The Jewish community is like a Torah scroll, the rabbinic leader known as the Baal Shem Tov is believed to have said. As a living embodiment of Judaism’s most sacred text, every person is a letter.
On the eve of the Jewish New Year, which begins Sunday at sunset, members of a Jewish community in Montgomery County recently lined up to write their own letters in the scroll as they dedicated their young congregation’s first Torah.
“This Torah is our soul,” said Gordon Fuller, the rabbi at the congregation, called Shirat HaNefesh.
Ramón Tasat, the cantor, said: “As clergy, you want to have a purpose, and that purpose is to inspire people that are looking for something richer than the commonality of everyday life. . . . Our intention is that this Torah would be a catalyst for the continuous increase in spirituality for the community.”
To Tasat, that means that the Torah will be in use — so on Saturday, when the congregation debuted the Torah at a service that also ushered in the High Holy Day season, congregants interacted with the Torah as a living document. They inscribed it, discussed it, dressed it in finery and danced with it.
“I don’t like when I go to a museum and I see a Torah behind glass. I find it sad. I want it to be read. I want people to discuss it. I want kids to find the treasures that are in it,” Tasat said. “We don’t want this to become an amulet.”
Shirat HaNefesh was established in 2008 by about 30 families who were frustrated that their Chevy Chase synagogue, Temple Shalom, had decided to remove two clergy members, according to Karen Schlesinger, a leader in starting the offshoot congregation.
The congregation, which is not affiliated with a Jewish denomination, quickly grew to more than 80 families. It raised funds to refurbish the room in a North Chevy Chase church where it holds its worship services. It held its first bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies and religious school classes.
“It turned into something really special. It’s more committed. It’s more spiritual. It’s beautiful, really,” Schlesinger said.
But Shirat HaNefesh did not have a Torah of its own — the parchment scroll on which the five books of Moses are written by hand with a quill pen in intricate Hebrew lettering. When the Shirat HaNefesh clergy had chanted from the biblical text at every Sabbath service, they read from a scroll borrowed from another Jewish group.
Schlesinger said the new Torah is a milestone: “To me, it’s like we arrived.”
As part of the congregation’s celebration of the new Torah, several members spoke about their personal Jewish journeys. The Torah now in their midst, they knew, had gone on a journey of its own.
The scroll can tell some of its story: Experts who examined it for Shirat HaNefesh said it was created in Germany about 150 or 160 years ago.
What happened in between, however, is something of a mystery. Someone must have removed it from Germany before the Nazis came to power. Some time — in the 1950s or maybe later — it was acquired by a congregation in Chicago.
That congregation was co-founded by the grandfather of Roanne Pitluk, Tasat’s wife. A year ago, Pitluk heard that the Chicago congregation was changing from a synagogue to a school and did not need this Torah anymore.
Pitluk and Tasat bought it as a gift for Shirat HaNefesh. At $1,200, she said, it was an incredible price — a Torah in usable condition generally costs tens of thousands of dollars.
Tasat and Pitluk hired professional scribe Jeffrey Shulevitz to repair the Torah. But they did not leave all the work to the expert. The entire congregation threw itself into welcoming the new text.
Seven members spent weeks sewing a shining new mantle to cover the yellowed Torah scroll for the High Holy Day season, when the Torah is traditionally draped in a white cover to symbolize purity.
The community paraded the Torah into the parking lot Saturday, where they danced around it while singing uplifting melodies. They sang “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” a song in Hebrew and Arabic that promises “peace will come.” They sang “Am Yisrael Chai” — “the people of Israel live.”
They took turns holding the heavy object — about 3
Twenty-five congregants took calligraphy classes from Shulevitz so they could write the words of the Torah themselves. On Saturday night, Shulevitz scraped off the last few words in the scroll and the participants wrote them in, nervously bringing quill to sheepskin.
If each Jew is a letter, Shirat HaNefesh was a complete alphabet on Saturday.
Pitluk wrote an elongated letter, resh, in the Torah she acquired, drawing a whoop of praise from Shulevitz.
Schlesinger wrote the letter shin with the quill, declaring the experience “totally awesome.”
“I practiced a lot,” she said. “You’ve never seen so many shins in your life.”
Her friend Fran Levin high-fived her, teasing, “She had pages and pages and pages of shins.”
Levin wrote the letter hey. She said that in older times, a person would add the Hebrew abbreviation stam on the end of his name to signify that he was a writer of Torahs. She said her maiden name, Israelstam, indicates that one of her ancestors was a Torah scribe.
When she connected to that past by writing her own letter in the scroll, she felt a “zing,” she said.
Nan Wellins, the president of the synagogue, said that for her wedding, she wrote out her own ketubah, a Hebrew marriage contract. But although that handwritten project took her 40 hours, writing just one letter in the Torah left her awe-struck.
“We’re writing in a book that’s been our book for thousands of years,” she said. She marvels every week as she hears the same Hebrew words her forefathers heard. “Our ancestors were reading this. It’s really an ordinary, transcendent experience every Shabbat.”
Before 11-year-old Lev Hurlburt, the youngest person in the calligraphy class, took his turn with the quill pen, he proudly announced that he knew the last and the first letters in the Torah: “Lamed! Bet!”
“The Torah is my name!” he declared. Because together, the last and the first letters — the letters that encompass more than 300,000 letters in between — spell LEV.
Lev wrote a vav — his very own letter in the ongoing scroll of tradition.