`A very exciting day' marks completion of `God's Torah'

Handwritten project honors Baltimore rabbi who aided Iranian Jews

August 30, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Singing "God's Torah is complete," the congregation of Ohr Hamizrah walked and danced down Park Heights Avenue yesterday, in a dedication ceremony that celebrated the completion of a new Torah and paid tribute to the man who helped Iranian Jews find a home in Baltimore.

The 245-page handwritten scroll was commissioned in memory of Rabbi Yaakov S. Weinberg, dean of Ner Israel Rabbincal College who died of cancer last month, nearly 20 years after helping give asylum to Jews fleeing Iran during the Islamic revolution.

"We are happy to show our appreciation to our rosh yeshiva" [leader], said Rabbi Reuben Arieh. "It's a very exciting day."

Reuben Khaver was among a group of Jewish boys who left Iran in 1978 to study at the college. "We thought we were going back for summer vacation."

Instead, the Shah of Iran was forced from power and the Ayatollah Khomeini took control in an Islamic revolution. Eventually, thousands of Jews fled the country, including about 100 families who came to Baltimore and established Ohr Hamizrah synagogue.

In the days leading to the revolution and immediately after, Weinberg helped the Iranian students studying at the rabbinical college and accepted many others into the school -- even those who had no money for tuition or books.

As the students graduated, he kept in touch with them, attending their weddings and bar mitzvahs for their children.

"He was so inspiring," said Hersal Gholian, who studied under Weinberg and served as a scribe during the dedication ceremony.

While children and men crowded around the table, Gholian dipped a quill in ink and carefully filled in the last few lines of the Torah, the law that tradition says was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Occasionally he and other leaders warned the children to stop shaking the table -- a mistake would have required considerable effort to erase, and each letter had to be perfect.

Although men who had donated money for the Torah were given the chance to fill in the words themselves, many designated Gholian to do the work for them.

"I'm not a professional writer," said Hecky Attar, who lives with his family in Stamford, Conn., but traveled to Baltimore to help celebrate the Torah dedication.

Moshe Shaliehsabou, however, decided to fill in the letters himself, under the scribe's supervision. "I was very nervous," he said.

Except for the last few lines, the Torah commissioned by the Ohr Hamizrah congregation was handwritten by a scribe in Israel and took about a year to complete. It was written on parchment using a special ink and quill. The scroll and its gold and green velvet case cost $40,000, according to Jonathan Attar, a leader in the congregation.

Once the final words were filled in, the music and merriment began. The men -- many wearing black hats and suits -- danced in a circle around the Torah, while many of the women sang trills.

"It's like a wedding," said Levi Rabinowitz. "The Torah is the bride, and the congregation is like the groom."

The celebration, attended by several hundred people, attracted members of other congregations. "It's a celebration for Jews everywhere," said Bryna Leah Kitay, president of Shaarei Zion.

Pub Date: 8/30/99

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