Opinion | Susan Knopf: Something sacred

It doesn’t happen every day. The last time it happened in Summit County was nearly 14 years ago.

That’s the last time Synagogue of Summit welcomed a Sefer Torah to the community. Now the congregation is welcoming a newly restored Torah estimated to be 130 years old. It’s a big deal.

The restorer, the scribe, Neil Yerman is in Summit County this weekend to teach about the sacred scroll, his work and the importance of the Torah; which comprises the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Pentateuch.

The scroll is mounted on two wooden dowels with handles called atzei chayim, which means Tree of Life. Yerman describes the sacred scroll as a “little Torah.” It weighs just 12 pounds, but when it’s unrolled the handwritten scroll of 304,805 letters unrolls to about 100 yards.

The scroll is unrolled liked that just once a year at Simchat Torah, a festival after the Jewish high holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Synagogue of Summit will celebrate Simchat Torah this fall at the old Leadville synagogue. Synagogue of Summit will loan their old Torah acquired in 2008, to Temple Israel in Leadville.

For the record, the synagogue’s former Torah was donated by Sinai Free Synagogue in Mount Vernon, New York, through a special friendship of founding member and long-time Dillon local Sue Payer with Charlie Baum. Charlie Baum was a member of the Mt. Vernon synagogue and his daughter, Vanessa, was Sue’s close friend here in Summit County. That’s what we call “Jewish geography.”

Silverthorne local Henry Barr is also a founding synagogue member. Founding members, as well as past leadership will be recognized at this weekend’s celebration. Past Rabbi Joel Schwartzman, who welcomed the previous Torah, and current synagogue Rabbi Ruth Gelfarb will join in the ceremonies welcoming the newly restored Torah to the community.  Welcoming the Torah requires circling the Torah seven times.

Yerman believes the Torah he restored for Synagogue of Summit was originally scribed in Ukraine, which was an important homeland for many American Jews. How it arrived in this country is not known. Yerman theorized the Torah could have made its way here after the Holocaust; alternatively a Ukrainian scribe may have scribed it for a U.S. relative, or brought it with him during migration.

The synagogue purchased the Torah from a Long Island congregation which merged with another synagogue that had “many, many Torahs,” according to Yerman. Yerman says while he was working on the Torah, he determined there were several styles of writing, but all in the classic style. He says it’s very easy to read.

Easy for him to say. The Torah is written without vowels. How would you like to read the King James Bible without a, e, i, o and u? Not that easy. But then I’m a pretty poor reader of Hebrew. I do better in Spanish.

Yerman says the “little Torah” is “beautiful … beautifully done,” despite the fact that several scribes have worked on it over the past century and half.  He says the Torah is “young!” He says a Torah can last a 1,000 years, if well cared for. Several Torah scrolls about that age are in existence.

A Torah is written on parchment. Yerman says the little Torah he is delivering is written on calf skin. It is stabilized on the back with a paint of calcium carbonate made by stewing the trimmings of calf skin. Under Jewish law nothing of the animal is to be wasted, discarded. Sounds like some good environmental teaching to me. (Did I mention I love my Lomi?)

Yerman says the 613th commandment of the Torah is to write a Torah, or teach someone to write a Torah. Members of Synagogue of the Summit will have a chance to do that. Yerman, a trained scribe, or sofer, will guide the hands of Jewish congregants as they complete faded, damaged letters in the sacred Torah. They will help complete the restoration.

Non-Jewish family members will also play a part, decorating the wimpel with Hebrew letters. The wimpel is a fabric belt used to hold the Torah scrolls snuggly. Yerman says tightly rolling the Torah, low humidity and safe storage all help to maintain the Torah.

Synagogue of the Summit president Margaret Gilbert says the wimple symbolizes how non-Jewish family members hold our families together.

The celebration will culminate with a free public event at noon on Sunday, July 24, at the Silverthorne Pavilion, located at 400 Blue River Parkway. The public is welcome to join in learning Israeli folk dancing and to parade the Torah joyously.

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