SAN DIEGO—Sometimes an individual Torah scroll can make nearly as great an impression on its reader as the first five Books of the Bible which are inscribed within it.
This happened at Congregation Beth Am, where for many years a Torah rescued from the Czech city of Roudnice was read by every bar/ bat mitzvah student within that Conservative congregation in a symbolic “twinning” ceremony for the children of Roudnice who perished at the Nazis’ hands before they could become b’nai mitzah.
So great was the feeling of connection that when Beth Am moved from its first home in Solana Beach to a new synagogue in Carmel Valley, it erected in its courtyard an arch that had been modeled after the only Jewish building left standing in Roudnice after the Holocaust. The arch pattern was repeated within Beth Am’s new synagogue building.
Not far away in the Carmel Valley section of San Diego, a campaign now is underway to create another Torah scroll to which people will feel a deep spiritual and emotional connection. San Diego Jewish Academy has commissioned a San Diego-based sofer, Alberto Attia, to write a Torah scroll in which SDJA students, faculty and staff—as well as the Jewish community at large—may have a role in creating.
Attia reports that the Torah is now almost 4/5th written en route to formal dedication ceremonies that will be conducted just prior to the holiday of Shavuot—celebrated on the Jewish calendar as the day that God gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. In 2009, Shavuot corresponds with the evening of Thursday, May 28, and day of Friday, May 29.
What is known as the Legacy Sefer Torah was begun last year as graduating SDJA seniors returned from their class trip to Israel. After sharing with the seniors some of the ritual requirements of writing a Torah, Attia advised the seniors that one letter of the Legacy Sefer Torah scroll would be inscribed in each student’s honor.
One by one, the students came up and put their hands lightly on the sofer's hand, shoulder, or arm as he carefully, painstakingly, wrote a letter in dark black ink onto the scroll made from the smooth, velvety underside of a kosher animal’s epidermis. That individual letter became the student’s letter, and should she or he so desire, the student forever after can find a copy of that letter in any Torah or prayer book reproduction of the Torah.
Rabbi Leslie Lipson, dean of Judaic Studies at SDJA’s Maimonides Upper School, said that by participating with Attia in fashioning a Torah letter, the students “fulfilled the mitzvah of writing a Torah,” which is considered a religious mandate for every observant Jew.
He said observers could see that the ceremony had an impact upon the students “when you watched the expression on their faces when they had just filled in a letter.”
The students “appreciate the idea that every letter is imbued with a sense of holiness, and it requires all these letters to do a sefer Torah,” Lipson said. “It strengthens their understanding that Hebrew is a holy language.”
Attia has coordinated closely with Lipson and with Debbie Kornberg, director of Judaic Studies for SDJA’s Golda Meir Lower School, on a range of activities intended to better acquaint the students of the school with the Torah and its traditions.
Of interest is the fact that Kornberg is the wife of Rabbi David Kornberg of Congregation Beth Am, the same congregation where the Roudnice Torah has made such an impact.
The Judaic Studies director said as a result of Attia’s lectures at the school, students “in every class, kindergarten-through-five, know how a Torah is made from animal skin into a parchment paper, how it is sewn up, how you make the ink, what are the tools you use, why you don’t use a pen, how a sofer prepares himself for a job, and what he must do before he inscribes the name of God onto the Torah.”
Before the Holy Name is written, the sofer goes to a mikvah (ritual bath) to purify himself. According to Attia, there are two practices: some soferim go to the mikvah each day before they start work, and therefore are able to write any of God’s names whenever they come to one in the course of their work. Others, like himself, go to the mikvah less often so leave in the Torah scroll spaces in which to backfill God’s name after they have taken the ritual bath. On such days, he said, many names of God may be filled in at a single sitting.
Kornberg said Attia has fascinated students with his tales of the Torah. For example, they were intrigued to learn that Hebrew letters were developed from what initially were little pictures. The “b” of Hebrew—Bet—originally looked like the “floor plan of a house” and it evolved. The dalet—or ‘d’ in Hebrew— “is a door.”
