At 50, Beth Israel celebrates identity by copying Torah


In a chapel at Beth Israel Congregation, the four members of the Hoffman family -- parents Dale and Sharona, daughters Brenna and Sarah -- gathered around Rabbi Moshe Druin. A scroll lay spread out on the table before him, along with a quill pen and a jar of ink.

The injunction to participate in the creation of a Torah is the last of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in Judaism. Druin, a Torah scribe, turned to 14-year-old Brenna to ask why that might be.

"Why wouldn't it be honor your parents, or love God?" he prodded.

Brenna thought for a moment.

"It's making it go on further," Brenna said. "It makes sure that it goes on forever."

Druin nodded. Then he dipped the white turkey feather into the natural ink and directed the four to grasp it as he filled in another word on the cowhide parchment.

"Mazel tov," Druin said, as the Hoffmans beamed. "Now go and think of something good to do as a Jew."

And so the Hoffmans became the latest family at Beth Israel to join in the creation of a Torah scroll that records the five books of Moses that are at the center of the Jewish faith.

The Conservative Jewish congregation in Owings Mills is celebrating its 50th anniversary by commissioning the first scroll made specifically for the congregation -- and inviting its 870 members to help write out the text of the ancient scripture.

"The Torah really has been the repository of who we are as a Jewish people for 5,000 years," said Rabbi Jay Goldstein, the longtime spiritual leader of Beth Israel. "When we were exiled as a people, when we had no physical place to call our own, we concentrated on the Torah. That's what kept our identity.

"To create our own Torah scroll -- a Torah scroll that every single person that is a part of the congregation has an opportunity to participate in and bring with them all of the shades of joy and sorrow that have been a part of their life -- is a tremendously meaningful opportunity."

Traditionally, Jews have fulfilled the 613th mitzvah by helping to pay for the creation of a new Torah. Beth Israel is one of a growing number of synagogues to seek the more hands-on experience of joining with a sofer, a scribe, in the writing.

Druin, an Orthodox rabbi based in Miami, has been offering the service for nearly a decade.

"The greatest mitzvah is to physically participate," said Druin, who also has produced Torah scrolls with Beth El Congregation in Pikesville and Temple Oheb Shalom in Park Heights.

"We said, hold on, there is a way to do this," Druin explained. "It's really to give not just the experience of a monetary participation, but to get a spiritual involvement of really being a part of the action and getting that special moment of fulfilling that last commandment."

Calling their project V'Zot HaTorah -- "And this is the Torah" -- Beth Israel members are using the creation of the new scroll to raise money for what they hope will be a $1.2 million endowment to fund educational programs.

People are invited "to make a contribution to the community that will endure and allow other people to study this Torah -- to make it not just a book written on parchment but part of people's lives," said Rabbi Jonathan Berger, associate rabbi at Beth Israel.

"Having the Torah in the Ark, taking it out a few times a week, doesn't do that," he said. "It takes other programming and ideas and staffing and special speakers and things like that, which the endowment will provide."

A list of "V'Zot HaTorah dedication opportunities" suggests donations ranging from $18 to fill in a single letter to $360,000 to dedicate the entire scroll. Congregation members have been dedicating words and passages in celebration of special events or in memory of loved ones.

"Everybody is invited to participate," said Allen Cohen, congregation president. "Something like this can bring a congregation together."

Tradition holds that God revealed the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy to Moses 3,300 years ago, providing Jews with an understanding of their history as a people and laws by which to live in harmony with their God. Known also as the Pentateuch, the scriptures are sacred to Christians and Muslims as well.

For thousands of years, scribes have followed a complex set of laws to ensure that new Torah scrolls are kosher and true to the original text. The scripture must be copied by hand from an existing Torah, using only natural materials: a quill from a kosher fowl, ink made from plants and minerals, the parchment fashioned from the hide of a kosher animal.

The scribe must visit the mikvah, the ritual bath, before writing any of the Hebrew names for God. He may erase some mistakes, but if he errs in writing any of the names for God, that section must be buried and the scribe must start again. The process can take a year.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.