Randi Engel is looking forward to an evening of spirited dancing tomorrow night. But the 15-year-old isn't heading off to a mosh pit.
She will join fellow congregants of Beth Shalom Synagogue in Columbia as they dance with Torah scrolls while singing Jewish songs in observance of the festive Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah.
"I love Simchat Torah," said Randi, a 10th-grader at Atholton High School in Columbia. "It's a great time to celebrate and have fun. It's a great revival after Yom Kippur, which is so serious. It gives you reason to look at the Torah and realize its importance to us because it's something we live by. If we live our life by the Torah, we should celebrate the Torah."
Simchat Torah, which means "rejoicing in the Torah" in Hebrew, marks the completion of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings of the Five Books of Moses read during Saturday morning services from a Torah scroll. The holiday ends Sunday after nightfall.
The reading is completed Simchat Torah morning with the recitation of the last portion of Deuteronomy, then followed immediately by the reading of the first chapter of Genesis.
"As soon as we end, we begin again because there is no end to Torah study," said Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom. "This is the Torah that has given the world so many contributions, like the value of human life, concept of human dignity, equality, caring for strangers, morality and those commandments that make us specifically Jewish. We're celebrating the special relationship we have with God."
Simchat Torah begins just after the weeklong holiday of Sukkot, when Jews build and decorate outside their homes a sukkah, or hut, where they eat meals and greet guests. The observance recalls when the ancient Israelites lived in temporary dwellings in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. "Sitting in a sukkah represents how our life is under the continuous protection of God," said Rabbi Hillel Baron of the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education in Columbia.
Another Sukkot tradition is to bless and shake a lulav, or palm, with an etrog, or citron. Each year, Baron drives his sukkah mobile - a pickup truck with a sukkah in the back - to Columbia senior centers and Jewish schools so those without a sukkah may come inside, eat refreshments, shake the lulav and etrog, and recite the blessings. "It was the first time I was ever in a sukkah," said Joel Thickman, a resident of Lorien Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
During Simchat Torah, revelers dance for hours in seven circular processions, called hakafot, at night and again the next morning. "Each hakafah represents the cycle of study," Baron said. "The learning of Torah is ongoing. The weekly Torah reading is complemented by each person's study of the weekly portion."
Like many other congregations, Beth Shalom will dance outside. "We dance under the stars," Grossman said. "We have a sense of God's glory."
Temple Isaiah in Columbia also celebrates the beginning of a child's Jewish education on Simchat Torah by welcoming 50 new students to its school. Tutors and 10 high school students serving as teacher aides will be honored.
"The motto of the school is 'Learning Torah, being Torah,'" said Rabbi Mark Panoff of Temple Isaiah. "Simchat Torah celebrates the gift of the Torah, the tradition of study. We want [students] to see that Jewish education counts, that Torah is the center of who we are. By learning Torah, we become the values and ideals of Torah. We're holding up as models older kids in the religious school who take their Torah study seriously."
In another holiday tradition, most congregants are called to the Torah throughout the reading to recite the blessings. Children are also called up in a separate ceremony called Kol Hana'arim. They stand under a tallit, or prayer shawl, that is spread out like a wedding canopy to symbolize the marriage of the Jewish people to the Torah.
At Temple Isaiah, the new students will stand under the tallit of Panoff's late great-grandfather. While parents say the blessing, Panoff will offer blessings over the youngsters.
Children also dance while waving paper holiday flags and munch on treats distributed by their synagogue. "We give out candied apples because learning is sweet," Panoff said. "All the kids - and adults - run to the table."