Beth El community fills in letters to start holy scroll
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Beth El community fills in letters to start holy scroll

Bette Balk, of Mt. Lebanon, smiles as fellow congregants fill in part of the new Torah. Balk and other workers involved with Beth El's bingo tournaments held Torahs through out the ceremony. (Chronicle photo by Ohad Cadji)

As Dr. Jay Feuer touched the tip of the quill pen, watching intently as Rabbi Levi Selwyn filled in the Hebrew letter aleph in the word bereshit, he didn’t feel nervous.

Pretty impressive, considering he was performing what, for many Jews, is a once-in-a-lifetime mitzva — writing a Torah.

“I wasn’t nervous,” Feuer said. “The feather was flexible enough that the pressure won’t affect the letter, but it is a special feeling.”

Feuer, 61, co-chair of the Bingo game at Beth El Congregation, was one of some 200 members of the congregation who gathered Sunday at the synagogue to begin a new Torah scroll.

It was a daylong event in which families were coming in to fill a letter from noon to 9 p.m.

“Every 10 minutes a family came,” Rabbi Alex Greenbaum said. “We had 40 signup slots and every one was filled. We’re bringing him [the scribe, Rabbi Selwyn] back two more times for people who didn’t have the opportunity.”

Feuer and Bingo co-chair Fern Schwartz were each given the honor of filling in a letter of the first word of the Torah, bereshit, but many congregants also touched Selwyn’s quill — symbolic of actually writing the scroll themselves.

One religious school student, 7-year-old Josh Sakolsky, actually won a raffle, which gave his family the distinction of filling in the bet  — the very first word of the Torah.

Rabbi Alex Greenbaum and his family filled in the letter resh.

“It’s good to be the rabbi,” Greenbaum quipped. “I’m 43 years old and I never had the opportunity to fill in a letter. I’m glad to have had that opportunity.”

It was fitting that Feuer and Schwartz were given such a high honor, since the cost of the Torah is being covered by tips accrued from years of running the Bingo game — more than $37,000.

But the origins of this Torah project go back much further, to a frightening and life-changing episode in Feuer’s life.

The then 59-year-old dentist suffered a heart attack June 12, 2010, while running on a treadmill at Bally Total Fitness in Bethel Park. Feuer credits his life to a quick-thinking paramedic who performed CPR, but emergency responders still rushed him to St. Clair Hospital where doctors would perform open-heart surgery.

Fully recovered now, the experience nevertheless changed Feuer’s life.

“After what I went through with my health, any new projects I do have to be something special,” he said, “and this is a special project I’m doing.”

So when he and Schwartz considered uses for the tip money, which had been used to throw a party for the Bingo workers before the two became co-chairs, the idea of the Torah presented itself.

“When Fern and I took over, we decided to hold the money for something special,” he said. “Over the years, the money built up, and we realized it had to be something special. Using this for the Torah, it’s one heck of a party we’re spending it on.”

The scroll is called the “Inclusion Torah” because it is designed to bring together everyone in the congregation.

For instance, it’s a lightweight Torah, about 10 pounds, making it easy for young and old, whole and disabled, to carry it.

“It will open [the mitzva] to a lot of people who never had the opportunity to hold the Torah,” Feuer said. “I think it will be used quite often.”

“The lightest Torah we have here is 25 pounds,” Greenbaum said, “and we have found over the years not everyone can carry a 25-pound Torah so when we heard they are now making 9-pound Torahs, we were interested. We want to be known as [a] special needs inclusive congregation.”

The Torah will also use a Hebrew font that’s easier on the eyes of the Torah readers, many of whom are lay members of the congregation, Schwartz said.

“We could also pick a font that’s an easy read for Torah readers,” said Schwartz who is a Torah reader herself, “so we could include more Torah readers as well.

Sunday’s ceremony was highlighted with ritual. It opened with a tekia gedola blast on a shofar, and eight people were given the honor of holding the existing scrolls during part of the Sunday ceremony as witnesses to the new scroll that would soon join them.

Those eight holders were Andy Gross, Warren Sufrin, Shirley Moritz — captains of the Bingo game — and Bette  Balk, Sam Balk, Gerry Rosenfeld, Lucy Katz and Sheila Schmeltz — people who worked with Bingo from its beginning in the 1980s.

All told, Schwartz said, the inclusion Torah project is designed to include every segment of the congregation, “from the youngest child to the oldest  member.”

Selwyn spoke to each family who filled in a letter, explaining the significance of the character each was assigned.

“For each family that goes up, he talks about the letter how it relates to them,” Greenbaum said. “I talked to them after they met with the sofer; they would tell me something special about the letter … it was a really amazing moment; I think everyone found it incredibly personal.”

The Torah, which is being written in Israel, is expected to be completed in time for Simchat Torah. A large celebration (siyyum) is being planned for that time.  

“This is new to me,” Feuer said. “I’ve never been involved with something like this before, and I was simply amazed by the reaction we got. Everyone was so excited about it and so involved with it.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.net.)

 

 

 

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