time he speaks, he says something new and I always learn another side of Torah.”

It is an old tradition for communities to be involved in the completion of a sefer Torah according to Yerman. He finds it tremendously fulfilling when he has these long term relationships with the congregations. He also strongly encourages the exploratory programming to educate the membership.

“I see people being touched by the experience,” Yerman said. “I have seen people of every age, sometimes with physical, mental and emotional challenges make the connection with the Torah — something they never thought they could do.”

Everyone involved with Torah Alive! has said it is a very exciting time for United Hebrew. The Torah is the heart of their congregation and the project has captured the attention of the congregation. Program co-chairs Sue Koblin and Karen Wasserman were delighted with the turn-out for the kick-off event weekend which exceeded their expectations. They are honored to be part of the historic project. They have especially enjoyed the opportunity to really get to know the congregational staff and so many members.

“I have especially found it fascinating watching the volunteers who are involved in every aspect of this project,” Wasserman said. “It is a labor of love from the heart.”

“It is so exciting to see the Torah come alive right before our eyes,” Koblin said. “Every generation is touched by their participation in this project and in turn their participation is touching many future generations.”

“It is an opportunity for the congregants to feel they are a part of the Torah and the Torah is a part of them,” Rabbi Kaplansky said. “We are doing this together as a congregation, and in doing so, are providing a legacy for future generations.”

The congregation welcomes Neil Yerman and Jen Taylor Friedman for Scribes-in-Residence Week, Nov. 13 – 19, 2006. There are several interactive learning opportunities available for all ages and the opportunity to watch Friedman scribing the Torah during the day in the synagogue library. For more information call 314-469-0700.

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