Beth David celebrates double-chai birthday with a new Torah

After 36 years, it's time for a new Torah at Saratoga's Congregation Beth David.

"The congregation wanted to find a meaningful way to celebrate our double-chai anniversary," said Rabbi Daniel Pressman. "We wanted something permanent that would involve the whole community, so we decided on a new Torah rather than going the usual dinner-dance route."

The first step toward creation of the new scroll, which will cost about $30,000, took place in front of about 150 people June 27 in a kickoff ceremony at the 650-household Conservative synagogue. After the morning minyan, Rabbi Shmuel Miller of Los Angeles described the process of preparing the parchment and inscribing the Torah. He then wrote the first words of Genesis onto the parchment.

Miller, the project leader, will arrange for a sofer, or scribe, in Israel to copy the Bible by hand at the approximate rate of one column per day. The synagogue is planning a contest to send a congregant to Israel and accompany the Torah back to Saratoga when it is completed next year, according to Doris Katz, co-chair of the New Torah Project.

Miller is acting as agent between Beth David and the sofer, Katz said, because he has worked with the congregation in the past, repairing Torahs and valuing them for insurance purposes. Miller, a professional sofer for 17 years, will ink the final words in another ceremony at the synagogue on June 11, 2000, according to Pressman.

Commissioning a new Torah "seemed like the right thing to do," said congregation President Margie Pomerantz, who proposed the idea last December. "I've been e-mailing Conservative presidents around the country for feedback and they have told me stories of their members going to the airport for a ceremony when the Torah arrives from Israel, or performing wedding ceremonies where the synagogue and the Torah are married under the chuppah. We haven't finalized our plans yet but so many people have already rallied around this project."

While the scroll will not be completed until next year, the congregation is planning to spend the next 12 months educating itself in preparation for the new Torah. In addition to joining Beth David for the opening and concluding inscriptions of the scroll, Miller will come in January for a "hands-on" Torah study day with music and learning stations for children and adults.

The education will continue in March with a scholar-in-residence program featuring Rabbi Burton Visotzky, a professor at Jewish Theological Seminary who helped start the Bill Moyers' Genesis series and was a Jewish advisor for the film "Prince of Egypt." He will speak in the temple's Community Lecture Series and join the congregation for Shabbat.

"The purpose of the committee is not only the new Torah, but also to provide plenty of opportunities for every group in the synagogue to study the Torah," said Katz. "Our intent is for everyone to be involved in the education process, and other groups in the synagogue such as the Men's Club and the Sisterhood are planning to focus on Torah education programming as well this year."

Miller presented several styles of calligraphy for the inscription. "The letters are always the same, but each congregation chooses a style according to different traditions," he said. "Every Torah I have inscribed is unique because every congregation has a unique relationship to its Torah. The differences are subjective, not objective."

The congregation chose an oriental Sephardic style because it is a larger lettering which the new parchment can easily accommodate, according to Pressman.

"Our older scrolls were not originally written for us and they were big and heavy because the European synagogues that made them could not get the best parchment," Pressman said. "The new Torah is the same size as the old ones but it will be lighter and more readable, and it will be our most frequently used Scroll."

Although a sofer will inscribe the parchment by hand, the scroll will be scanned into a computer for proofreading.

"I think the younger generations can relate to that technology, living in Silicon Valley," Pomerantz said. "One of our main goals is to get the kids in the religious school involved in this project because this is the Torah they will read from for their bar-bat mitzvahs. There has also been a suggestion that kids will be able to buy a letter in the Torah for $1.80 so they can feel connected to the congregation and the Torah."

Fund-raising for the project will begin in December.

"Fund-raising is important but the first six months of the project will be dedicated to education because the primary reason for the new Torah is to bring the congregation together," Pomerantz said. "But there is a lot of ruach for the project and people have started planning to buy the b'nai mitzvah parashahs."

The new scroll will complement sanctuary renovations that began in 1996 with construction of a new ark. The next upgrades will be a new parochet, or ark curtain, and stained-glass windows, according to Pressman.

"We're not done working on the sanctuary yet," Pressman said. "Everybody loves the new ark, but it has room for another scroll."