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Congregation Chofetz Chayim celebrates writing of new Torah

Rabbi Israel Becker claps to the music as Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild carries Congregation Chofetz Chayim’s newly written Torah scroll to be welcomed by men holding the congregation’s existing Torah scrolls. (Rogelio Garcia)
Rabbi Israel Becker claps to the music as Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild carries Congregation Chofetz Chayim’s newly written Torah scroll to be welcomed by men holding the congregation’s existing Torah scrolls. (Rogelio Garcia)

“We are all here today to witness the birth of a new sefer Torah,” said scribe Rabbi Zvi Chaim Pincus of New York, to 150 men, women and children gathered in the courtyard of Congregation Chofetz Chayim on Sunday, Sept. 14 to celebrate the completion and dedication of the first Torah scroll to be written specifically for the congregation. Pincus sat at a table under a ramada, the unfinished Torah, quill and ink in front of him. On another table were spread four embroidered Torah mantles.

Pincus shared the story of a trip to Philadelphia, where he confirmed the legendary tale of the Declaration of Independence being written with the same ink that is used to write Torah scrolls. The founding fathers chose this formula because it had proven to stand the test of time on parchment.

“This is your sefer Torah, your mitzvah. If a person writes one letter in the Torah, it is as if they wrote a whole sefer Torah,” he said, adding with chuckle, “Now they tell me.”

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild had the honor of completing the first letter that was left unfinished. He recited the blessing over writing a Torah scroll, while Pincus filled in the letter mem and joked that it stood for “mayor” and “mazel tov.” Rothschild was followed by members of the congregation, the community, donors and other honorees, who each fulfilled the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah.

Special guests included a contingent of students from Yeshiva High School of Arizona and head of school Rabbi Gavriel Goetz, who drove down from Phoenix for the celebration.

Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona President and CEO Stuart Mellan, left, with the scribe, Rabbi Zvi Chaim  Pincus, who was completing the last letters of the new Torah scroll for Congregation Chofetz Chayim. (Rogelio Garcia)
Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona President and CEO Stuart Mellan, left, with the scribe, Rabbi Zvi Chaim
Pincus, who was completing the last letters of the new Torah scroll for Congregation Chofetz Chayim. (Rogelio Garcia)

Everyone who had not already been called up was invited to say the blessing as Pincus completed the word “kol” (everything) in a gesture of inclusion.

Rothschild carried the Torah under a chuppah (wedding canopy) held by Harrison and Daniel Jacobs, Benjamin Badalov and Caleb Nochumson, as the Torah was escorted through the courtyard with music and dancing. As the procession neared the entrance to the synagogue, four men carried the existing Torah scrolls out from the sanctuary to welcome the new Torah with dancing and singing.

Rabbi Israel Becker later shared the history behind the smallest of these scrolls with the AJP. “That small Torah was found by an American soldier in the ruins of a Berlin synagogue and given to my father, of blessed memory, immediately after World War II. My parents brought this Torah with them to America when they left Europe in 1948, following the Holocaust. Congregation Chofetz Chayim was founded with this Torah, and the Torah was pictured on the front page of the Arizona Daily Star’s lifestyle section on Sept. 29, 1979.”

Once inside the synagogue, the original Torahs were returned to the ark and the new scroll was placed on a table for completion.

Rothschild talked about the importance of this shul for the community, as he remembered the dedication of the synagogue building 30 years ago. “Rabbi Becker’s gift is a deep knowledge of the Torah, but also the ability to communicate the message of the Torah to everyone,” he said. “I can’t wait to see what the next 30 years hold for this congregation.”

Becker called up Renee and Jonathan Gutman to complete the second to last letter in honor of Renee’s father, the late Paul Hoffert, who Becker said  embodied the ideal of living Jewishly all day, every day.

Becker’s son, Rabbi Mendel Becker, introduced the writing of the last letter. Mendel flew in from New York, where he is the founder and director of the Long Island Torah Network, to represent the Beckers’ children. “We all grew up in the Torah community of Tucson.” He said that the new sefer Torah has been 35 years in the making, and he recounted the effort, emotion and passion that his parents invested in the Torah and in the community. He then invited all of the children present, “the future of the Jewish people,” to join Rabbi and Esther Becker in writing the final letter of the Torah.

Pincus noted that the last word in the Torah is “Yisrael” (Israel), which begins with the smallest letter in the alephbet (the Hebrew alphabet), and ends with the tallest. “We each start small and become great,” he said.

The sofer, or scribe, then summed up the emotional intensity of completing the Torah. “I have tears in my eyes, a lump in my throat, and shivers up my spine. And I’ve done this many times, Rabbi.”

Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona President and CEO Stuart Mellan said, “We understand that this is greater than the Beckers’ leadership and the sofer’s beautiful work. This day is about community.” He quoted the poet Benjamin Mandelstamm, “A human being is like a letter of the alphabet: to produce a word, it must combine with another.” Every letter of the Torah is needed for it to be complete, just as we need every person to build a community.

Before the Torah scroll was placed in the ark, Becker said, “May all of you experience Torah through joy and learning.” The evening continued with dancing, singing and a festive meal.

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a feature writer and editor living in Tucson. She can be reached at nancy_ [email protected]