If some Jews look back and remember the solemnity of Yom Kippur, many others remember the joy of Simchat Torah, say some local religious leaders.
“When you speak to elderly people – not necessarily religious – what do they remember?” asked Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Teaneck’s Chabad House. “They remember dancing around the bimah with a flag and an apple. That joy, and that celebration of Judaism, is something special.”
Simon, whose Chabad House attracts hundreds of people over the course of the holiday, said that he goes out of his way to make the Simchat Torah celebration “a lot of fun,” so that Jews of all ages and levels of observance can appreciate and take part in celebrating the completion of the Torah.
“There’s something everybody can do,” he said. “Everyone likes to dance, to eat, to celebrate. In this way, we bring out the fun in Judaism.”
“Dance outside?” he said. “I do somersaults in the street. We get people who come from other shuls when the hakafas [dances with the Torah] have ended. Ours last longer than any other shul in Teaneck. We dance till after midnight.”
In addition, said Simon, so that no one has to go home to eat, he offers a “huge buffet” on Simchat Torah night, which falls on Oct. 8 this year.
“It’s a real celebration – a feast fit for a king,” he said, joking that to attract Jews, you have to have food.
The rabbi pointed out that the meal is free of charge. And, he noted, his Chabad House does not charge for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tickets.
“It’s an old-fashioned open-door policy,” said Simon, who has headed the Teaneck Chabad House for 10 years.
The rabbi said he also makes a special hakafa for children, before those for the adults begin.
“We do it while it’s still early,” he said. “We have flags, candy, apples, and a stuffed sefer Torah for each child that they can go home with. We want to create memories.”
The rabbi noted that each year, the Chabad House gets several families “who find us on Simchat Torah and then stay throughout the year because of the experience and the atmosphere we create.”
Chani Gurkov, co-director of the Chabad House in Wayne, said her congregation will also offer a buffet dinner as well as a cocktail bar on the eve of Simchat Torah. Inviting the community to “come dance with the Torah and express true joy and connect with generations of Jews through the ages and around the world,” the Wayne shul promises “funky flags, the hottest hakafot, and prizes for all children.”
Gurkov said the Wayne Chabad will hold the event in its sukkah, weather permitting, although participants will go inside to do the hakafot.
“We may go outside for the last hakafa,” she said, adding that the event is open to everybody and that people from the local community often join in the festivities.
“Simchat Torah brings back people’s memories of their own childhood,” Gurkov said.
Rabbi Arthur Weiner, religious leader of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, which is Conservative, said Simchat Torah is a big draw in his congregation, with at least 150 people turning out to celebrate.
“Each year we get a large crowd and try to make it festive, morning and evening,” he said, pointing out that on this holiday, “we celebrate our Torah and what it means to the Jewish people.”
In addition, he said, we celebrate the fact that we’ve been “fortunate enough to conclude the Torah reading and begin again. No matter how learned we are, we can understand the value and meaning of these words. Without a commitment to Torah, there would be no Jewish people. It’s what makes us distinct. Therefore, once a year we celebrate.”
Weiner said that while he often sees new faces at Simchat Torah services, most attendees are people who have some connection to the synagogue. Children are integrated into the regular service.
The rabbi noted that on Simchat Torah, everyone in the synagogue is called up to the bimah for an aliyah. His synagogue has another tradition, he said, pointing out that the honors of “chatan Torah” [literally, groom of the Torah] and “chatan B’reishit” [groom of B’reishit, the name of both the Torah’s first book and its first portion] are awarded to people who are particularly committed to the religious life of the congregation.
Rabbi Alberto Zeilicovich, religious leader of Fair Lawn’s Temple Beth Sholom, said that his congregation is filled with music during Simchat Torah.
“We open the ballroom attached to the sanctuary so that we have enough room” to dance with the Torah, he said. In addition, “we have ice cream and some goodies.”
The rabbi suggested that Simchat Torah’s popularity may be because the Torah is such a central symbol of Judaism, “for all people, regardless of their level of observance. Just the fact that something is written in the Torah gives it a completely new status,” he said.
Calling the Simchat Torah celebration a “family event,” he added that “It’s so important for children to come to synagogue and dance with the Torah. It will be part of their memories, to help them remember why it’s nice to be Jewish.”
The celebration is also nice for adults, he said, adding that members often bring friends to the service.
Richard Michaelson, president of the synagogue, noted that while only men dance with the Torah, the service also includes a “Torah Wrap,” where all members of the congregation – men, women, and children – gather in a circle to hold an unrolled (and non-kosher) Torah.
