Caryn Starr-Gates of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel stands in its sanctuary with some of its Torahs. The one on the left was later cleaned and repaired for sale to another Reconstructionist congregation in Baltimore. Photo by Lois Kittner Moti Blumenthal, owner of Z&A Kol Torah on New York’s Lower East Side, begins his comprehensive examination of the Torah selected by RTBI for repair and resale. The scroll was cleaned, re-inked, trimmed, and reset on new rollers before being delivered to Cong. Beit Tikvah in Baltimore. Photo by Lois Kittner
Can a synagogue ever have too many sefer Torahs?
The answer, surprisingly, is, "Yes."
At least that’s what the 55-member families of Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood decided several years ago, when they considered their embarrassment of riches: six scrolls, four of them kosher, fit for ritual use.
Kosher, however, did not mean in perfect condition. The scrolls were all between 75 and 100 years old, a part of the community, which began as a Conservative congregation, throughout its 80-year lifespan.
Ten years ago, shifting demographics precipitated Beth Israel’s switch in affiliation to the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. According to the JRF Website, the congregational arm of American Judaism’s youngest and fastest-growing mainstream movement, founded in the 1930s by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, represents more than 100 congregations and chavurot. Beth Israel, the only Reconstructionist congregation in this area, draws members from ” communities.
Once the synagogue’s ritual committee investigated the cost of appraising, trimming, cleaning and otherwise sprucing up the Torahs, they began to ponder how they would raise the needed cash.
In a Solomonic moment, their spiritual leader at the time, Alexandre Leone, a rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, suggested that the congregation sell one Torah to finance the appraisal and repair of the entire lot.
"We didn’t even know it was all right to sell a Torah," recalled Caryn Starr-Gates, immediate past president now serving as Beth Israel’s publicity chair. But reassured by Leone that they weren’t violating any Jewish laws, members of the ritual committee embraced the concept, knowing it would also benefit another community in need of a Torah.
Starr-Gates posted a notice on various Websites, including those of the JRF and the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional association of Conservative rabbis.
She soon heard back from two congregations, a chavurah in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Cong. Beit Tikvah in Baltimore, Md., where Starr-Gates was born. "I had a soft spot for Baltimore," she acknowledged.
Besides, following an initial conversation, she never heard back from the Ann Arbor group. Members of Beit Tikvah, on the other hand, were immediately enthusiastic, telling Starr-Gates that all they had was a borrowed Torah. Still lacking a permanent facility, the 100 family congregation couldn’t afford to commission a new Torah or even pay the going rate, about $10,000, Starr-Gates said, for a decent used scroll.
Starr-Gates promised to get back in touch once Beth Israel’s sefer Torahs were appraised and congregants could determine which scroll they wanted to part with and how much to charge.
The appraisal was conducted by Jay Greenspan, a sofer Torah scribe in Teaneck. He was able to date the approximate age of the Beth Israel Torahs and even identified one as of Czech origin. "There was a particular flourish in the lettering that he recognized," said Starr-Gates. Because the families that originally commissioned or donated the Torahs to Beth Israel are no longer connected to the congregation, little was known about them.
The entire transaction between Beth Israel and Beit Tikvah took three years, during which Starr-Gates and Beth Israel’s treasurer, Lois Kittner, made several "field trips," as Starr-Gates described them, to another sofer on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, whom they had selected to fix up for sale the smallest of their four kosher scrolls. "Baltimore had expressed concern about size, so we thought they would prefer this one," said Starr-Gates.
Moti Blumenthal, the proprietor of Z & A Kol Torah on Essex Street, a Judaica business he took over from his parents, was incredibly "charming and conversational," said Starr-Gates, who noted that visits to the shop, crammed to the rafters with tallitot, kippot, kiddush cups, and other ritual objects, required time and patience. "There were 8 million cell phone interruptions; he was on and off the phone talking to [people in] Israel about when their Torahs would be ready," she said. "He would talk to you about everything except what was in front of him. But he got the job done."
In fact, said Starr-Gates, the Torah was ready long before she thought it would be, considering how much work it needed "trimming (to lighten its weight), re-sewing, and re-inking faded and cracked letters," she said, all completed in just a few weeks from the time Blumenthal started the project.
"It was really a deeply meaningful experience for me personally, for our ritual committee, and no doubt, for Beit Tikvah. And I learned so much about Torahs," said Starr-Gates.
Among the points of interest she discovered was that sefer Torahs created today are much more lightweight and compact than those made years ago. When she first delivered Beth Israel’s scroll to Blumenthal, all ‘5 pounds of it, he handed her a new one to compare. "I was able to carry it under one arm," she said.
Hence the decision to trim the old one, along with bathing the parchment in a solution whose contents Blumenthal refused to reveal, according to Starr-Gates, but that eliminated the grayish hue and surface oil that comes with years of use.
Trimming an older scroll, Blumenthal told Starr-Gates, was commonly done by cutting away a portion of both top and bottom margins to make it less bulky and easier to handle. He then wound the clean, slimmed-down parchment around a new set of rollers, affixed with new finials, which anchor the rollers.
"It looked gorgeous," said Starr-Gates of the finished product. Blumenthal, she said, insisted that he "wanted it to be like new, if you’re selling it."
Blumenthal also took the two pasul (unfit for ritual use) scrolls off Beth Israel’s hands. He provides these either for free or at a nominal cost to cantorial students as study aids.
Meanwhile, excitement was building in Baltimore, where the congregation had been collecting money for and paying the $7,500 fee in installments.
Finally, early in May, two representatives of Beit Tikvah traveled north for the hand-off.
Starr-Gates and the Beth Israel contingent were thrilled to learn, she said, that Beit Tikvah is, coincidentally, the congregation under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton, prominent in the Reconstructionist movement. "She’s recorded a Shabbat liturgy that we use as a reference for our services," Starr-Gates observed.
Although Bolton was on sabbatical for the acquisition of the Torah, she is due back in the fall.
Beit Tikvah, which meets in a church building on Roland Avenue, in an area of the city not historically Jewish, noted Starr-Gates, held an official dedication on Sunday, May ‘0, greeting its new sefer Torah with a parade.
Starr-Gates was delighted to share a note she recently received from her Baltimore contact:
"I cannot begin to describe the appreciation of our community for this Torah. It has been an amazing point of focus for so many diverse people. Thank you so much for your part in brokering and making this happen. We will be formally following up with you and your congregation; in the meantime please share our joy and gratitude with the rest of your community."
The entire experience has inspired Beth Israel to "move ahead, and have our remaining three Torahs treated to the same wonderful sprucing up," wrote Starr-Gates in an e-mail message to the Standard. "We will do one this summer and another before Chanukah, for sure, a good tie-in with the dedication theme" associated with the festival of lights.
Starr-Gates continued, "I am awaiting word from Greenspan on when he can take our next Torah for repair hoping soon."
Still rich in sefer Torahs with three scrolls left to repair, Beth Israel plans to spread its good fortune by splitting the project between Greenspan and Blumenthal, the two sofers who have treated their treasure with loving care.