Saturday, May 14, 2011

Local synagogue members come together to restore aging Torah scrolls 

A visibly nervous Rachel Pufahl placed her hand on the feathered quill just above the guiding hand of Rabbi Moshe Druin.

"I was feeling very emotional, very scared," she would later say of the once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Together, the Bakersfield woman and the bearded Torah scribe moved the point of the pen on the 150-year-old parchment, restoring a single Hebrew letter, one of 304,805 letters in the handwritten sefer Torah, the ancient Holy book of the Jewish people.

"Now you are fulfilling the final mitzvah of the Torah," Druin said in Hebrew and in English.

In the Jewish tradition, a mitzvah is both a commandment and a good work, and the event held Tuesday night at Congregation B'nai Jacob certainly qualified.

The small, conservative synagogue on 17th Street, adjacent to Mill Creek, has hired the Florida-based Druin to begin restoring all three of the synagogue's centuries-old Torah scrolls.

It's no small task as a single scroll can reach nearly the length of a football field when completely unrolled. All of the scrolls are of European origin, but each is different in age and the style of its script.

"If letters in the Torah are faded or smudged, it's considered non-kosher and can't be used during services," said Howard Silver, a longtime member and acting rabbi at B'nai Jacob.

But there's a deeper urgency and meaning behind the congregation's collective desire to save the scrolls for future generations. In a sense, these sacred texts have been witness to a panoramic history.

European Jews likely read from the oldest of the three even as America's founding fathers were conceiving a new nation that would welcome people of all faiths, even those who had endured centuries of religious strife and persecution.

Like the peoples who would carry them and protect them for future generations, the scrolls may have been present during forced relocations, pogroms or even the unprecedented tragedy of the Holocaust before they ultimately found their way to this quiet little congregation in Central California.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment," said B'nai Jacob congregant Aimee Rothkopf. "To hold the quill is a great honor."

Druin, the Torah scribe, also known as a sofer, said no errors are permitted in the painstaking restoration of the script.

"Not one," he said.

"It cannot have any added letters," he stressed. "It cannot have any fewer letters."

Druin's skill is well known, so much so that he is called upon to do this specialized work around the world. But one of the reasons he is sought after is because he leaves no ego, no trace of himself in his work.

"I am a glorified forger," he said, smiling. The style and integrity of the original script must be maintained.

Last year it was determined that the congregation's three Torah scrolls -- the oldest is thought to be about 240 years old -- were invalid for use in religious services due to the faded condition of the ink on the parchment. The congregation's board of directors decided to have the scrolls restored to a "kosher" status, a major undertaking, as each faded letter must be restored by hand using a quill dipped in an inkwell.

The cost is expected to be between $10,000 and $12,000, Silver said. Some restorations can take nearly a year, but Druin said he expected to complete the work in about 40 hours.

He compared the Torah to a computer.

"Take out one tiny chip -- or one letter in the case of the Torah -- and the makeup of either ceases to exist."

Fabian Glazer and his two sons, Gabriel, 15, and Spenser, 12, each participated in the restoration event.

The elder Glazer was only half-joking when he said afterward, "Now I can die because I have completed my final mitzvah."

With two young sons to care for, the proud father has every intention of being around for years to come. But his statement illustrates the tradition and significance behind the 613th mitzvah.

The Torah contains hundreds of commandments, and traditional Jews believe that at some point in their lives they must write in a Torah. A single letter is enough to fulfill that mitzvah.

As he listened to the parables and life lessons Druin provided to everyone who stepped forward, Glazer was amazed. Each story the rabbi told was different and was connected in some way to the letter each participant helped repair.

As young Spenser Glazer listened, the rabbi talked about the concept of repeating what you learn to benefit others, or "sharing the lesson of what it means to be Jewish."

"The purpose of what we are doing is not in the writing of it," Druin said of the Torah script. "It's what we do with it."

The Torah contains the first five books of Moses from the writings Christians refer to as the Old Testament -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

As a result, there's interest in the Torah among many local Christians, Silver said. He teaches a Torah class, and it's not unusual for members of prominent area Christian churches to attend.

But for Jews, the Torah seems to embody more than a religious blueprint.

The scrolls, robed with a piece of protective fabric, have been held in the arms of generations of worshippers. They cradle it, kiss it, dance with it and protect it.

As the Torah scribe continued his work, B'nai Jacob member Carol Schaefer pointed toward several old photographs hanging on the walls of the building showing young boys in the congregation who are now middle-aged men.

"This is my family away from home," she said, looking around the room. "We've been around for a very long time. We want to be here for many more generations to come."


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