Another piece of information that Attia likes to share is that “the ink we use for writing a sefer Torah has to be jet black. It is so black that it gives off light, you can see the light glimmer off the letters. If someone were to write a Torah in designer colors—a green or a blue—it would not be kesher. Part of the reason is that when you mix colors, and put everything together, you get black. The amazing thing is that no matter
how much you add another color, black will stay black. So the message of this is that the Torah is eternal. Times may change, morés may change, but the message of the Torah (like the black ink) stays the same.”
Activities associated with the Legacy Sefer Torah project continue this weekend with “Torah Fun Day” to be held on the SDJA campus for current and potential preschool families.
“There will be numerous games dealing with the Torah,” said Kornberg. Preschoolers "will be decorating a wood-shaped Torah, decorating a cookie shaped like a Torah, shrink-a-dink Torahs that can be made into necklaces or magnets."
There also will be "a pretend Torah with a yad (pointer), which kids can pretend to be reading, and a Torah story corner. Also, a music teacher will be there with instruments mentioned in the Torah at ‘Miriam’s Music Corner’; there will be a tortilla torah, carnival games like ‘Pin the Yad on the Torah,’ and one big piece of butcher paper, in the shape of a rolled- out Torah, on which kids can put their handprints if they can’t write their own names.’
Every person in attendance will have the opportunity with Attia to write a letter, whether they are affiliated with San Diego Jewish Academy or not, said Kornberg. “We want to share this project with our community; it’s not just for our school.”
According to Attia, a Torah has 304,805 letters, so there are plenty to go around.
On March 16 and 17, Golda Meir Lower School students will have the opportunity to inscribe Torah letters with Attia at a ceremony to which their parents will be invited.
Even as last year’s graduating class had the opportunity to symbolically inscribe letters into the Torah, so to will this year’s class on April 2 prior to leaving on their trip to Israel.
Adult school students who attended classes on the Torah cosponsored by SDJA and the Agency for Jewish Education will get their turn on April 3 when Attia will be the speaker. Reflecting the school's Jewish pluralistic philosophy, those classes were previously instructed by Rabbi David Frank (Reform) of Temple Solel; Rabbi David Kornberg (Conservative) of Congregation Beth Am; Rabbi Menashe East of Kehillat Ahavat Yisrael (Orthodox) and Rabbi Lipson.
Additionally, Holocaust survivors who live in San Diego County have been invited to inscribe the Legacy Sefer Torah during a Holocaust remembrance ceremony on April 21.
The Legacy Sefer Torah has been the nucleus around which SDJA has been raising money to expand its Judaic Studies Department. The school set a goal for itself of a half million dollar endowment, according to Meg Goldstein, its development director.
Interested families were invited to become “Legacy” donors, and to choose among three levels of financial sponsorshi. Each level was some variant of 18, the number in Hebrew which also spells “chai” or life.
A minimum gift of $108,000 (that’s 18 times 6,000) entitled the donor family to be recognized as the sponsor of the entire Torah, with family member names to be inscribed inside the door that opens the tik (crown) of a silver Sephardic Torah case fashioned in B’nai Brak, Israel, similar to the one at the left.
A gifts of $36,000 (2,000 X Chai) sponsored one of the five books of the Torah, with the names of these donors listed on the tik's opposite door. Gifts of $5,400 (300 x Chai) sponsors one of the 54 parashot (reading portions) of the Torah. The Torah, its five books and at least 16 of the parashot already have been reserved, according to Goldstein.
The lead gift was made by Liz and Isaac Calderon, for whom the Jewish Studies Endowment Fund will be named, she added.
Rabbi Lipson said that the SDJA community made an “important statement, especially in this economic climate, to say that we want a Jewish Studies endowment.”
The rabbi said that the endowment fund would contribute to the cost of having teachers trained in various Jewish Studies curricula and to conduct research necessary to adapt the curricula to SDJA’s specific needs. Some faculty “would be able to take time in the summer to investigate the curriculum, and be trained in its use.”
The dedication of the Legacy Sefer Torah will culminate the fundraising campaign. Kornberg said that at 1 p.m. on Thursday, May 28, the new Torah in its beautiful silver casing will be marched under a chuppah onto the campus and that Sam Glazer, a well-known Jewish folk singer, will entertain for the occasion in the school’s new gymnasium.
That date will also mark San Diego Jewish Academy's 30th anniverary.