Traveling Torah links communities

Traveling Torah links communities

Temple Beth Tikvah, a 50-year-old Reform congregation in Wayne, had too many Torahs. Cong. Kol Hadash in Solon, Ohio, didn’t have a single scroll of its own.

A beautiful ark, handmade by one of its members, stood empty, more than two years after the Reform synagogue was founded in the fastest-growing Jewish community in suburban Cleveland. Each Shabbat and for life-cycle events, the leadership had to scramble for one to borrow.

Meanwhile, Beth Tikvah was celebrating its jubilee year, with a series of events and programs that included the commissioning of a new sefer Torah. The project was conceived, said Debbie Stone, one of Beth Tikvah’s past presidents, "because we knew it would be such a wonderful experience and touch all our families."

Rabbi Stephen M. Wylen presents a yad to Rabbi Estelle Gottman-Mills of Cong. Kol Chadash.Peter A. Blacksberg

Beth Tikvah welcomed its new Torah, completed last fall, in high style, with a siyyum on Nov. 19. The day’s festivities began with a traditional ceremony, marking the wedding of the Torah to the congregation. The scroll was paraded under a chuppah and marched by congregants seven times around the sanctuary, symbolic of a bride who circles her bridegroom. Among the day’s honorees were four families who remain of the original 15 founders and ‘0 pioneers who joined them in establishing Beth Tikvah in 1956. A Torah reading and congratulatory speeches by local officials were followed by klezmer music and dancing. Guests included Bob Roe, former U.S. representative and mayor of Wayne, and Rabbi Emeritus Israel Dresner, the congregation’s longtime spiritual leader. "It was just such an incredible morning," said Stone.

There was just one problem: Beth Tikvah’s ark, designed to hold five Torahs, was too crowded for the six it now had.

Rabbi Stephen Wylen posted a notice on the Website of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, inviting applications.

So eager was Kol Hadash to take advantage of the opportunity that a committee was quickly formed to write a letter expressing how cherished the scroll would be in its new home. The entire religious school got involved as well, with every child writing heartfelt missives describing Kol Hadash as a family that would finally feel complete with its own Torah. Preschoolers drew pictures depicting how they, too, would use the Torah.

Beth Tikvah, now a 475-household congregation, immediately recognized its younger self in Kol Hadash — and knew it had found the perfect place for its Torah.

"It made our people think of the early days here, when the congregation was chartered, with a few families meeting in someone’s living room," said Wylen, who has led Beth Tikvah for about a dozen years. A few years later, the group rented space from the local Police Athletic League, until in the late 1950s, they were able to construct the facility they now occupy. Only a decade earlier, Wayne had been largely farmland, he said, but the area grew rapidly after many Jewish families relocated from nearby Paterson, Passaic, and New York City.

Loyalty to the shul remains so strong that often members’ children and grandchildren return to join the community. "It is not unusual to have a bar mitzvah of a child whose father or mother was bar or bat mitzvahed here," noted Wylen.

Similarly, Kol Hadash started out with five families, but has since grown to about 45, as Cleveland Jews in search of good schools and affordable housing have discovered what until recently was a rural area southeast of the city. The community is now about 50 percent Jewish, and the public schools close for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, said Rabbi Estelle Gottman-Mills.

"They have a great future, a chance to grow and thrive and become an established congregation someday, just as Beth Tikvah became," said Wylen. "We wanted to donate our Torah where it would really be used and appreciated. We were very moved by their application, especially by the letters by the children."

A date was finally set for the transfer of the Torah. "When I heard that we would personally get on a plane and take the Torah to Ohio, it was something I had to do, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Stone. Eleven Beth Tikvah congregants, including Wylen and his wife, Cheryl, made the trip. Stone recalled their arrival at the Cleveland airport. "There were three people standing at the end of the gateway. One was holding a sign that said ‘Beth Tikvah’; another was holding a stuffed Torah. We immediately felt at home."

In an event that mirrored Beth Tikvah’s, Kol Hadash welcomed its new Torah on Sunday morning, Jan. 14, with a parade down Solon’s main thoroughfare. The chuppah, with the Torah beneath it, was accompanied by the city’s mayor, a councilman, and an associate pastor representing the local ministerial association.

The procession entered the sanctuary singing "Al Shalosha Devarim," whose lyrics reflect the Jewish dictum that the world is dependent on three things: Torah study, worship, and acts of lovingkindness. The children were invited to the bimah to read their letters, and the preschoolers shared their pictures. Congratulatory speeches by Rabbi Wylen, Beth Tikvah’s president, Rick Hyne, and Harvey Hendler, chairman of the Mitzvah Torah Committee, followed, along with a presentation of a proclamation from the mayor of Wayne, Scott Rumana, to Solon Mayor Kevin Patton.

After the seven circles around the sanctuary, the formal program concluded with a presentation of a picture and plaque to Beth Tikvah in appreciation of the priceless gift, and more words of praise by Solon’s public officials and representatives from the Cleveland Jewish Federation and Cleveland Board of Rabbis. The regional director of the Union for Reform Judaism, the movement’s congregational association, also presented a certificate of membership to the congregation, which had recently been voted into the union by the URJ board.

"The feeling and the emotion and the love [in the room] was just incredible," recalled Gottman-Mills. "There was such a connection between us and the 11 members of Beth Tikvah who came out to Solon. There’s no doubt that all the congregants present will remember this for the rest of their lives."

"We really hit it off," echoed Wylen. "We feel like we found a sister congregation [in Kol Hadash]."

There are already plans to maintain the connection. Said Stone, "We’re working on a spring date for the Solon congregants to visit here for Shabbat and, hopefully, show their children the big city [of New York]." In preparation, several of the 11 who went to Solon will share anecdotes about their experience there at a Shabbat service at Beth Tikvah on March ‘.

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