Jewish Journal


May 6, 2004

New Torahs Mark Holiday Celebration


Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the receiving of the Torah, will be honored this month with special tributes by two area congregations. Figuring prominently is the holiest of all Jewish books, but each event has its own twist.

In a coming-of-age rite by one of the county's youngest congregations, members of Congregation Kol HaNeshamah will dedicate their first Torah, a 150-year-old scroll with still-pristine script, along with the official presentation of their charter into the 900-congregation Union of Reform Judaism (URJ). The service will be held May 25 in Irvine's Bommer Canyon Park.

Out of frugality and by conscious choice, the congregation's 33 families convene for worship and religious school mostly in rented Irvine public park facilities. Its part-time rabbi, Raphael Goldstein, commutes from San Diego once or twice a month for services and holiday observances. Since the group's founding three years ago, after the implosion of another small congregation, they have made do with a scroll lent for special occasions by Westminster's Temple Beth David.

"For us, it's been a godsend," said Howard A. Goldman, who is co-president with his wife, Pat.

As need arises, they keep the borrowed scroll in their Irvine home and ferry it back to Westminster for safekeeping. Goldman, also a religious school teacher, said lacking the Bible's first five books in scroll form meant his students often felt insufficiently prepared for b'nai mitzvah. Often, he said, they would first see the vowel-free, calligraphy version of their Torah portion on the day they were expected to read to the congregation.

Kol HaNeshamah's scroll was purchased at an antiquities book fair in Los Angeles with the aid of Rabbi Haim Asa, of Fullerton. Its calligraphy is in Arizal script, the most common style among Eastern European scribes.

"It's ornate and artistic, with very nice flourishes. This was clearly a master," Goldman said of the scribe.

Given a culture self-described by Goldman as "do-it-yourself Judaism," fittingly two members volunteered to customize the Torah's trappings.

Terry Kokin, a Costa Mesa carpenter, is making the scroll's two wooden dowels, etz chaim, Hebrew for "tree of life."

Elizabeth Barak, a pharmacist and artist from Irvine, is working with Roberta Lange to design and execute a velvet cover, though they have yet to settle on a theme. Only its inscription is already agreed on: "It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it."

Presenting the charter is Rabbi Linda Berthenthal, assistant director of the URJ's Pacific Southwest Region. Deciding to remain a family-style congregation means members "value intimacy as one of their primary values," said Berthenthal, describing Kol HaNeshamah's size and service frequency as similar to other congregations of 50 or fewer families.

Initial objections to the group's inclusion in the Reform movement, raised last year by other congregations, were amicably resolved, Goldman said.

"They'll give us professional guidance, specialists in Hebrew school, everything imaginable in Judaism," he said.

Also in the weekend preceding Shavuot, congregants of Santa Ana's Temple Beth Sholom will also prepare for the holiday by witnessing the first ink strokes of a new Torah undertaken by scribe Neil Yerman on May 23. Torat Sholom -- Torah of Peace -- is to honor the congregation's 60th year and its rabbi, Shelton J. Donnell. After 13 years, he intends to make a permanent move to Jerusalem next year.

In a letter written in April, congregation president, Sylvan Swartz said, "Just as forward-thinking people created Temple Beth Sholom 60 years ago, we are creating something that will last for many years to come. Just as we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, Torat Sholom will be our loving legacy to new generations."

Yerman is one of only 60 sofers, or Torah scribes, in the United States -- there are an estimated 300 worldwide. When agreeing to create a Torah, Yerman, 55, strives to help others also fulfill the 613th commandment from Deuteronomy: "And now write for yourselves these words, and teach them to your children."

The sages consider completing even one letter as discharging the duty.

Before supporting the hands of congregants putting quill to parchment, though, Yerman endeavors to summon a contemporary connection with Jews of antiquity by explaining the art, technique and spirituality of the scribe's ancient tradition. Such a yearlong task of writing the Torah's 304,805 letters can cost a synagogue $80,000, and Yerman plans periodic visits to Beth Sholom.

Strict rules guide a Torah's reproduction. There are to be no mistakes in the scroll, which nowadays is often proofread by a computer after completion. Ink is made from the crushed outer bark of a wasp's nest, a quill made from a turkey or goose feather and parchment made from a calf killed for food.

A former Wall Street commodity broker who loved to scribble as a child, Yerman began his second career in 1987. "I spend a great deal of time every day writing with a feather and thinking about things that seem to have no connection with modern life," he said in a 1999 interview.

To learn more the Kol HaNeshamah event, call (949) 551-2737. For more information on the Beth Sholom Torah, call the temple office at (714) 628-4600.

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