Beth Israels newest member, a Torah, gets a warm welcome

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After nine months, Rabbi Moshe Bentov delivered the newest addition to the Congregation Beth Israel family on Jan. 13.

With all the food and hoopla in congregant Avi Nevo's home, the welcoming ceremony for the Berkeley Orthodox synagogue's new Torah may as well have been a baby naming or a brit milah.

"I had the Torah commissioned after [the death of] my father," a year and a half ago, Nevo said before the dedication ceremony, when the final lines of the Torah were filled in, making the Torah kosher.

Nevo, who was born and raised in Israel, contacted Bentov, an old family friend in Jerusalem. Bentov, in turn, hired a sofer stam, or Scroll writer, to commission a new Torah for Nevo's Berkeley congregation. The Torah, donated by Nevo and his wife, Esther, was dedicated in the name of Nevo's father, Yosef Marcouici. It cost $40,000.

The slow process of scripting the Torah took nearly a year. As dictated by Jewish law, the sofer stam meticulously scrolled each section of the Torah onto parchment made out of cow skin. Using trained eyes and even computers, the sections of parchment were checked many times over for errors and flaws in the lettering.

As regimented as the production process is, each Torah is still distinctive.

"Just look at the craftsmanship, the artwork," said Susan Schickman, an administrator at Oakland Hebrew Day School who attended the ceremony at Nevo's home. She pointed out that instead of two crowns, a large double crown fit on top of two intricately engraved spindles. "The calligraphy inside is just as beautiful and easy to read, too, I've been told."

Schickman brought two of her three children to see the newest addition to their congregation. Her sons were able to participate in the completion of the Torah by helping to ink in the final lines with the other men present. The process is considered a great mitzvah for the community, she said.

"This is really a rare experience in that sense," she said. "It's also nice because how often do you get to participate in something that brings a substantial cross-section of the Jewish community together like this?"

Filling the Nevo's small dining room and spilling out into the kitchen, the nearly 200 people at the ceremony included a range from Chassidim to Reform Jews hailing from all over the Bay Area. Young and old crammed together, listening to the man who brought the Torah from Jerusalem to Berkeley, Bentov.

The Israeli rabbi, dressed in a traditional dark suit and Stetson hat, officiated at the ceremony, along with Rabbi Yair Silverman of Congregation Beth Israel, who received the congregation's first new Torah in the synagogue's 73 years.

Beth Israel already had three used Torahs that dated back to the 1950s. Jewish law prohibits using a Torah for public reading once a single letter is broken, and due to wear and tear, all three had been repaired over time and were approaching unusable status.

"A Torah isn't seen as an object but as a living entity," said Silverman. "When a Torah falls into complete disrepair, for instance, we have a procession to the cemetery where it would be buried, as we would a person." The same standard applies to a new Torah when it is brought into the community, he said. "We rejoice and celebrate a new Torah."

When the Torah reached its new home at Beth Israel following the ceremony at the Nevo's home, it was greeted by live music and dancing as the other three Torahs were brought out to meet their new sibling, as Silverman described it.

Off to the side, Bilha Schechter, Nevo's sister who came to the dedication from Los Angeles with her husband and son, quietly watched the festivities. Her father, she said, "wasn't a religious person, but it's very meaningful to have something like this in his memory to give to this community."