University Synagogue has embarked on the journey of creating a Sefer Torah. “The creation of a new Torah for our congregation is a wonderful step in our evolution as a community, and a continuing and lasting symbol of our desire to embody L’dor V’dor — passing along all that we are from generation to generation,” according to literature from the Irvine-based Reconstructionist congregation.
During the year, every member of University Synagogue has had the unique opportunity to take a quill in hand, guided by the Sofer/Scribe, Neil Yerman, and participate in the mitzvah of inscribing a letter in the Torah. In addition, members of the congregation, of all ages, have participated in a wide variety of learning activities and special events throughout the year. The underwriting associated with this project provides critically needed support for all University Synagogue programs.
Sue Penn, director of education, and Heidi Kahn, preschool director, of University Synagogue, have come up with a fun way to raise funds that will allow every family to write in the new community-written Torah. In a campaign to “climb Mount Sinai,” if a family collects 20 tax deductible donations of $18 each, family members would have the opportunity to write in the Torah.
“Torah doesn’t mean ‘law,’ but rather ‘guide’ or ‘teaching,’” explained Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, spiritual leader of University Synagogue. “In the absence of a land of our own for 2,000 years, the study of Torah became the bond that held the Jewish people together throughout the world.”
Rabbi Rachlis added, “The Talmud tells us to ‘study the Torah again and again, for everything is contained in it.’ The phrase ‘Torah study’ often applies to more than the five books. It comprises ethics, education, religion, and justice. “According to the Talmud, ‘everyone should study Torah, poor and rich, healthy and ill, young and old,’ because it is our Tree of Life.”
Natalye Black and her husband, Howard, have underwritten the Book of Exodus. She said, “I had no idea what a profoundly moving and touching experience it would be.” Black was “originally blasé” about the prospect of writing a letter in the new Torah. She was surprised at the depth of feeling she experienced.
Black said that she was struck by the imagery and context that the scribe, Neil Yerman, provided. “He said that each letter in the Torah represents all those alive today, all the people who have lived before us, and every person who will be born. It made me feel that I was participating in an eternal process of living Judaism. I was literally part of the continuity of the Jewish people. Young people will not forget an experience like this,” she said.
In addition to her connection to her own family, Black felt strong ties to the Jewish community at University synagogue. “It was an affirmation of everything I believe in: the synagogue community, the inclusiveness here, and the importance of the journey, the process of Judaism.”
Black has urged other to participate in this “spiritual privilege.” She said, “The emotion and meaning of this experience would crash through the hardest most cynical heart.”
Like his wife, Howard Black also felt connected to the past and the future. “When my hand was there writing, I realized that thousands of years ago, someone was doing the exact same thing, in exactly the same way. And three thousand years from now someone else will be doing the exact same thing in the same way.” He spoke of this connection to the past and future as “a miracle.” In his mind resonated the Hebrew word hineni, which means “Here I am,” and he thought about his ancestors, his children and his grandchildren all being present with him in the moment.
“I’ve read the Torah before,” Black said, “but it didn’t have that meaning of continuity and community until I was actually writing a letter.”
Myra Wiener related that writing in the Torah was very different than she expected, and the experience definitely exceeded her expectations. “I felt overwhelmed. From the moment we stepped on the bima until it was over, I was in a different capsule. I didn’t think it would have such an impact.”
When she stood on the bima and saw the faces of the congregation, Wiener said, “The people were suspended in time. There was a hush — a quiet in the crowd. Our members are into this. I can see it means a lot to both adults and kids. Everyone was starstruck. I saw the kids transformed.” Wiener thinks it will be “really good for our congregation to see everyone supporting such an important project.”
She was particularly happy about the impressive feeling she got from this project “happening in our own home — our sanctuary – our place of worship. It is truly a very special experience, especially here.”
After joining his wife Myra and four other synagogue members in writing the first word of our new Torah, Lou Wiener described the experience as “awesome.”
“I’ve heard the word Bereshit a million times,” he said. “But this time, it was different. It had to do with me — it was a very personal feeling. I felt connected with posterity; this new Torah will be here for a thousand years.”
Wiener reported that as he formed the letter, he reflected on his own Jewish journey. “I thought about my life and my work, about first learning about Reconstructionism and then becoming a Jew.” Although born Jewish, Wiener said that he only first felt Jewish once he had studied the Reconstructionist approach. A major benefactor of the synagogue, Wiener said he thought about his philanthropy and his work on behalf of Reconstructionism culminating in that moment of writing in the Torah.
He also felt a connection to his whole family. “There are 27 living members, he said, all active Jews.”