Chabad welcomes new Torah with parade through San Rafael

As Chabad of Marin paraded its new Torah through San Rafael's Lucas Valley neighborhood on Sunday, a joyous 4-year-old Maxwell Halpern kissed the scroll not once, but twice. Adorned with a crown he had made for the occasion, Maxwell also carried a handmade scroll.

"He just smiled the whole time," said his mother, Marna Halpern, an active Chabad participant who is a member of Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. "Although I don't know if he understood the complete significance of the day, I do think he understood that something special was happening connected to the fact that he's Jewish."

While Maxwell may be too young to grasp the full significance of Sunday's celebration, for Chabad it's well understood. Acquiring a new Torah is considered a mitzvah, uniting Jews with their ancestors and with traditions dating back to Moses.

"Every Torah written is a reflection of the first," said Chabad Rabbi Yisrael Rice. "Ours comes from the original.

"The last words in the Torah are to write its words on a scroll. That's what we've done."

Of course, the decision to get a new Torah was also based on practical concerns. Chabad's old Torah was "falling apart from wear and tear" and the congregation was in dire need of a new one, Rice said.

That need sparked an extraordinary amount of community interest, leading 150 Jewish families to contribute to the Torah's purchase. While Rice would not reveal the cost, he said it was in the $22,000 to $40,000 range.

"Buying a new Torah had suddenly become significant on a communal level as well," he said.

That community interest drew more than 120 adults and children to Sunday's event. Before the procession, celebrants gathered in a nearby home, where Nissan Cohen, a Torah scribe from Minnesota, assisted sponsors in completing the Torah by writing in the final words.

"The last words were filled in here so that Marin has the merit of giving birth to the new Torah," Rice said.

The actual scribe commissioned for the project, Rabbi Alper Owitz of Israel, could not attend.

After the Torah was completed, the crowd flooded through the neighborhood, parading the Torah under a chuppah.

"The Torah takes on a life of its own as a respectable member coming to join our community," Rice said.

Community members welcomed the Torah with fervor, covering it with kisses, singing songs of praise and taking turns to hold the new arrival in their arms.

Then as the crowd approached the Chabad House on Idylberry Road, they began to dance in the streets.

"There was singing, there was dancing, there was kissing," said Chabad supporter Bonnie Carasso, who attended with her husband and two sons. "It just felt as joyous as a marriage. Our whole community came together with a sense of pride — the Torah is ours."

Said Rice: "It's a tremendous honor and a tremendous merit to dance with the Torah."

"It's a physical manifestation of joy," added Carasso.

At one point, Marna Halpern had run ahead of the crowd with Maxwell. When she turned around and saw the group approaching, she said she was just blown away.

"It was breathtaking. The singing, the dancing, the beautiful day — it was just such a great sight."

The procession moved indoors, where Chabad's other Torahs were taken out of the ark to greet the new Torah. The ceremony continued with more prayers and praise and finally a reading in honor of Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the celebration of the new moon.

"A number of people in the community have said this was a special day," said Carasso. "I agree."

So did Halpern. And, as Maxwell grows older, she believes he will look back on Sunday and feel the same way.

"My son had an experience that doesn't come around too often," she said. "I hope it will bring to light the significance of the Torah and its place in Jewish life."