Closeted in his apartment just off a bustling commercial strip, an intent young rabbi scratches quill pen on parchment. He is transcribing a Torah, Judaism's holy book, onto panels that will be sewn into a 180-foot Torah scroll. The task may take years.
Twenty-seven-year-old Rabbi Shlomo Naiman is copying a Torah the same way scribes have done for thousands of years, and the only way Jewish law permits. He must copy each of the Torah's intricate Hebrew letters exactly -- any error or deviation renders the Torah invalid.
There are fewer than a dozen Jewish scribes, or sofers, in this country, and very few of them have undertaken the arduous job of transcribing a Torah. Every synagogue has a hand-written Torah, but most were either brought here years ago by European immigrants or made by scribes in Israel.
The rabbinical college that commissioned it believes it is the only one ever written in Maryland.
In appearance and outlook, Naiman, an Orthodox Jew, seems to have been transported straight from the Old World, even in this ethnic, predominantly Jewish suburban enclave. But Naiman, an easygoing and unassuming man, is a third-generation Baltimorean who was reared within the close-knit society and rigid traditions of Orthodox Jewry.
"It's not a contradiction to live in America and be an Orthodox Jew," Naiman said during an interview at Ner Israel Rabbinical College here.
"Writing a Torah is old-fashioned, but the Torah is what we live our lives by," Naiman said. "This is real," he said, touching a parchment panel that will form part of the Torah scroll, "you don't need anybody to tell you this is Jewish. This is from God."
Naiman, who studies full time at Ner Israel, works on the Torah in his free time and during the summer months. The writing, done with black ink and a quill pen fashioned from a turkey feather, is tedious.
"That's putting it mildly," Naiman said. But, he added, it is a sacred and important task, one he has long wanted to do.
Naiman taught himself to write Hebrew and found he had a talent for the lettering, a skill much like calligraphy.
Last year he was asked by Ner Israel to transcribe a Torah commemorating the 50th anniversary in 1983 of the college's founding. The college has raised $750,000 for its general fund by offering members of the Orthodox Jewish community an opportunity to dedicate part of the book to the memory of relatives, and have plaques hung in their names at the college.
A Torah scribe must be intellectually suited to the task, not just artistically skilled, college officials said.
"It takes months to learn all the laws involved in Torah writing," said Naiman. There are myriad laws, for example, on how, and how often, imperfect letters can be erased. The scribe must be spiritually engaged in the writing as well, said Naiman.
"I can't just write letters in my sleep," he said. "That would invalidate the Torah. I have to have it intent in my mind that I am writing a Torah."
Naiman does the writing in a room set aside for that purpose in the apartment he shares with his wife and newborn daughter.
At Ner Israel, where he has received his training for the last 10 years, Naiman stands out as one of the best and brightest scholars.
Ner Israel, the only rabbinical college in the Mid-Atlantic region, is made up of a collection of modern buildings on a quiet country lane not far from Naiman's apartment and Pikesville's commercial strip.
Naiman and other Ner Israel students dress in the traditional, conservative style of Orthodox Jews, often in dark suits. All wear yarmulkes or broad-brimmed hats, and many have beards.
Naiman and about 600 other graduate and undergraduate students spend the better part of each school day gathered in a vast hall. There, as rabbinical students have done for centuries, they break up into pairs or small groups to study the Torah and engage in age-old debates on the Talmud, the book of Jewish law. The hall's din can be heard even outside the brick building.
Rabbi Leonard Oberstein, director of the teacher's institute at Ner Israel, believes there is a resurgence of interest in Jewish studies among young Jews. The Torah project, he said, is "a beautiful symbol of the whole rejuvenation of Judaism in America."
With about a quarter of the Torah completed, the work ahead of Naiman remains formidable. But, he said, he takes satisfaction in each small step forward. "Even though it's gigantic, even though I have a long way to go, every word is an accomplishment," he said.