Families at The Jewish Center in Princeton said they felt a deep sense of connection to their faith and heritage watching soferet (scribe) Linda Coppleson shape letters and words as she repaired a Torah scroll — with their assistance.
The repair work took place on two Sundays, June 3 and 10.
Among the congregants who took part was Charlene Borsack — along with with her husband, Scott; her son, David, and his girlfriend, Stephanie Wiener; and her parents, Sheldon and Shirley Reich (daughter Erica was unable to be there); she told NJJN that watching the ritual scribe write on the parchment “makes you feel connected to something bigger than yourself.”
“This is literally ‘l’dor vador,’” Borsack said. “The generations before did this, and the generations after will do this; it is unique to being Jewish and being part of the Jewish community.”
The Jewish Center learned in the summer of 2017 that all eight of its Torah scrolls were in need of repair. That December, congregational leaders appointed Paula and Steven Heller and Michal and Adam Scheer as cochairs of The 613 Torah Project committee. They had a multifaceted mandate: to raise money for the repairs and perhaps for new Torah mantles; to educate congregants about Torah scrolls and how they are repaired; and to use the initiative to build community at the synagogue.
Contributions started at $18 to sponsor the repair of a letter and went up to $5,400 for a scroll cover. The fund-raising effort itself was designed to be inclusive. Paula Heller said, “It was important to me that everyone could write a letter in the Torah if they wanted to.”
From the time the first e-mail went out, it took just two months for the committee to raise $100,000. Any funds remaining after the repairs, new scroll covers, and associated events are paid for will go into the Torah fund, and to arrange for Coppleson to return every two years to re-check the scrolls.
Rabbi Avrohom Teicher of Teaneck repaired seven of the scrolls; the eighth was set aside for Coppleson to repair in the presence of congregants. She said that “with this Torah, there was enough that was demonstrably wrong with it, and that there were opportunities for me to teach about how I make these repairs.”
Coppleson first erased flaked-off letters and marked where letters needed to be re-inked. In her work as a soferet, before actually writing in a scroll, she performs a ritual washing of her hands, puts on a kipa, and recites this kavana (statement of intent): “I am writing this Torah because of the holiness of Torah” — to distinguish the sacred work from profane tasks.
Michal Scheer recalled the day she and her family stood next to Coppleson. Before walking up to the bima, they too washed their hands and said the blessing. The soferet sat at a long table under a chuppah, or canopy.
“She was dressed in a white tallit, the Torah was open, all her tools were next to her, and she explained what you would be doing, what letter she would be writing,” Scheer said. “You held her hand as she corrected a letter, and that’s when you said Shehecheyanu,” the blessing honoring special occasions.
Coppleson also highlighted the significance of the respective Torah portion being worked on, or of a particular word for the participants. But, she said, people found their own connections — through the names of relatives, for example. “It is a very emotional thing for a lot of people,” Coppleson said. “I can’t tell you how many people have spoken to me and cried, ‘I’ve never been so close to a Torah; I never thought I would be able to do this.’”
Barbara Abramson, a participant with her husband, Bernard, son Louis, and daughter Galia, wrote in an e-mail, “It’s not something you get to do every day, and the need for exactness and the sense of history moved me.”
Galia Abramson said it was “meaningful to literally insert ourselves into the story of our people, to remember that we’re only one letter in a larger passage.”
Louis Abramson, who said he found the experience “moving/meaningful/pride-giving,” wrote of the fascination in seeing “how these documents that are at once so familiar and so foreign are made.” He added that he thinks it’s “remarkably Jewish to not only recognize that humans are behind the word of ‘God,’ but to command us to help write it.”
Coppleson, who for many years taught Bible, rabbinics, and Jewish history at Golda Och Academy, the Jewish day school in West Orange, took her first step in the scribal arts by following instructions on Hebrew calligraphy from “The Jewish Catalog.” Eighteen years ago, she decided to join her passion for teaching and her love of the Hebrew alef-bet by training to be a soferet through studying the Talmud and texts like “Keset HaSofer” (“Inkwell of the Scribe”), which covers the formation of letters, column length, spacing, margins, and how to make the ritually kosher parchment and ink.
Having initially inscribed a Megillat Esther and then mezuzot, Coppleson joined four other female scribes to write a Torah scroll for the Kadima Reconstructionist Community in Seattle.
Jewish Center member Alison Politziner chaired a subcommittee to work with artist Jeanette Kuvin Oren on Shabbat mantles for the scrolls (High Holy Day mantles were ordered online). The covers she made are adorned with images of the Sheva Minim, the Seven Species of the Land of Israel: pomegranates, wheat, barley, grapes, olives, figs, and dates. The style combines her work in paper-cutting with fabric art. She hand-dyed different types of fabric and used applique and machine quilting to finish each cover.
A self-taught artist, Oren got her start in 1984 designing a ketubah for herself and her husband, and by 1986 she was making ketubot full time. She learned quilting, fabric dying, mosaic art, and metal work. “One thing led organically to the next,” said Oren, who is based in Connecticut and whose work is all commissioned.
Jewish Center president Linda Meisel said she appreciated the number of people — not just the “Shabbat regulars” — who either made a donation or participated with the soferet. She also expressed her feelings on going up on the bima with her husband, Art, and two of their grandchildren. “There’s a lot to be said for that opportunity in one’s lifetime,” Meisel said. “For me personally and Art personally, it was a very meaningful time.”