Bringing the Torah home

Bringing the Torah home

Pascack Valley families to host traveling scroll

Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley’s Rabbi Ben Shull wants to foster a “closeness” between the Torah and people. Courtesy Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley

What’s a Torah doing in your living room?

That would be a fair question for any visitor confronted with a portable arc holding a scroll at home. And now, thanks to a new program at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, people will be asking that question.

The Conservative shul is about to begin Torah@Home, a project that sends a Torah home with congregants for a week at a time. In the comfort of their home, family members will be able to open up the Torah, feel its parchment, and read the Hebrew. Participating families are encouraged to invite friends and even to form study groups. Children are being asked to invite their friends and classmates as well.

The project is part of a celebration as Emanuel gets ready for the completion of its new Torah, which will be finished in time for Shavuot 2014.

Rabbi Benjamin Shull, the synagogue’s religious leader, had heard of a similar congregational project at a synagogue in Florida and decided to modify it and bring it home. The idea, he said, was to remind congregations of the mishkan, the Tabernacle that housed both the whole and broken tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and God’s presence and accompanied the Israelites as they wandered through the desert during the Exodus from Egypt.

“We’re in the process of having a new Torah written for us,” Rabbi Shull said. “Over the year-and-a-half-long process, we’ve had a number of educational components at our synagogue to go along with the new Torah.”

It was more than 10 years ago when Rabbi Shull first heard of the South Florida congregation that kept Torah scrolls in members’ homes. That was done for practical reasons. The Torahs often were too heavy for aging congregation members to lift out of the synagogue’s ark. But in a home, the Torah could be opened and read with far less lifting. Keeping the scrolls in homes made it more likely that they would be opened.

This was the germ of the weeklong Torah home visits in Woodcliff Lake.

“There is something beautiful about the idea of having a Torah in one’s home,” Rabbi Shull said.

“I’ve always been concerned about enhancing holiness in the home. The synagogue shouldn’t be the only focus of Torah learning, but it should be shared with the home. Home should be the central place of a person’s Jewish life.”

Ilysa Stupak, who is co-chairing the project with Helen Friedland, said that her family will be hosting the Torah at home.

“Rabbi Shull wants to build on our sense of community through Torah,” she wrote in an email interview. “The essential idea is to engage our community in its learning and sharing of the Torah in a personal way. And what better way is there than creating a sanctuary in your home among friends?”

Ms. Stupak added that the whole idea is “to get close and personal to the Torah. Of course there is a protocol as to how we do that, and that is also part of the learning process which we will learn this week.”

Rabbi Shull said that the Torah would be housed in a portable ark. He added that the Torah’s hosts are being taught appropriate ceremonies to welcome the Torah into their homes. Also, he said, families are being encouraged to invite other family members and neighbors into each other’s homes.

“We have suggestions of things they can do to enhance the connection to the Torah,” Rabbi Shull said.

For many people, having a Torah at their fingertips is something entirely new. The Torah reading usually is done on the bimah; the scroll is kept somewhat apart from the congregation.

So being around the Torah could bring its own share of nervousness.

“We have concerns of reducing the anxiety of being with a Torah,” he said. “For most Jews when they think of holiness, they think of the Torah. But when you look at a Torah scroll and its origin, a piece of animal skin, we learn that holiness comes from the way we treat the Torah. We make it holy with God. The words on the skin are what is really holy.”

Rabbi Shull said that he wants people not to be intimidated by the Torah.

“I want there to be a closeness between the Torah and to people,” he said. “Deuteronomy tells us that the Torah should be near to you and to your heart. There’s a balance between reverence and intimacy. And that reverence doesn’t have to be standing up on the ark away from you.”

Families are just beginning to sign up for opportunities to take the Torah home, he said.

Ms. Stupak said that she feels the Torah will help her home make the transition from being just a house into becoming a beit midrash – a house of learning. “Each home will become a sanctuary for learning Torah, and we learn how to behave in the presence of Torah,” she said. “No one is ever too young or too old to learn, and a community that learns together gains strength.”

Her husband, Darren, and their children, Sarah and Max, will join her as they welcome the sefer Torah to their home.

“When the rabbi comes to deliver the Torah, he will tailor the program to each group that is attending, and mine is very kid-focused,” Ms. Stupak said. “We want it to be fun and engaging for the kids.”

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