New scroll draws 325 witnesses

Congregation B'nai Shalom busily prepared for a new arrival.

Congregants baked. The chuppah was readied; the vestment was finished. The band was hired.

And Sunday's ceremony was better than a wedding.

On that day, five shofarim called 325 congregants together at the Walnut Creek synagogue to witness the final panel of parchments sewn and the final words of the new Torah completed.

"This doesn't happen very often," said Dianne Fohrman who, along with her husband, Marty, chaired the Torah committee. This was the first time in B'nai Shalom's 34-year history that it had commissioned a scribe to write a Torah. "The Torah is being written to replace the Holocaust Torah that is not able to be used," Forhman said. "It can't be repaired."

That Torah, rescued from a Czechoslovakian Jewish community that was destroyed during World War II, will go on display at the synagogue.

The process of getting a new Torah began more than a year ago with a fund-raising drive. No sooner was the project announced than a donor gave enough money for a new Torah, said Gordon Freeman, B'nai Shalom's rabbi. But money kept coming in, so the Torah committee earmarked it for adult education programs and repairs to the synagogue's other Torahs.

Then came the search for a scribe.

"It takes about a year to write a Torah," said Fohrman. "The local scribes didn't have time" to take on the project of writing the whole Torah.

But through a scribe in Los Angeles, they found a scribe in Israel who was available. Since the committee wanted to celebrate the beginning and end of the Torah-writing with special services, the L.A. scribe agreed to come to the Walnut Creek synagogue to write Beresheet, the first chapter of the Torah.

On Sunday the scribe returned with the Torah, which had arrived from Israel days earlier, for the completion ceremony. And everything was ready — new crowns for the scrolls, yad (pointer) and breast plate. Eva Vogel, a member of the committee, designed and made the Torah cover which, in appliquéd Hebrew letters bears the inscription, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

The service, Siyum HaTorah, Celebration of Completion, resembled a wedding. When the Torah was completed, congregants spontaneously began dancing. The procession, led by a klezmer band, carried the new Torah and the old one up the hill from the social hall to the sanctuary, according to Fohrman.

"The Torah very much fit with the symbolism of a wedding," she said, noting that there is no proscribed service for the dedication of a Torah. The Torah "will be married to the congregation and joining the other Torahs in the ark."

The ceremony began in the social hall with the writing of the concluding passages. Then the Torah was carried under a chuppah in a procession into the sanctuary along with the synagogue's other five Torahs. Following the service was a reception with singing and dancing to the klezmer band.

Fohrman described the ceremony last year when the Torah was started as very powerful.

"Shimon Kraft [the scribe from Los Angeles] held up the piece of parchment and walked around with it," said Fohrman. "It made the Torah real. People felt so connected. It was a very special time. People had tears in their eyes. It was overwhelming."

Freeman agreed.

"It was an amazing thing," said Freeman. "People in the congregation could feel the sacredness of the moment."

Since the Torah is so sacred, there are many laws governing the writing of a Torah and the sofer Torah (scribe) who writes it.

"The parchment must come from a kosher animal and is specially prepared," said Freeman. "Only a quill is used. The scribe has to be specially trained and writes every letter with kavanah [holy intention.] Like any artist [a scribe] feels he's an instrument of something flowing through him. It's a sacred act. He's writing the Torah on behalf of God. He must live a life that connects to the holy work he's doing."

Torahs are written in calligraphy. The ink is made from a special recipe, each line has a specified number of letters and accuracy is of paramount importance. Certain errors can render a Torah invalid. According to Fohrman, in addition to the scribe, two other people proofread each section of the Torah. And these days, modern technology is part of the formula — the Torah is scanned by computer for mistakes.

In the case of B'nai Shalom, members added another ingredient. They timed the arrival of their new Torah to coincide with Shavuot.

"It's when we originally got the Torah," said Fohrman.