Torah scrolls from the New York area are writing new chapters in the lives of Israeli soldiers and of a struggling Ethiopian congregation in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh.
From the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI), which has donated dozens of Torah scrolls over the years, to the East Midwood Jewish Center, which made its maiden Torah run two weeks ago, this is the summer of the celebratory dance with Torah held high, a trans-Atlantic act of kindness, many times over.
Earlier this month, Young Israel in what has become a tradition for the group, flew three Torah scrolls to Israel with its new summer learning program, Touray Tanach, to be delivered to the IDF for use on army bases and in the field.
The three Torahs are the most recent additions in a long line of Torah donations by the group over the past seven years. Since May 2001, when it first began providing Israeli soldiers with access to Torah scrolls, NCYI has donated more than 150 Sifrei Torah to the IDF Rabbinate.
“The army doesn’t have the finances to provide every small group with [its] own Torah scroll,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, NCYI’s executive director. “So you can have soldiers — religious soldiers — who come Monday, Thursday and Shabbos and have no Torah to read from.”
Two weeks ago, as the 16 participants on the brand-new Touray Tanach — a summer-long high school boys’ program that combines Torah learning, sports and touring Israel — gathered at JFK Airport before their flight, they had an impressive sendoff.
After speeches by NCYI Chief Operating Officer Rabbi Chaim Leibtag and Rabbi Shalom Steinig of the Young Israel of Bayside, the group danced with the Torah in The International Synagogue at JFK.
Rabbi Ari Cutler, the director of Touray Tanach, said that the effort “is the exact message of the inauguration of our program — the idea of taking boys from America and not only taking boys but taking something and coming to the State of Israel — to take the Torah and show how it is relevant today.”
Rabbi Lerner has been working closely throughout the campaign with Lt. Col. Rabbi Yedidya Atlas, the rabbi of the IDF Ground Forces Command, who receives the Sifrei Torah and oversees their use.
Rabbi Atlas has all the Torahs checked for damage and errors.
“In recent years the army rabbinate has developed a Sofrim [scribes] department in the IDF Rabbinate’s main base in Israel,” he said.
The department not only checks new Sifrei Torah, but is frequently called upon to repair current ones, since, as Atlas points out, “an army Sefer Torah is not in normal condition … Here you have Sifrei Torah that get bounced around with the troops when they go in the field,” whichresults in a frequent need for repairs.
Once they are checked, the Sifrei Torah, like all IDF property, are “given a stamp and a number,” and then each unit will sign out a Torah when necessary.
“We have to keep enough Sifrei Torah so everyone can have at least one and keep an emergency stock for call-up — for example during the Second Lebanon War 30,000 soldiers were called up and they needed Sifrei Torah.”
Rabbi Atlas said that at least 50 percent of the reservists called up were religious and that a large percentage of soldiers are religious, especially in the elite and combat units. “There is a great deal of Jewish awareness that is growing in the army,” he added. “You’re defending your nation and your land … their personal observance is almost secondary to their commitment and their belief.”
The three Torah scrolls that were donated this month came from the Young Israel of Sunnyside, the Young Israel of Bensonhurst and a donor in New Rochelle.
While this marks the 157th time that NCYI will be assisting in the donation of a Torah scroll to the IDF, this is a first for the East Midwood shul, which is Conservative.
The Center is currently on a 25-person tour of Israel, led by its cantor, Sam Levine, and president, Gail Hammerman.
The group will be touring sites throughout the country, including Congregation Be’er Avraham in Beit Shemesh, a synagogue that serves many Ethiopian immigrants.
The idea for this venture began last July, when Sanford Goldhaber, vice president of the shul, visited the synagogue and met with its rabbi, Amir Abraham.
“I was really pleasantly surprised — the municipality of Beit Shemesh had given this congregation a double-wide trailer,” he said. “I met the rabbi, who was ordained by one of the most distinguished rabbis in Israel, and he was continuing his postgraduate studies in philosophy at Bar Ilan University and there were also two chazzanim in the congregation.”
But things were still lacking in the small shul. “They had a problem on Shabbos and Monday and Thursday when the Torah is read,” Goldhaber explained.
“They had to go to somebody else’s synagogue because they had no Sefer Torah. And their chances of getting the money together to buy a Sefer Torah … were practically nonexistent.”
Goldhaber said that the members of the shul were “struggling economically,” many holding “menial jobs” just to get by.
When Goldhaber returned to New York he approached the board of the synagogue, and its members voted to go forward with a Torah donation. Over the years, synagogues in the surrounding area have closed and merged with the EMJC, resulting in a surplus of Sifrei Torah in the synagogue. Therefore the shul was able to spare one to send overseas.
And on July 7, the scroll was donated to Be’er Avraham amidst a great celebration. The 24 EMJC members sat down to a traditional Ethiopian meal, followed by speeches and entertainment, culminating in the celebratory march of the Sefer Torah to the synagogue.
“As American Jews we take for granted what it is to have a community and the things that it takes,” said Cantor Levine. “It was really an eye-opening event.”
The EMJC will also be donating a brand-new Torah cover to the synagogue with its name embroidered on it, said Hammerman.
“We just hope this will give the community a lift and morale boost,” said Goldhaber. “It’s a very difficult absorption process for them.”