When Beth Shalom Synagogue resumed in-person services June 12, those who attended had extra cause for celebration — two of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls had returned as well.
The scrolls, each older than Beth Shalom itself, had been sent for restoration in January. By the time they were ready, the coronavirus had caused the suspension of public gatherings.
To commemorate its 75th year, Beth Shalom had raised $17,000 to restore the scrolls, which were in need of repair from the wear and tear of use.
“We couldn’t think of a better way to use this fundraising that we enlisted for our 75th than to use that to make sure this would be a lasting legacy for future generations in the synagogue than to restore them to top shape,” said Natan Trief, rabbi at Beth Shalom.
Sofer on Site, a company in North Miami Beach, Florida, restored the scrolls and evaluated their origins. It estimated that one of the scrolls originated in the former Czechoslovakia and is about 120 years old; the other scroll is from Germany and is about 90 years old.
The scrolls contain the first five books of the Bible. In keeping with biblical directions and tradition, each is made by an elaborate process. Torah scrolls may only be written on parchment made from the skin of kosher animals. A scribe writes the 304,805 Hebrew letters in black ink by hand with a feather or reed pen, a process that can take months. The parchment sheets are sewn together to form one long scroll. Only scrolls made by this process are considered kosher, or acceptable to Jewish law.
“You’re physically able to read from it, but the spiritual meaning is … much more important,” Trief said. “Jews view these Torah scrolls as very sacred. They contain not only the word of God as revealed thousands of years ago, but they also teach us wisdom to live our lives now."
When Torahs fall into disrepair — stained, faded words, loosened stitching and seams — they are no longer kosher, Trief said.
To restore them, a scribe uses the same methods used originally to copy them.
“If we don’t value the divine image that we see in those scrolls and uphold them and treat them as carefully as possible, it reflects very poorly on us and we’re not fulfilling that partnership that we have with God to be a treasured people, to really live by the precepts that are written within those lines,” the rabbi said.
The restored scrolls are among six used at Beth Shalom. They are taken out and read during weekly services and at other celebrations.
“We view these scrolls with great reverence and great care, and yet, it’s called the Tree of Life, so we want it to be a vibrant and active part of synagogue life,” Trief said. “When Jewish children become young adults at age 12 or 13, one of the big rituals is they’re called up to the scroll and in some ways simulate this amazing act of revelation at Mount Sinai thousands of years ago where the Torah was actually given. So, we want them to hold it. We want them to engage with it.”
The restoration process took several weeks, but Trief had Sofer on Site hold on to the scrolls until it became apparent that Beth Shalom was ready to resume regular services.
“Whenever a Torah scroll is introduced or reintroduced into a Jewish community, it’s viewed as an act of rebirth,” Trief said. “It’s viewed as making good on this eternal promise that we have … from generation to generation. Now, we’re marking 75 years, but even as we mark and remember the 75 years that we’ve been through, that’s not the important thing.
“The important thing is that we’re around for 75 more years to really instill this love of Judaism and the values that help us to lead lives of meaning and lives of deep partnership with God. That’s what the Torah represents. It’s not about us. It’s about having these refurbished scrolls to give to the next generation.”