|Scott Pass with the sefer haftorah. Rabbi Robert Roth|
Some two years ago, the Men’s Progress Club of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel took on a task it thought would take six months.
In the end, securing a sefer haftarah – a parchment scroll that contains the text for the haftarot, handwritten by a scribe – for the congregation took considerably longer.
Still, according to the shul’s Rabbi Ronald Roth, it was well worth it.
“This is a way for our congregation and each person who chants a haftarah to find a greater connection to the text they are chanting by reading it from a handwritten parchment scroll – just as the Torah and all holy books were written in ancient times,” Roth said. “Especially today, when books and all written materials are becoming digitized and read on electronic devices, to follow an ancient pattern brings us closer to our ancestors and our traditions.”
Jewish Center congregants will be introduced to their new scroll on Dec. 15, Shabbat Chanukah, when it will be dedicated formally.
Scott Pass, co-chair of the synagogue’s fundraising committee and its sefer haftarah subcommittee, said that several years ago the shul’s Men’s Progress Club hosted a similar scroll, which had been commissioned by the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.
FJMC, the umbrella organization of Conservative men’s clubs in North America, introduced the scroll at its 2003 biennial convention. Since then, it has been hosted by men’s clubs and brotherhoods throughout North America. The scroll, created in Israel, contains all the haftarot, and it includes vowels and cantillation. According to the FJMC website, books of haftarot in scroll form have been in use for more than a century.
After seeing such a scroll at an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, members of the FJMC determined to commission one of their own. They also created a way for member synagogues to commission their own scrolls – an opportunity eagerly taken up by the Fair Lawn synagogue.
Only about seven or eight of these scrolls have been commissioned by FJMC members so far, Pass said, adding that the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/ Congregation B’nai Israel is the only New Jersey synagogue to have done so.
In addition to enhancing the experience of reading a haftarah, sefer haftarot offer additional possibilities, he said, noting that they may also serve as vehicles for fundraising. Because they are unlike Torah scrolls in that they may contain additional writing, they may include the names of individuals and groups who wish to sponsor them.
“We got wind that there were some congregations in the country that had commissioned them as a fundraiser,” Pass said. While some congregations commission the writing of a Torah, “this was different. It was such a novelty, and so intriguing to people, that we thought we could make a go of it.”
After deciding to launch the project, Pass got in touch with synagogues in New City, New York, Toronto, and St. Louis that had commissioned scrolls.
“They sent me brochures and ideas for a pricing structure,” he said. “The New City Jewish Center was very helpful and loaned us their sefer haftarah so we could see the layout.”
With this information, and working together with the FJMC, the Jewish Center set out to get its own scroll.
Pass called the process a “challenge. Since it was done through a group in Israel, there were time differences and language barriers. It’s not something you can just go out and do and have it go perfectly. It was a long process.”
In fact, he said, the first version of the scroll that arrived from Israel last November needed so many small corrections that it had to be sent back.
“With a Torah, there’s no discussion,” he said. “Choosing what wood, what finish, what size – that’s about it. But with a sefer haftarah, there are so many other subtleties you don’t know until you get into it.”
Cantor Eric Wasser helped the subcommittee decide what features it wanted – for example, whether it should choose Ashkenazic or Sephardic script. Ultimately, they chose the latter.
“The cantor felt that the b’nai mitzvah, in particular, would find it easier to follow,” Pass said.
The scroll, he said, has been written by an Israeli sofer using a quill and special kosher ink on kosher parchment. Cantillation and punctuation marks have been added to the words and letters to make it easier for members to read.
Pass said that when he introduced the idea to the synagogue board he got its full support, but “we didn’t want to go ahead until we had some money in place.” Fortunately, he added, there were “some major benefactors to get us over the hump.”
Once the basics were in place, the subcommittee, co-chaired by Irving Pollack, created a brochure and set pricing for different dedications, such as for weekly haftarot and high holiday readings. The team also came up with the idea of an honor roll, listing dedications in a single column.
Donor Arline Herman said her contribution resulted from the “natural progression” of her role in creating the Howard and Joshua Herman Education Center at the synagogue a few years ago.
“I made a connection between graduating students and the scroll,” she said. “The b’nai mitzvah will chant their haftarah from this beautiful scroll, enhancing a special day in their lives.”
So far about 60 congregants have contributed to the project, raising just under $100,000.
The FLJC/CBI scroll contains an English-language page listing synagogue clergy and officers as well as a page where people can list dedications. Each of the individual haftarot are arranged with a space beneath the title where dedications can be listed.
“The fundraising can go on forever,” Pass said, since enough space has been left for people who want to sponsor haftarot in the future. A local sofer will add those names, so the scroll will not have to be shipped back to Israel.
In addition to haftarah dedications, fundraising opportunities were extended to accessories – mantle covers, rimonim, and yads. The synagogue’s sisterhood has sponsored the etz chayim, or poles.
The finished sefer haftarah, which the congregation received from Israel this summer, will be housed in the ark and used on a regular basis.
“We want it to be used,” Pass said. “We plan to use it every Shabbat, to make it well-worn.”
On Dec. 15, at the dedication ceremony, the scroll will be used for the first time.
Pass expects the event to be a moving experience.
Arline Herman will read the first haftarah. “I will be chanting the haftarah at the dedication to honor the memory of my husband Howard and my son Joshua,” she said.
“It’s hard to have a personal connection to a Torah scroll,” Pass said. “This is new and contemporary and people can relate to it, identify with it.”
For Rabbi Roth, who dedicated the haftarah he chanted when he became a bar mitzvah, “reading it again will remind me of the past and also of those who will read it in the future at the FLJC/CBI. This all reminds us of the power of our traditions and rituals to enlarge our spirits.”