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Congregation Emanu-El has its own Torah scroll

by Virginia de Leon

The new Congregation Emanu-El begins its life with its own Torah scroll.

While members of the former Congregation Beth Haverim were dedicating the new Torah for their Oct. 24 Simhat Torah holiday for reading Torah,  Congregation Ner Tamid marked Simhat Torah by saying goodbye to the Torah they had on loan for five years from Temple Beth Shalom.

The Torah—parchment scrolls that contain the handwritten, Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses—is vital to Jewish spirituality and worship as a congregation, said Jessy Gross, the student rabbi for Emanu-El. The Torah is read aloud on Shabbat and during many Jewish observances.

Emanu-El torah Scroll
Congregation Emanu-El's Torah Scroll

Not every congregation has a scroll, she said. Some are old and illegible. They can be expensive, ranging in price from $10,000 to $100,000.

“The story isn’t about how a small congregation could raise the funds to buy a used Torah or the search in New York for a suitable scroll that’s legible and in reasonable repair,” said Karen Michaelson, a member of the congregation. “It’s about the centrality of Torah to Jewish life and what it means to a congregation to have its own Torah for worship.”

The Torah was obtained by Beth Haverim members Patti and John Barber, who undertook the search for a Torah.

The arrival of the congregation’s Torah this fall was symbolic for many members. Historically, Sukkot in October commemorates the 40-years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert.

To obtain a Torah denotes a certain permanence, said Jessy, who is preparing to become a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. It represents the congregation’s loyalty and faithfulness to each other.

“A Torah scroll is a symbol of community,” she said. “There is a level of commitment that is assumed. Having a Torah helps authenticate the affirmation that we are a Jewish community.

“It’s the same journey the Jewish people who received the Torah experienced. There has always been this notion that the Torah was the grounding component of their nomadic movement,” she said.

The Torah, as a representation of their Jewish faith, Jessy said, is treated with respect and reverence. When it is damaged or destroyed, a Torah is buried.

“The Jewish community treats the Torah like a person,” she continued, explaining that in a minyan, the congregational quorum required for public prayers, the Torah can count as the 10th person.

“The Torah is that communication between God and the Jewish people,” said Jessy, who spends one weekend a month in Spokane leading services and educational programs, and facilitating discussion among members.

During the Simhat Torah celebration, members rolled out the Torah scroll from beginning to end and made a circle around the members without letting it touch the ground.

Like other Torah scrolls, it is made of a kosher animal’s skin and written in Hebrew calligraphy.

Jessy said the work is a labor of love, created by a specially trained scribe with a quill and special ink. One mistake and the person has to start over. It takes about a year to complete a Torah scroll.

As a written document, the Torah can mean different things to people, Jessy explained.

“The Jewish community agrees that there is divine inspiration in everything in the Torah,” she said.  “Because there was human editing and human input in the document, progressive Jews believe on different levels that as we move into the 21st century, we need to be in dialogue with the Torah.”

Emanu-El’s Torah was written by a master scribe in Poland in the 1880s. Light-weight for a full-size Torah, it is considered in excellent condition. The writing on the natural parchment is dark and clear. It came to the United States before World War I.  The congregation bought it from the J. Levine Co., a family business in New York that has sold books and Judaica since 1890.