Ohr Emets new Torah bridges 2 nations and cultures

As Congregation Ohr Emet's new Torah made its way down a tree-lined path of the San Ramon Community Center last month, non-Jewish onlookers, glimpsing a chuppah, thought they had the whole event figured out.

"It must be a wedding!" was the confident conclusion heard repeatedly by the synagogue's president, Richard Weinstein.

In actuality the processional signified the dedication of the 5-year-old Conservative shul's first Torah — a 50-year-old scroll from a former Sephardi synagogue in London.

Yet on some level, said Weinstein, the onlookers weren't so far off.

"The love between the Jewish people and the Torah is a marriage of sorts."

And in this case, it was not just a marriage between a congregation and a Torah, but a bridging of the Sephardi Jewish culture of the London synagogue and the Ashkenazi Jewish culture of Ohr Emet.

"Is there a better way of saying that we as a people are one?" Weinstein asked, noting, "The styles may be different, but the words never change."

The Torah, donated by San Jose resident Maurice Tofig and his sister Soraya Tabaroki of New York in memory of their late father, David Tofig, also serves as a bridging of East Bay, South Bay and even more far-reaching Jewish communities. Their father was an Iranian Jew who lived in Israel before his 1999 death.

At the ceremony Tofig, a member of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga and Congregation Sinai in San Jose, spoke eloquently, expressing his father's desire to spread the words of the Torah. He explained that David Tofig, "a very religious and spiritual man," would have wanted the Torah to go to a synagogue that could really use it.

"He sort of wiped away some tears when he spoke about his father," remembered Weinstein, describing the ceremony as a "magical, mystical day."

"At that point there were probably sniffles throughout the crowd of about 150 people," he added.

Rabbi Ted Alexander of Conservative Congregation B'nai Emunah in San Francisco also spoke to a crowd made up of Bay Area dignitaries, synagogue members and rabbis. Prior to Tofig and Tabaroki's donation, the 65-member synagogue had borrowed a Torah from B'nai Emunah for use at its services.

While appreciative of the generous loan of a Torah, Ohr Emet strongly desired its own. At its inception five years ago, the congregation started a Torah fund. The fund, however, was not sufficient to cover the high cost of a Torah. New Torahs are usually in the five-figure price range.

Eventually, if there is enough money, said Weinstein, a second Torah may be purchased.

"There's something special about having your own Torah," explained Ohr Emet's Rabbi Allan Berkowitz. "It's another step in a congregation's maturation — a coming of age. It's also a tremendous sense of pride."

Weinstein agreed, calling the Torah the basis of Jewish spirituality.

"It gives us permanence and substance and a bit of credibility," he said, "and it's our very own."

Elaborating on its walnut-colored handles, clear calligraphy and new green velvet and golden embroidered cover, he added: "We are now a whole."