CJM to celebrate end of groundbreaking Torah project

Julie Seltzer has finished a rigorous and sometimes trying 17-month project, becoming only the second woman to write an entire Torah by herself.

She inked a portion of the 304,805 letters while sitting at a drafting table in the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, on display for all to see. She had to continually answer questions from museumgoers, often the same ones over and over. She also maintained a blog on the experience.

Scribe Julie Seltzer inks letters in the Torah commissioned by the Contemporary Jewish Museum. photo/bruce damonte

So what is she going to do now? Go to Disneyland? Take a long nap on a tropical beach? Search for inner peace in Nepal?

Her answer: “Write another Torah.”

“There’s something to be said for the fact that I’m interested in doing another Torah,” said Seltzer, 35, who in May will begin a 14-month project for Reform Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego.

To honor Seltzer before she moves on, the CJM will celebrate the conclusion of “As it is Written: Project 304,805” from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 3 at the museum.

Seltzer and her teacher, Jen Taylor Friedman of New York, the only other woman known to have written a sefer Torah, will engage in a dialogue, to be followed by all the music, dancing and hoopla that’s traditional upon the completion of a Torah.

“It’s just amazing to me that we’ve come this far,” said Connie Wolf, director and CEO of the CJM, the first museum to attempt such a project. “It seems like we were just coming up with the idea, so this is a very bittersweet moment for me.”

A day before the CJM celebration, the Torah’s first reading will take place during Shabbat services at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. Seltzer will read from Leviticus and give a drash (interpretation) of the week’s Torah portion.

“Our goal is to have this Torah live in different synagogues around the Bay Area for its first few years,” Wolf noted. “[Then] we plan to expand the boundaries and offer it to others.”

“I’m thrilled this Torah is going to be a part of the community,” said Seltzer. “I tried to make it more beautiful than most basic scrolls, but its purpose is to be read and used — and that’s going to happen.”

When Seltzer began the project, she worked about six hours a day in the museum, and people hovered over her and asked questions at will. That setup was tweaked a few times, and eventually Seltzer did the bulk of her writing at home and held Q&A sessions in the museum.

The No. 1 question? “What happens if you make a mistake?” (Short answer: It’s not catastrophic; just make the correction as soon as possible.) The second-most popular question: “Since it’s written by a woman, will this Torah be accepted by all denominations?” (Short answer: Not by Orthodox synagogues.)

Seltzer finished most of her work in December, and the Torah then underwent intense proofreading by a team of 15 rabbis and Torah experts. Mistakes were corrected, and the 62 sheets of kosher parchment were sewn together with special sinew. Last weekend, the final letters were inked in by Seltzer and “adopt a letter” patrons.

Seltzer, who grew up on the East Coast, has decided to remain close to her Torah, continuing to live in Berkeley. “I’m elated Julie is staying in the area. It’s a real gift to the Bay Area,” Wolf said.

For her upcoming project for the San Diego synagogue, Seltzer will get to work from the comfort of her own home, rather than in the spotlight of a museum gallery.

“I’m still really excited about Torah, just as I was when I started the [CJM] project,” she said. “If I’m not sick of it by now, I’m not sure I’ll ever be.”

The first reading from the CJM Torah is 9:30 a.m. Saturday, April 2 at Congregation Netivot Shalom, 1316 University Ave., Berkeley. The Torah celebration is 5 p.m. Sunday, April 3 at Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Free with museum ticket. Information: www.thecjm.org or (415) 655-7800. To host the CJM Torah, contact [email protected]

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.