Built by bingo
This wasn’t your ordinary synagogue raffle.
The winner would not receive a signed Steelers jersey, or a framed lithograph or a weekend at Hidden Valley.
The winner of this raffle would win something much more precious and permanent: the privilege of filling in the final letter of a new Torah.
Generations of members of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills gathered on Sunday in the synagogue’s social hall to finish and celebrate their new “Inclusion” Torah, a project that began last year.
But the seeds of the project began more than a decade ago, when Jay Feuer and Fern Schwartz took the reins of Beth El’s biggest fundraiser, its weekly Tuesday night Bingo game.
Each week, the Bingo volunteers receive tips from the winners of the games. Before Feuer and Schwartz took over, those tips were collected and spent on a party for the volunteers.
But Feuer and Schwartz had another plan for the money.
“Fern and I talked about this for quite awhile, how to use the tip money,” Feuer said. “In the past, it was used on parties. We needed a better reason.”
Commissioning a new Torah, Feuer said, “was an ideal reason.”
More than $37,000 in tip money was accrued, and fully funded the new Torah scroll.
“I challenge anyone to find any other Torah in the world paid for by Bingo tip money,” Feuer said.
Writing the Torah was truly a community enterprise. Over the course of the year, 150 families in the Conservative congregation participated by filling in a letter of the scroll.
The Torah is dubbed the “inclusion” Torah because it will be used by those who may find other Torahs too heavy, or too difficult to read.
The Inclusion Torah is lighter than a typical Torah — 10 pounds as opposed to the usual 25 or more — and thus easier to carry. Also, it is written in a font that may be easier to read, according to Rabbi Moshe Druin, the sofer (Torah scribe) who was on hand at Sunday’s celebration.
Beth El’s Inclusion Torah is lighter, Druin said, because of the quality of the parchment, which is both thinner and more durable.
The new Torah was written by a sofer in Israel, who sent each book of the five books of the Torah to Druin upon completion, with some letters outlined, but not filled in. Druin then came to Beth El throughout the year so that congregants could fill in the letters.
All congregants were given the opportunity to fill in a letter for free, as well as the option of purchasing designated portions of the scroll — including specific words, prayers or passages — which served as a fundraiser for the congregation, according to Steve Hecht, executive director of Beth El.
Beth El has received more than $125,000 in pledges so far in association with the inclusion Torah.
That the Torah is one of inclusion is emblematic of the mission of Beth El, according to Miles Kirshner, president of Beth El.
“Our inclusion Torah campaign was a recognition of where we are as a synagogue,” he said. “We are presently open to a diverse constituency, to anyone who lives in a Jewish household. The idea here is to include in the community all those who want to be a part of it. The inclusion agenda we are trying to promote is to include those constituencies, those who wouldn’t usually come to a Conservative shul, so we can keep doing what we are doing.”
The process of inviting everyone in the congregation to participate in the writing of the Torah was also inclusive, according to Druin.
“I think the message of the Torah is always inclusion,” Druin said. The notion of allowing all members of a congregation the opportunity to fill in a letter, he pointed out, is a concept that has been around for about 25 years.
“It shouldn’t just be the big machors who do the letters, but it should be that many hundreds of people get the chance,” he said.
It is the 613th commandment of the Torah to personally write a Torah, Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of Beth El told the crowd, and the mitzvah was fulfilled by everyone in attendance during the completion of the last five letters on Sunday.
“Everyone in this room fulfills the mitzvah of writing a Torah,” Greenbaum said.
Greenbaum, Kirshner, Schwartz and Feuer filled out four of the last five letters of the Torah — those in the word “Yisrael.”
The winner of the raffle, Gail Kendall, filled in the final letter of the Torah. Kendall’s grandfather, Benjamin B. Levine, was one of the founders of Beth El.
The last three numbers of her winning raffle ticket happened to be her birth date.
She filled in the final letter with her grandson, Daniel, by her side, representing five generations of the Beth El community.
“This was a wonderful feeling,” she said. “I’ll remember this the rest of my life. It was really special.”
The Torah was then dressed in its new cover, donated by the Chaban family, and designed by local artist Ilene Winn-Lederer and fabricated by Jeanette Kuvin Oren. It was danced under the chuppa to the ark in the sanctuary.
“It was a lot of work to get this going,” Feuer said. “I walked in today not knowing what to expect. But when I saw how many people came, it made me misty.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)