This year’s Jerusalem Day, which falls on May 24, marks 50 years since the reunification of Jerusalem as a result of the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War.
Between 1948 and 1967, the capital city was physically divided. Jews were barred from their holy sites in the Old City, including the Temple Mount and Western Wall. Jordanian snipers shot randomly into the west, ridding some neighborhoods, including Musrara, Yemin Moshe, and Mamilla — today among the most expensive real estate in Jerusalem — of all but the poorest or bravest Jews.
About a year ago, the staff of the Afikim Foundation in Manhattan started considering how celebrate the jubilee of Jerusalem’s unification and the remarkable growth and development that unification has engendered.
The idea that struck them as most appropriate was commissioning the writing of a Torah scroll to be used in Jerusalem. Instead of the traditional model of soliciting dollars for each letter, they would solicit acts of chesed — kindness — from individuals and members of synagogues, organizations, and schools.
“Torah, Jerusalem, and chesed are the three things that unite the Jewish people, so we decided put them all together,” said Karen Hochberg, director of community programs for the Afikim Foundation, founded in 2002 by Rabbi Raphael B. Butler as “an innovative incubator and implementer of Jewish educational, cultural and values-oriented programs that span the globe.”
Of the 304,805 letters in the Jerusalem50 Global Unity Torah — sponsored by the Afikim Foundation in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of diaspora Affairs — more than 252,470 were claimed, as of April 3, through acts of kindness performed by people in 22 countries.
Locally, participating groups include the Frisch, Noam, and Yavneh schools in Paramus; the Moriah School and Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood; the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge; Young Israel of Fort Lee; Yeshiva Beis Hillel Boys and YBH Girls in Passaic, and the Sinai and Ma’ayanot schools and congregations Arzei Darom, Beth Aaron, and Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck.
An anonymous American donor agreed to underwrite the $40,000 cost of the Torah in memory of his grandfather, who saved a Torah scroll from a burning German shul on Kristallnacht in November 1938 and was beaten brutally for the rescue. That Torah is housed in a Brooklyn synagogue.
“The donor is thrilled with the notion of every letter representing an act of chesed,” Ms. Hochberg said.
Though Torah scrolls are written by hand with a feather pen and natural ink on parchment, the Jerusalem50 Global Unity Torah is being publicized and facilitated in a 21st century manner, via a sophisticated website (www.Jerusalem50.org) in English, Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Russian, as well as by a social-media campaign.
When each participant’s act of kindness is posted on the site, it generates a downloadable certificate. Some participating institutions have printed them out and posted them prominently, Ms. Hochberg said.
Descriptions of deeds shared on the site range from “Someone dropped something so I picked it up and returned it to them” to “Ran a car wash to help raise money for a Bar-Mitzvah gift for an kid that doesn’t live at home” to “Deliver the newspaper to my elderly neighbor’s mailbox, so he does not need to bend down every day” to “Bought 10 cups of coffee for strangers in honor of my grandmother who passed away recently.” Others wrote that they helped clean for Passover, prayed for a sick friend, or gave money to charity.
Visitors to the website can click on an image of the Torah text to see which letters were claimed by whom and for which kind deeds. For groups reserving blocks of letters, the group manager gets a link to send out to members, enabling people to “buy” letters in their blocks, which turn red when they are taken.
A permanent digital file of all names and deeds will accompany the Global Unity Torah, which will be finished by a Jerusalem scribe in time for a dedication in Jerusalem on May 28. The scroll is to be given to ZAKA, Israel’s primary rescue-and-recovery volunteer organization, for the use of Jerusalem families during shiva, the seven-day period of mourning for a loved one.
“The love and kindness that has poured into the writing of this incredible Torah should provide these families with much strength and support,” Rabbi Butler said. “The Global Unity Torah is an unprecedented communal platform for Jews worldwide to do good and inspire goodness in others. By using kindness as an impetus for change and Jerusalem as a uniting factor, we can transform our world.”
The Moriah School tied its participation in the Global Unity Torah to a week-long program of activities promoting inclusivity, kind words, and restraint from negative and harmful speech. It was dedicated in memory of former Moriah preschooler Evan Levy of Englewood, who died of a brain tumor in December 2015.
Russi Shor, the lower school program coordinator at the Yavneh Academy, said the school reserved a block of 800 letters in the Jerusalem50 Global Unity Torah, corresponding roughly to the total number of students from pre-K to eighth grade.
The project dovetailed well with Yavneh’s “culture of kindness” programming for the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, which entails a monthly focus on a different positive character trait.
“When we heard about the Global Unity Torah, we realized this initiative would work seamlessly with our kindness theme in honor of Jerusalem’s reunification,” Ms. Shor said. “It was an obvious decision to jump on the opportunity and be a part of this amazing program. Everyone was so inspired and excited to be a part of something so great.”
Rabbi Joshua Schulman, director of chesed programming at Frisch, sees the Global Unity Torah as “an unbelievable opportunity for our students and members of the broader community to be a part of an initiative uniting various individuals and groups of Jews worldwide through our common love for Israel, Jerusalem, Torah, and chesed.”
Frisch reserved a block of 2,000 letters for its 700 ninth- to 12th-grade students.
“Students are, honestly, extremely excited about being part of something so right, so good, and so meaningful,” Rabbi Schulman said. “We all find meaning in finding ways to be of assistance to others, and having the opportunity to pledge our acts of kindness toward the writing of a sefer Torah is inspiring for everyone involved.”
The Afikim Foundation produced a set of eight fabric murals depicting scenes of Jerusalem, as well as colorful booklets offering information and historical facts about Jerusalem in five languages, to enhance its Jerusalem50 project. The foundation also is offering an interactive traveling Jerusalem Exhibit with accompanying study guide for educational institutions and Jewish community centers.
Three people randomly chosen from people who enter their email address on the Jerusalem50 website will receive round-trip tickets to attend the Torah dedication ceremony in Jerusalem on May 28; the ceremony will be headlined by Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat.
For more information on the Afikim Foundations’ Jerusalem50 project, go to www.Jerusalem50.org or call (718) 454-6137.