Traveling Torah on way to Chile
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Traveling Torah on way to Chile

On Sept. 6, a Torah scroll from a decades old and now "retired" Conservative Passaic congregation, Temple Emanuel, was carried to three-year-old Kehillat Emunah in Santiago, Chile. The backstory for that event is about how one idea led to another, eventually leading people in the New Jersey to make a difference on the other side of the planet.

The story begins with Arthur Weis, 8′ years old, past president of Temple Emanuel in Passaic, a third-generation American Jew who grew up in Passaic during the Depression and joined the Conservative congregation ‘5 years ago. Until last year, when the synagogue officially transferred its sanctuary to the Orthodox congregation Beis Medrash La Torah/Zichron Moshe, Weis was the person who read the Yom Kippur haftarah, Yona, to the congregation. It was a tradition that lasted for 18 years, and Eric Weis, his son, would bring the entire family to shul to hear him. They were, for years, the only people under 65 in the sanctuary. Eric Weis, who lives in Wayne, is the executive vice president of the Northern New Jersey region of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, a national organization with about ‘5,000 members.

Rabbi Charles Simon, FMJC’s executive director, caught the younger Weis’s attention with his pet projects. For years, Simon has been promoting the practice of wearing tefillin and doing mitzvot in general in the Conservative (Masorti Olami) movement. The tefillin were made by scribes in Israel and five years ago, when Simon visited the scribes, they told him about haftarah scrolls for use during services that make great naming opportunities (meaning that organizations and individuals can have their names inscribed on the scrolls when they make donations). This resonated with Weis, because of his father’s reading of Yona every Yom Kippur. FMJC bought such a scroll and sends it around the country to different congregations. The scroll never spends Shabbat in the same place — for example, two weeks ago it was in Teaneck, last Shabbat it was in Wayne, and there are two more Jersey stops before it leaves the state at the end of this month.

So when Rabbi Simon found out that the Masorti Olami movement needed two sifrei Torah and asked people if they had any spares, Eric Weis had an idea: He asked the old members of Temple Emanuel if they still had any of their Torah scrolls to lend out. Myron Timinsky, the congregation’s president, said that there might be one among the scrolls transferred to Beis Medrash Le Torah. Rabbi Chayim Davis of that congregation agreed to the idea, and Simon, Rabbi Richard Hammerman (senior vice president of Masorti Olami in New York City), Eric Weis, Timinsky, and Abe Rakoff, the men’s club president for Temple Emanuel, all met in the sanctuary and examined the scroll. The Torah was then wrapped in a tallit and taken to New York City, where it was examined and repaired by scribes on the Lower East Side.

Last Tuesday night, Sept. 5, Rabbi Shmuel Szteinhendler, who represents Masorti Olami for all South America, flew in from Santiago. A child of Holocaust survivors, Szteinhendler holds the pulpit at Kehilat Beit Emunah, a three-year old congregation of 50 families who meet in a rented house in Santiago. They were to be the first beneficiaries of this novel idea. There are four other Masorti congregations in Chile.

Szteinhendler’s mission was to pick up the Torah and catch the next flight back to Chile, with the Torah as a carry-on. There are two strings attached, though. The Torah, clearly "on loan," can be recalled on three-months notice, and for as long as it will be used, shall be known as "The Temple Emanuel Torah of Passaic, N.J."

Said Weis, "I was the shadchan, the matchmaker, and I hope this leads to Beit Emunah being able to build a permanent home. This project will help us build bridges between our diaspora communities, and I have to tell you, the smile on Rabbi Szteinhendler’s face when he was handed the Torah gave us all a great deal of naches."

Peter Gotlieb, president of the FJMC’s northern New Jersey region, said, "On behalf of our men’s clubs and the FJMC, I want thank the members of Temple Emanuel in Passaic, N.J., and in particular its club president, Abe Rakoff, for arranging the gift of this Torah. We are privileged to be able to share the riches of our North American Jewish community to support the Masorti community in Santiago, Chile, in such a meaningful way."

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