Laurel synagogue invites community to help restore Torah

Most Jews will never touch a Torah with their bare hands in their lifetime. But here was Jeffrey Shulevitz, encouraging them to not only touch the sacred scripture, but to vigorously scrub decades of dirt off.

"We are doctors in the Torah," said Shulevitz, a scribe. He asked: Could a doctor heal if he couldn't touch his patients?

Shulevitz, who is restoring a 19th century Torah at Oseh Shalom in Laurel, has brought in Muslims, Christians and Jews to help. On Sunday, the Reconstructionist synagogue invited deaf and hearing impaired people.

Oseh Shalom is planning to host two more restoration events over the next couple of weekends before the scroll is formally unveiled and read on May 13.

Claudia Bock, 64, said she had never touched a Torah. She called the experience Sunday "amazing" and "awe inspiring."

"We just don't get to do this, to repair something that means so much," said Bock, of Newark, Del. "There are no words."

Her 11-year-old grandson, Seth Wayland, who is hearing impaired, said he felt "honored" to work on the scroll.

The sheepskin scroll came from the Eastern European Kingdom of Galicia, in what is now Poland and Hungary. It was donated to the congregation in memory of Irving Fliss in 1968. Believed to be 125 to 150 years old, it is the oldest Torah scroll at Oseh Shalom.

Receiving the Torah in 1968 "was the equivalent of going to a dog pound and rescuing a dog," said Barry Nove, executive director of Oseh Shalom. "It would have been cheaper to buy a brand-new one. But this congregation was very inclusive and it didn't matter to them if it wasn't a perfect Torah."

The half-dozen people who were among the first to work on the scroll on Sunday used erasers to lift dirt and ink off, then scrubbed the edges with sandpaper. Later, they used white chalk to lighten the areas without text.

The section of Torah they were working on was a priestly blessing that was sung in "Fiddler on the Roof."

The sheepskin is remarkably resilient and resists tearing, Shulevitz said. But the ink will lift and fade over time, giving the scroll a smoky look.

Dan Short of Columbia came with his family to work on the scroll.

"I'm not Jewish," he said through an American Sign Language interpreter. "But my wife is. So I have no experience. This is the first time I've done anything like this. I'm just real curious as to what's going on and I'm watching."

Frank Bock, Claudia's husband, practiced writing Hebrew letters with a calligraphy pen. He said it was his first time touching a Torah with his hands, too.

"I'm amazed how tough the parchment is," he said. "I mean, to even use an eraser. I was thinking, an eraser's going to destroy it."

He said he wasn't confident enough in his handwriting to venture writing a letter in the old scroll.

"They don't need mistakes," he said.

With ink loaded in a turkey feather, Shulevitz brought the group to work on a section of the Torah that needed letters rewritten. About 30 pages of the 245-page Torah needed rewriting, he said.

Shulevitz and members of the group leaned over the page together as they touched his hand while he wrote over the faded letters, using a book for reference to ensure he was getting it right.

Shulevitz said it was for the "greater good" to bring in people from different backgrounds to work on the Torah.

"As long as they want to be here, we welcome them," Shulevitz said. "And that's why I'm doing this."

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated how the Torah was obtained.

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