“It’s quite an emotional and spiritual and joyous experience, one that makes you think about the Torah in some new ways, in some more personal ways,” Michaelson said. “After all, how many of us – even the men – have truly held/supported the parchment of a Torah. At the same time, it’s quite the community-building event. To paraphrase our secretary of state, it takes a village to hold a Torah.”
The celebration is also nice for adults, he said, adding that members often bring friends to the service.
At Congregation Beth Sholom, an egalitarian Conservative shul in Teaneck, “Sukkot in general is a big deal,” Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky said.
“We get a very big crowd, and doing hakafot – especially on the first day when there is only one minyan – involves a serpentine route through our auditorium because the sanctuary is just not big enough. It is a lot of fun, and a little chaotic.”
“The place is packed with people,” he continued. “It’s a wonderful time to honor people and dance and have fun. Last year for the first time we set up five separate reading [stations] so that as many congregants as wanted to have their own aliyot could have one.”
Pitkowsky said that “Sukkot was incredible as well. For the hoshanot, so many people had a lulav and etrog that there were 150 people in a line.”
Last year, “while it was not really planned,” some of the Simchat Torah dancing took place outside the synagogue, he said. “Fortunately, our neighborhood doesn’t have that many cars driving on yom tov.”
But this year, he added, the shul’s director of administration has checked in with the Teaneck police to let them know what to expect.
The rabbi said the congregation includes children in the hakafot and offers a special aliyah for them in the morning.
“I think Simchat Torah is a wonderful, fun, freilich time for people to celebrate, [especially] after the serious nature of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he said. “They’re happy to let loose a little bit. I’m thrilled to have them feel that excitement in a shul, seeing not only its serious nature but that there’s a time for fun. Judaism has it all.”
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Englewood’s Orthodox Congregation Ahavath Torah, said that while Simchat Torah will draw hundreds of people of all ages to the shul, “it’s not an unusual thing for us to have a crowd.”
He pointed out that all four of the synagogue’s minyanim will have separate hakafot and that each minyan will also have its own hatan Torah and hatan B’reishit.
“It’s a different kind of day,” he said. “Kids have a great time and adults have a change of pace.”
All men get aliyot at the shul’s Torah reading stations and – weather permitting – some hakafot will take place outside. Children will have their own hakafot, although later they will be brought in to join the adults.
The rabbi said he also does “a sthtik” with the children, such as an interactive song.
“We see some new faces, but it’s primarily our own people,” Goldin said, adding that “it’s a wonderful way to end the yom tov season and a beautiful way to begin reading the Torah again and recognizing its centrality in our lives.”
Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly said that his shul, starts the evening of Simchat Torah with a dinner, which is by reservation but to which the whole community is invited. Because Temple Sinai is Reform, that will be on Sunday evening. Next, children new to the religious school are consecrated; after that, the party begins. Each of the hakafot is dedicated to one of the synagogue’s affiliates – the sisterhood, the brotherhood, the board, and so on – and six of the seven are done to the accompaniment of the Hester Street klezmer band. It’s a loud and joyous party. The sixth hakafah is different. The music stops, as Shoah survivors and their families carry the shul’s Holocaust scroll around in silence. Then the party starts again. “When I first got here, I wondered if that could possibly feel right,” Millstein said. “But it does. It’s very powerful.” Again following Reform custom, Yizkor, the memorial service that Conservative and Orthodox shuls do on Shemini Atzeret, is held on the next morning.
“It’s my favorite holiday,” Neal Borovitz said. He’s the rabbi of Temple Avodat Shalom, a Reform synagogue in River Edge. “It’s such a festive time. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Borovitz said Simchat Torah – which, according to Reform custom, will be celebrated next Sunday night – draws nearly 400 people to the shul.
“One of the things we do is unravel a Torah and have seventh- and eighth-graders wrap it around the whole congregation,” he said. “They unroll it with everyone inside. It’s really spectacular.” In addition, one student reads from the end of Deuteronomy and another from the beginning of B’reishit.
“We have Torah reading first, then hakafot afterwards,” Borovitz said. “The first people called up for hakafot are the teenagers who helped lead our youth services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Then everybody else gets to carry a Torah if they want.”
The service also includes a consecration ceremony for pre-k and kindergarten students.
“It’s our largest group in five or six years,” Borovitz said. “The synagogue is really having a regeneration in our younger grades.”
Borovitz said sometimes attendees dance in the social hall. Other times, weather permitting, they move into the shul’s parking lot. While most participants are synagogue members, “we invite everyone to join us,” he said.
“It’s all about the joy,” he added. “To me, it represents the unending study of Torah and a celebration of learning. We’ll have people from 8 months to 90 years old.”