Zaki El-Kodsi carries the new Torah in a procession at Congregation B’nai Israel in Daly City, Oct. 22, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Zaki El-Kodsi carries the new Torah in a procession at Congregation B’nai Israel in Daly City, Oct. 22, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

With unique new Torah scroll, Karaite Jews hope to inspire next generation

The Karaites in Daly City have always done things a little differently from the rest of America’s Jews.

Community members remove their shoes before entering the carpeted sanctuary of their synagogue, and some pray while kneeling on the ground. The men wear tallits with special tzitzit of white and blue braided threads. They follow distinct kashrut and ritual slaughter laws. The old-timers speak Arabic and French, remnants of their former lives in Egypt.

Now the community has something else that sets them apart: A new Torah scroll that contains nekudot (vowels), te’amim (trope symbols) and colons indicating the ends of sentences — all of which facilitate chanting on Shabbat and festivals. Standard Torah scrolls include only the Hebrew letters, often requiring Torah readers to practice intensely to master pronunciation and cantillation.

“Our community is small, and it was done partly for convenience,” David Ovadia, president of the Karaite Jews of America (KJA), told J. “I wanted to be able to use the Torah without a problem, so people can chant from it, rather than every time they have to memorize everything.”

Moreover, Ovadia said, the Karaite community in Israel already has three scrolls with the markings. “It was accepted in Israel, so we said, ‘Why not?’” he said.

For any Jewish community, the commissioning and dedication of a new Torah are momentous events. For Karaites, these are even more significant because they believe the written Torah supersedes the Oral Torah, that is, the Talmud and other rabbinic interpretations of the Five Books of Moses.

The new scroll represents a tangible connection to the community’s ancient past and, leaders hope, a bridge to its future. The Aleppo Codex — the oldest surviving manuscript of the Hebrew Bible that was once in the possession of the Karaites in Jerusalem and is today part of the Israel Museum’s collection — also includes vowels, trope symbols and colons.

Scholars believe Karaite Judaism emerged in opposition to rabbinic Judaism between the eighth and 10th centuries in Babylonia (modern-day Iraq). Around 5,000 Karaites lived in Egypt before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Today, some 40,000 live in Israel, with smaller numbers in the United States, Crimea, Poland and elsewhere.

Victor Khedr reads from the new Torah as the Karaite Jews of America consecrate the scroll at Congregation B’nai Israel in Daly City, Oct. 22, 2023. Look closely to see the dots and dashes that make up the vowel and trope markings. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Avi Yefet of Israel reads from the new Torah. Look closely to see the dots and dashes that make up the vowel and trope markings. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

KJA, also known as Congregation B’nai Israel, is the only Karaite synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, with around 200 member families. Over the weekend, two dozen Karaites from Israel, Boston, Charlotte, Seattle and other places joined the local community at B’nai Israel to celebrate Shabbat and dedicate the new Torah. Ovadia said he and his wife, Maryellen Himell-Ovadia, debated whether they should cancel the dedication because of the war between Israel and Hamas. They decided to go ahead with it, and a small delegation from Israel managed to secure the last seats on a flight to San Francisco.

Samy Ibrahim Arie, a friend of the community who lives in Egypt, also flew into town for the weekend. After services on Saturday, he gave a presentation about two ongoing restoration projects in Cairo supported by KJA. One is the Basatin cemetery, where many Karaites are buried, and the other is a historical Karaite synagogue called Moussa Dar’i.

The next day, Maor Dabah, a hazzan (cantor) from Israel, led a short service, during which those in attendance repeated the traditional Karaite response of “amen v’amen.” The new Torah — an upright scroll encased in a handsome cherrywood cylindrical case with silver ornamentation and a crank system to advance the pages — was removed from the ark, and several community members were invited up to the bimah to chant verses from the book of Genesis.

Then Ovadia and others paraded with the Torah around the social hall, which was added to the synagogue in a 2018 renovation. A steady drizzle prevented the procession from continuing outside (where a Daly City police car was parked all day as an extra security measure), but the weather didn’t dampen their spirits.

“Happy are you, Israel,” they sang in Hebrew, “that God has chosen you and has given you the Torah as a gift from Sinai.”

After several laps around the social hall, the Torah was placed on a pedestal, and community members took turns posing for photos with it. Several women wore cartouche necklaces and other symbols of their Egyptian heritage. One wore a dress with block-printed orange and green hieroglyphs.

The ceremony was followed by a catered kosher lunch of Egyptian delicacies, including stuffed cabbage leaves, chicken kebabs, matfouna, or meatloaf, and tegarinas, or homemade egg noodles with cardamom.

Four KJA families donated a total of $65,000 to buy the Torah case and scroll, which was done by an Israeli scribe and took two years to write and proofread.

Marc and Bella Khedr of San Bruno contributed toward the Torah case, which was custom-made in Israel. During a break in the festivities, Marc Khedr, who grew up in Cairo and immigrated to San Francisco at age 26, told J. about the three years he spent in an Egyptian detention camp where Jewish men were held after the Six-Day War broke out in 1967.

“We slept on the floor on hard tiles, head to toe, and if you had to get up to use the bathroom you lost your spot,” he said. Many Karaite men of a certain age have similar stories.

(From left) David Ovadia, Samy Ibrahim Arie, Maryellen Himell-Ovadia, Eli Eltachan and Hazzan Maor Dabah. (Photo/Courtesy Maryellen Himell-Ovadia)
(From left) David Ovadia, Samy Ibrahim Arie, Maryellen Himell-Ovadia, Eli Eltachan and Hazzan Maor Dabah. (Photo/Courtesy Maryellen Himell-Ovadia)

Now 76, the retired auto mechanic said that following Karaite traditions makes him feel “calm and relaxed.” However, he worries about the future of his tiny community, a sentiment echoed by many of the older KJA members.

“In another 20 years, who’s going to continue the tradition?” he asked.

Rachel Moussa, a 36-year-old American-born Karaite who lives in Redwood City and sits on the KJA board, said her community faces similar challenges as other religious groups in an increasingly secular world. But, speaking with J. on Tuesday, she said the weekend left her hopeful.

“It was really special, seeing our synagogue full and feeling that we were all elevating in prayer together,” she said. When she laid eyes on the new Torah for the first time, she said she got chills. She believes the scroll will help “get the next generation excited about faith,” as will more activities geared toward families with children, like the matzah bake that the community held for Passover. (Karaites have their own style of matzah, too.)

After lunch on Sunday afternoon, Eli Eltachan, president of the Karaite community in Israel, presented a slideshow of photos taken at recent weddings, circumcisions and baby-naming ceremonies. There are 12 active Karaite synagogues in Israel, and the community operates a museum next to its synagogue in Jerusalem.

Eltachan told J. that Karaites are well integrated into Israeli society and, as such, have been devastated by the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre and ensuing war. He said two people had been killed, and a family was taken hostage.

Asked about relations with “Rabbanites,” as Karaites refer to those who follow rabbinic Judaism, he said there is a “good connection.” Another member of the Israeli delegation, Avi Yefet, piped up and, in more colorful language, clarified that some Rabbanites, specifically Haredi Jews, consider Karaites to be “lost.”

Fortunee “Fifi” Lichaa was born in Cairo and settled in San Francisco in 1968. She has attended services in Daly City since the days that Congregation B’nai Israel was a Rabbanite shul. (KJA bought the building in 1994 and kept the name.)

Asked to share her thoughts about the new Torah, the 79-year-old said simply, “I hope it brings peace to the whole world.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.