Emphasizing that “Torah lies at the center of all that we are and all that we are striving to become,” Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun set the tone for the Dec. 16 morning ceremony at which Congregation Torat El celebrated the gifting of five scrolls to synagogues and Jewish organizations throughout the metropolitan region, as well as in Israel and Europe.
“The Torah is a living text,” Schonbrun said from the bima, and should not stay tied, covered, and sealed behind the doors of an ark.
When two area shuls — Temple Beth Torah in Wanamassa and Temple Beth El in Oakhurst — merged to form Torat El in 2010, the resulting congregation had a surplus of sifrei Torah. (Temple B’nai Shalom in Long Branch had merged eight years before with Beth El.) Members of the Oakhurst congregation determined to give some away to deserving recipients, mainly within the Conservative/Masorti community.
As of mid-December, one scroll had been presented to a community in Petach Tikvah, Israel, and two were on their way to synagogues in Germany and the Netherlands. One had been given before Rosh Hashana to the South Orange/Maplewood Independent Minyan. A fifth was scroll was presented to the Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore in Ocean at the Dec. 16 program, which about 60 congregants and community members attended. In addition, said Schonbrun, two more scrolls may be awarded in the future, while Torat El retains 12 for its own use.
The rabbi and members of the congregation personally delivered the Petach Tikvah scroll last summer during Torat El’s 2012 Israel trip. The two earmarked for Europe are being transported by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary to Congregation Masorti Almere, in Weesp, The Netherlands, and to Congregation Masorti in Weiden, Germany.
‘More than enough’
Schonbrun said, “Our congregation wants to ensure that these Torah scrolls continue to live, serving a purpose rather than existing as decoration. We have been blessed through merger with more than enough.”
Thanking both his congregants and the recipients for “allowing us to do this mitzva,” the rabbi conjured an image of fellow Jews “singing, dancing, arguing, studying, and learning from these sifrei Torah for many years to come.”
At the Dec. 16 event, which was organized under the supervision of Dr. Alan Stern, Neil Weitzenkorn, chair of the congregation’s ritual committee, described the process of the Torot Donation Project.
He said that the rabbi used his web contacts, blogs, and listserv to put out the word that the synagogue had scrolls to donate. All respondents were required to complete a questionnaire, giving the history and background of their congregation, information about their school, affiliations, size, how many scrolls they already had, and the ways in which they planned to use the scroll — for religious services, education, and/or outreach.
The prospective beneficiaries also were encouraged to state the size and weight of the scroll they sought; at the earliest stages of the process, Torat El had already weighed and measured each scroll being offered.
Each application was reviewed by a subcommittee that included him, Weitzenkorn, Myron Samuels, Eva Wiener, and Marcia Sacks. The full ritual committee then considered the preliminary recommendations, followed by the synagogue’s executive board, and then the full board of trustees.
Schonbrun said, “Our criteria was that the Torot should go to organizations that had a need for a Torah scroll, could not secure it on their own, and would use the scroll in a halachically appropriate manner.”
The scrolls ranged from 50 to 100 years old, said Schonbrun, and were inscribed in Israel, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. The names of the scribes are unknown.
Weitzenkorn said the scroll that went to YJS “was brought to the United States from Europe in the early 1900s by a 13-year-old boy named Theodore Zwisohn. After the family settled in Point Pleasant Beach, they, along with two other families, conducted services throughout the 1920s and 1930s in an apartment above the butcher shop owned by the Zwisohns.”
About two decades later, in the 1950s, Weitzenkorn said, Herman Zwisohn, Theodore’s son, saw an advertisement for a synagogue that was looking for a scroll. “He remembered his father’s sefer Torah and donated it to what became known as Temple Beth Torah, said Weitzenkorn.
In the 1970s, he explained, the family moved to Ocean Township, joined Temple Beth Torah, and was reunited with the scroll. A new generation of Zwisohn children became b’nei mitzva at Beth Torah, some quite possibly using the very scroll donated by their forebear.
Torat El’s committee felt strongly that that scroll “should remain in the local community,” Weitznkorn said. At the ceremony, he introduced Mimi Zwisohn, Herman’s daughter, who opened the ark and looked on as the scroll was passed to YJS head of school Rabbi Elie Tuchman.
In his acceptance remarks, Tuchman invoked the V’ahavta prayer, noting that “when we receive a Torah, God tells us what to do with it — ‘Take to heart these words with which I charge you this day….’”
Others who played roles in Torat El’s transfer ceremony included Gary Zimmerman, congregation president; Myron Samuels, a member of the recipient selection team; Rabbi Len Levin and other members of the South Orange/Maplewood minyan; and Dr. Andrew Samuel, a parent of a YJS student, member of the yeshiva’s board, and a longtime member of Torat El, who had his own bar mitzva at the shul and may have used the scroll that will now reside at the yeshiva.