(This is an updated version of this story.)
Sitting in the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill Monday night, Torah scribe Zerach Greenfield held up three fingers up to Marcia Weiss as if they were a peace offering.
“It’s the shin,” he said, referencing the three-pronged Hebrew letter. “And what is the most common word that uses a shin?”
Without missing a beat, Weiss replied, “Shalom.”
“Yes,” answered Greenfield, his fingers still in the air. “Some people fall to one extreme,” he said wiggling his pointer finger, “and some fall to another,” his ring finger moving. “But where they compromise in the middle… peace.”
With that, Weiss, president of the Pittsburgh Conference of Women’s Organizations, put her hand on Greenfield’s quill and the two finished a shin on a small section of Torah parchment.
Greenfield arrived in Pittsburgh with Torahs for Our Troops, a project of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council that raises money to create small, compact Torahs for U.S. chaplains to carry into battle. Following the JCC’s 115th Annual Meeting on Sept. 13, JWB Director Rear Adm. Harold L. Robinson spoke about Torahs for Our Troops. He said the money raised by the Pittsburgh community — approaching $10,000 — would benefit Jewish soldiers all over the world.
Outside the meeting, Greenfield busied himself guiding donors’ hands as letter after letter was inscribed. Funds raised locally will sponsor the creation of the entire Book of Exodus.
Since the JCC began its campaign of donors to this Torah about a month ago, over 100 families and individuals have sponsored inscribed letters or words.
Torahs designed for military use must be smaller than traditional Torahs, Greenfield explained, meaning that this job as a sofer (scribe) is increasingly difficult.
“Writing 14- or even 10-inch Torahs, the key is clarity,” said Greenfield. “It’s different than calligraphy. You could get an invitation to a wedding and think ‘Is this a T or and S?’ In a Torah, the goal is to be as clear as possible.”
To Rabbi Nosson Sachs, a chaplain at UPMC Shadyside Hospital who recently returned from military service, the goal of the Torah is similarly clear: “It lights up soldiers to see the Torah, to touch their tallis to it,” he said, standing in uniform. “They love to see a rabbi, but bringing a Torah makes it magic.”
Robinson stressed how Jews in the military can feel isolated, being both far from home and their Jewish communities.
“Jews in the United States armed services serve in places you’re familiar with, and places you’ve never ever heard of. Does anyone know Kwajalein, the tiny island in the Pacific?” Robinson asked, answered by a single raised hand. “Our chaplains go all over the world to serve these young men and women, to bring a sense of home, a sense of community to people more Jewishly lonely than you or I want to imagine.”
Robinson told the story of Lt. Miroslav “Steven” Zilberman, a pilot who gave his life holding his malfunctioning plane stable so three other soldiers could bail out. Just that morning (March 30, 2010), Zilberman had spoken with a chaplain. No Torah, however, was available. Robinson’s voice quivered as he spoke.
“We have lost Jews along with other heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11,” he said. “It’s a privilege to represent all the Jews who have served.”
About 10,000 Jews currently serve in the U.S. armed services, and chaplains have only 60 Torah scrolls, though, “by the time you take a Torah, add rollers and put it in a hard case, it’s enormous,” said Robinson.
“As a community, you’re giving something so vast. A Torah scroll, that special sanctity when you open it,” said Robinson, closing his address to the gathered crowd. “It doesn’t matter where you are. It’s suddenly the synagogue you grew up in. It’s suddenly sacred.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)