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In a show of unity, interfaith leaders help restore Torah at Laurel synagogue

Rabbi Doug Heifetz talks about welcoming other religious leaders to help in the restoration of the Torah at Oseh Shalom in Laurel on Wednesday, February 22, 2017.  Video by Jen Rynda/Baltimore Sun Media Group

The Rev. Bill Au's hand rests on top of Jeffrey Shulevitz's as they glide across the pages of a 125-year-old Torah scroll at Oseh Shalom in Laurel, filling in the faded Hebrew script of a passage shared across Abrahamic faiths.

"It's like coloring," Shulevitz says as they restore the sacred text through an ancient tradition.

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For Shulevitz, a Jewish scribe who has worked on more than 150 scrolls and recalls dreams of the Torah apearing before him as a child, the task of restoring the manuscript is inborn. But for more than a dozen leaders of other faiths, who became scribes of the Torah Wednesday, the moment is one of solidarity.

Pushed by the heated political climate and President Donald Trump's immigration-related orders, more than a dozen faith leaders from area Jewish, Muslim and Christian congregations gathered Wednesday at Oseh Shalom, a reconstructionist synagogue, to restore the congregation's fading Torah.

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The heated national dialogue and "a wave of hate crimes" prompted Rabbi Doug Heifetz to select a passage found in the spiritual heritage of both Christianity and Islam. According to the scripture, Prophet Moses approaches a burning bush, lit but not consumed by a fire, and is called on by God to take action against injustice.

A similar call for solidarity was needed now more than ever, faith leaders said.

Standing under the synagogue's iconic dome, Heifetz said the political climate, far removed from ordinary political swings of power, demands unification — regardless of fundamental differences in belief systems.

"This is something that is not normal," Heifetz said. "We can't let that be the new normal."

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"A bull has been unleashed," said the Rev. Connie Miller, a pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Laurel.

For Imam Adil Khan, who leads the Islamic Community Center of Laurel, the event was the first opportunity to visit the synagogue and strengthen existing ties between the two faith-based organizations.

"Our communities need to build bonds and support one another," Khan said. "This is a start."

Khan sat alongside Jewish and Christian leaders as Shulevitz offered the group a taste of restoration's rich history.

As Shulevitz explained the similarities between steering the wheel of a car and the cusp of a pen, participants discovered the shared linguistic roots as they traced the letters. Bet, the second letter in the Hebrew alphabet, refers to house, the same word used in Arabic.

George Goodman, a convert from Islam to Christianity, shared space at the opposite end of the table.

Goodman said he grew up in a Muslim family in Liberia, but years in boarding school opened his heart to Christianity.

The recent political climate is a call to open hearts to all, Goodman said, and denounce misguided, inhuman and discriminatory action on all levels of government.

"We are all one people. There are no exceptions. I stand with my Muslim brothers and sisters. The presidency is a call to action for us all," Goodman said.

In a gathering of religious diversity, differences are no surprise, said the Rev. Kevin McGhee, who helped found Bethany Community Church in Laurel more than 30 years ago.

Fifty years ago, 26 years before the current $2.1 million structure that is home to Oseh Shalom was built, 16 local Jewish families gathered to create a social, cultural and religious presence in Laurel. Congregation members joyfully celebrated a half-century of an evolving Jewish community Saturday at the synagogue off Van Dusen Road, an award-wining building distinguished by its blue "wings" and glowing dome.

"We will always disagree on many significant things. But what we can agree on is having an irenic spirit. A peaceful one. That is what we have to foster," McGhee said.

The congregation's first lay rabbi, Harry Rosebluh, who died in 2015, gave the Torah to Oseh Shalom nearly 45 years ago.

Shulevitz said some Jewish traditions bar people from other faiths from touching the sacred text.

"This is easily the highlight of my career," Shulevitz said. "This is a moment that God is smiling down upon us."

Wednesday's restoration with area faith leaders is part of a community-wide project to restore the fading scroll. Future restoration opportunities are scheduled at Oseh Shalom from 3 to 5 p.m. on March 26, April 2, April 23, April 30 and May 7. The project is intended to raise money for the center as it nears its 25th anniversary on Olive Branch Way in Laurel.



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