Writing a Torah in Woodcliff Lake

Writing a Torah in Woodcliff Lake

Synagogue celebration marks first phase in 613-day spiritual journey

Fifth grade families, shown here davening, receive a framed certificate showing the Torah parashiot that will be read when each child becomes bar or bat mitzvah. The derech mitzvah meeting is part of the Torah Writing Project. Rabbi Benjamin Shull and Cantor Mark Biddelman stand facing the families. Courtesy Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley

If a journey begins with the first step, what does a “journey in learning” begin with?

At Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, the answer is a new sefer Torah, which the Woodcliff Lake synagogue commissioned last year and is providing the framework for a large-scale educational project there.

The brainchild of synagogue board member Abby Leipsner, the Torah Writing Project was the result of both need and desire: The new scroll is the Conservative synagogue’s first in nearly half a century-the congregation of some 570 families acquired a Holocaust-era Torah in 1983 but it is damaged and considered not kosher for use; and Leipsner, the mother of two, wanted to recreate for her children a meaningful experience similar to the one her family had several years ago, but that her children were too young to remember.

“I participated in the writing of a Torah scroll at my parents’ synagogue, and even though I have visited Israel, stood at the Kotel, and climbed Masada, filling in a letter of that Torah was probably the closest I ever felt to God,” she said.

So, when discussion at a Temple Emanuel board meeting turned to the synagogue’s aging Torah scrolls, Leipsner saw her opportunity and pushed for writing a new scroll as a congregational project. “I felt it should be a learning experience for young and old, alike. A spiritual journey that we could all take together,” Leipsner said.

In actuality, a Torah scroll is handwritten by a sofer, or scribe, on parchment with quill and ink. However, for purposes of a project such as Temple Emanuel’s, a sofer will leave outlined letters unfinished so that others can fill them in.

“We announced the Torah Writing Project during the 2012 High Holiday season,” said Simone Wilker, a board member who oversees the project. She explained that while it usually takes approximately a year to write a Torah, Temple Emanuel slated 613 days-until the holiday of Shavuot in 2014-for its project.

“There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah,” she said. “For 613 days-from the initial announcement to the final letter writing-we have planned educational activities for the entire congregation. Almost every event will revolve in some way around the theme of Torah.”

The sofer the board chose is Nisim Cohen, who lives and works in Israel. To liaise between Cohen and Temple Emanuel, the board enlisted the assistance of a Miami-based organization called Sofer on Site, whose staff members themselves are sofrim [scribes]. “Sofer on Site is guiding our Torah Writing Project each step of the way as Nisim Cohen writes our Torah. It is providing the educational component to make our journey as meaningful as possible,” Wilker said.

On Sunday, April 21, Temple Emanuel congregants will celebrate the completion of the first phase in the project, the writing of the Book of Genesis, with an all-day event at the synagogue under the direction of Rabbi Gedalia Druin of Sofer on Site, who will fly up from Miami to be there. Genesis, or B’reishit in Hebrew, is the first of the five books that comprise the Torah. This first section will make the trip from Israel and be on display at the synagogue.

“Rabbi Druin will spend the morning at our Hebrew school explaining to the students how a sofer writes a Torah scroll and showing them the tools and materials a sofer uses,” Wilker said. “In the evening, he will present a lecture about the process to the community at large. In between, he plans to meet individually with families who signed up to complete letters in Genesis, personalizing the experience for them as they assist Rabbi Druin in filling in the letters that Nisim Cohen outlined.”

“Assisting” means holding on to a bit of the quill that is in Rabbi Druin’s hand as he fills in a letter. Men, women and even children will be allowed to do this. Those who do will be fulfilling the last of the 613 mitzvot, which is to “make yourself a Torah,” Wilker said.

The April 21 event is the first of six to take place during the 613 days. As with this first event, the next four – September 22 and November 17, 2013, and February 9 and March 30, 2014 – will mark Cohen’s completion of each of the books of the Torah and each one’s arrival at Temple Emanuel for display and for the last letters to be filled in. After the March 30 celebration, when all five books will be in the United States, the parchments will be sewn into a Torah scroll under the direction of Sofer on Site.

The sixth gathering, on May 18, 2014, will celebrate both the new Torah scroll’s arrival in its home and its dedication to Rabbi Andre Ungar, Temple Emanuel’s rabbi emeritus, who retired eight years ago after 45 years at the community’s head.

“The goal is to renew and rebuild interest in Torah and Torah study. We want people to feel a sense of connection, a sense of the holy,” said Benjamin Shull, who became the shul’s rabbi after Ungar retired. Shull has participated in Torah-writing projects at other synagogues and describes the experience as being deeply moving. “To see people’s faces as they write is really something. It’s self-evident what this experience means to them.”

Once the new Torah has arrived, the next part of the project will begin. Rabbi Shull calls it the “Torah to Go” phase, in which member families will be allowed to take home this or other Torah scrolls belonging to the shul for a week at a time and house it in a portable ark there. Likening the idea to the concept of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle – God’s portable dwelling place when the ancient Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert – Shull hopes its presence in people’s homes will continue the education process and enhance their commitment to Judaism as they learn the guidelines for interacting properly with the Torah.

“Today, we have a generation that’s even more mobile than were previous ones, so we need to find ways to make the synagogue more mobile, too,” Shull said. “Bringing the Torah to people is a concrete way to connect home and synagogue-to give people a sense of holiness and sanctity in the place where they live.”

What: Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley celebrates the completion of the first section of its new Torah scroll

Where: 87 Overlook Drive, Woodcliff Lake

When: April 21

For information: 201 391-0801.

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