Friday, January 18, 2002

Scribes connect faithful

Area congregations commission works

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Five-year-old Samantha Abel sat Thursday on the knee of Jewish scribe Neil Yerman at Rockdale Temple in Amberley Village.

[photo] Scribe Neil Yerman of New York shows his craft of Sefer Torah writing to Rockdale Temple members.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        “Hold it like you would a crayon,” Mr. Yerman told Samantha, and she wrapped her fingers around the quill of a turkey feather. Together, they wrote shin, a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and Samantha became a link in a tradition more than 2,000 years old.

        Although the 613th commandment of Jewish law requires followers to write a Sefer Torah — a scroll of the Torah on parchment — many Jews will never have the opportunity in their lifetimes.

        But coincidentally, two area congregations embark this month on the long and holy process of commissioning a Sefer Torah.

        “If there is anything in Jewish life historically and spiritually that links us together, it is the Torah,” says Rabbi Mark Goldman of Rockdale. “Though we are a small people on the face of the earth, the one precious link has been the Torah. To add another link is a testimony to our faith in God and to the miraculous survival of the Jewish people.”

        The process of writing a Torah is strictly governed by Jewish law. The parchment must be made from the skin of a kosher animal, such as a cow, goat or sheep. The animal must be healthy and fit, and the skin prepared by certain rules.

        The ink is specially prepared and cannot contain any sort of metal filings that would cause the writing to rust through the parchment, says Dr. David Gilner, director of libraries at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Clifton.

        Even the quill pen must be cut in a certain fashion before it can be used.

        Scribes trained in the art, such as Mr. Yerman of New York City, traditionally begin their days with prayer to center on the holy work. Before he writes one of the names of God, Mr. Yerman takes a ritual cleansing bath. If he makes an error writing a name of God, he must start over on a new section of parchment.

        The meticulous process of writing the 304,805 letters of the Torah can take up to a year. Often, much of the work is done in Israel. When completed, a medium-sized Torah unrolled is about the size of half a football field, Mr. Yerman says.

        Adath Israel Congregation, also in Amberley Village, decided last summer to honor the 10th anniversary of its leaders, Rabbi Irvin and Kathy Wise, by commissioning a Sefer Torah.

        The synagogue will hold educational programs Jan. 29-30, led by a Florida-based scribe. The congregation plans to dedicate the new Sefer Torah in a wedding-like ceremony in June.

        “Can you imagine any better gift if you're a rabbi and the congregation wanted to honor you?” asks Rabbi Wise. “I was touched. It's a gift that shows the greatest honor to us, and it's a gift that will be used immediately, in the present, and in generations to come.”

        At Rockdale on Thursday, Mr. Yerman wrote practice letters with Samantha and other children from the temple's nursery school. Later, members will have the opportunity to write with Mr. Yerman letters of the actual Torah.

        Founded in 1824, the synagogue has never before commissioned a Sefer Torah, says Rabbi Goldman.

        The congregation decided in December to launch the $80,000 commissioning project, both to fulfill the obligation and to unify members, says Gerry Korkin, a past president of the congregation.

        Members may have “different views of Reform Judaism,” he says. “But everybody believes in the Torah.”

        For member Steve Coppel, the project has particular resonance. His parents are Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the United States in 1949.

        “Nazis tried to crush our heritage and culture,” he says. “This is a connection to the villages, the synagogues and Torahs that were lost. To have a Torah to replace those is one more milestone, one more way of saying, "You won't be able to crush us. We're going to survive.'”


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