Seniors witness a ritual rarity — burying aged Torahs

Blistering heat dampened the clothing, but not the spirits and emotions of the people who witnessed the burial of three Torahs earlier this month in Lafayette.

The experiences of those present could be summed up by Phil Goodman, a board member of Esther and Jacques Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville.

"It was hotter than hell out there," Goodman said. "But it was a special moment in all of our lives — something that will be with us for a lifetime."

According to Jewish law, Torahs that are deemed no longer usable because they are aged or irreparable cannot be discarded casually; they must be buried. The Torahs, which belonged to the Reutlinger home, were buried in a halachically correct pine casket in the Garden of Remembrance at Lafayette's Oakmont Memorial Park and Mortuary.

Speaking about the service, Rabbi Michael Goldberg said that burying the Torahs triggered a gamut of emotions for him.

"We treat a Torah in so many ways like we treat a human," said Goldberg, who is spiritual leader at Reutlinger, formerly known as the Home for Jewish Parents.

"The process is very simple, and yet that very simplicity represents its dignity."

According to Goldberg, burying a Torah is a rarity — so much so, that there is no prescribed ritual for the process.

Torahs represent the lifeblood of the Jewish people, the rabbi noted, and therefore must be accorded the same rights as deceased humans — including a prompt burial.

According to Goldberg, most Torahs, unless they fall victim to acts of vandalism or anti-Semitism, can have a life expectancy of anywhere from 100 to several hundred years. However, a number of much older Torahs have been preserved in museums. The three Torahs from Reulinger, he added, were all nearing the century mark.

Although Goldberg admitted to having a few pre-burial butterflies himself, the ritual touched everyone involved.

"I thought it was a beautiful statement of how Jewish people view the Torah," said Roberta Cohn, the secretary of the board of Sinai Memorial Chapel. "All the traditions of the Jewish people are wrapped up in those scrolls. The love of education, family and social justice. It's all there."

Sue Lefelstein, while admitting that she had sweat pouring down her face throughout the hourlong ceremony, said that she was moved by the reaction of the elderly Jews present.

"Their commitment to Judaism was really profound and moving" said Lefelstein, the director of the East Bay office of Sinai Memorial. "The whole process was a mitzvah from start to finish."

In fact, all the services were donated by Sinai Memorial, and the casket was donated by Pettigrew and Sons.

One of the residents of Reutlinger who observed the Torahs being lowered into the earth said the process evoked memories of her childhood.

"I was raised Orthodox, but I've never seen a Torah get buried before," said 80-year-old Batya Kalis. "All the memories of my childhood came rushing back at me. Since I took a more progressive route to Judaism, I missed out on a lot of the more traditional customs of our faith.

"I think that because we as a people revere the Torah," Kalis continued, "we should treat it just as we would a beloved member of our family who was deceased."

For Goldberg, the connections to the Torahs were visceral.

"For me to cut the psuls [the strings that attach the scrolls] was a very hard thing for me to do," he said. "It goes against every instinct that I have as a rabbi — and yet the end result was a beautiful process."