Rabbi Amanda Russell reads from Congregation Beth Sholom's newly commissioned Megillah. (Photo/Courtesy Beth Sholom)
Rabbi Amanda Russell reads from Congregation Beth Sholom's newly commissioned Megillah. (Photo/Courtesy Beth Sholom)

Why my synagogue commissioned a groundbreaking new Megillah

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When Congregation Beth Sholom decided to commission a new scroll for Megilat Esther (often called simply “the Megillah,” or the Book of Esther), we didn’t realize the many ways that it would represent the values of our community. As I approach my one-year anniversary as rabbi at Beth Sholom and a year since celebrating the centennial year of our synagogue, I am amazed at how our Megillah captures and intertwines these moments.

As a 100-year-old Conservative synagogue in the heart of San Francisco, we strive to honor Jewish tradition and live meaningful Jewish lives in the modern world. When a holiday approaches, we ask ourselves: What are the traditions of this particular holiday? How do the rituals engage our community across the generations? How are these rituals enhancing our community connection and sense of belonging, and to what extent are they causing any separation between us?

In the Hebrew month of Adar, the month of Purim, we are commanded to be joyful for the entire month! With so much going on around us, increasing joy in our lives can sometimes feel like an impossible task.

This year, our joy increased by celebrating the “un-scrolling” of our new Megillah. This new scroll is special in several ways.

First, it was written by a soferet, a female scribe, still a relative rarity in the Jewish world; our new Megillah was created by the wonderfully talented former Bay Area resident Julie Seltzer.

But the most notable difference in our Megillah is that there are vowels and cantillation marks written directly into the scroll to guide us in correct pronunciation and the way we chant. This is permitted in a Megillah according to Jewish law, but not in a Torah scroll. Nonetheless, it is rarely done.

 

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I must give credit to my friend and colleague,​​ Rabbi Feivel Rubinstein of Freelance Judaism in Shreveport, Louisiana, who had the idea to create a fully cantillated Megillah and compiled the Jewish legal texts to make it a reality for his community — and now for ours.

The commissioning of this Megillah was made possible by the family of Sol Silver z”l, who after his passing wanted to recognize Sol’s dedication and love for Jewish ritual at Beth Sholom. Sol epitomized what our community is all about; he loved and was committed to ritual, and he welcomed anyone and everyone into our minyan, regardless of their age, their knowledge or why they were there.

Now that we have the scroll in our hands, it feels like a symbol of our efforts to continue our legacy and serve our community here and now. The Purim story we read guides us in living Jewish values and practice. The telling of the story itself connects the generations.

This scroll, with its vowels and cantillation marks, will encourage new readers to learn and chant with greater accessibility. And the joy that this holiday will bring is yet another example of the vibrancy that we have all been experiencing in the transition out of the pandemic and the return to in-person community.

Put simply, this Megillah is a living metaphor for what our community is striving to achieve — joy, inclusiveness, accessibility, tradition and surprise. What better time to bring that message to life than on the most joyful holiday of the year.

Chag Purim sameach! May your joy increase in the month of Adar!

Rabbi Amanda Russell
Rabbi Amanda Russell

Rabbi Amanda Russell is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.