A Torah scroll that is expected to be read by women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem before being given to a Reform congregation in Israel will make three stops in New Jersey along its journey.
Dubbed Torateinu ARZA — after the Association of Reform Zionists of America — the scroll is the centerpiece of a campaign by the Reform movement to promote religious pluralism in Israel.
Women plan to read from the scroll at the Kotel — a practice currently forbidden by Israel’s Ministry of Justice and the Orthodox authorities who supervise the Wall — before donating it to Sha’ar HaNegev, a Reform community in the northern Negev.
“Like an Olympic torch, this Torah is making its way from one community to another, binding us together in a common cause — to bring the light of Torah, democracy, freedom, and pluralism to the spiritual heart of our people, Jerusalem,” said ARZA national chair Rabbi Bennett Miller, also the senior rabbi at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
The scroll will be read at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro Friday, May 30; at Anshe Emeth on Tuesday, June 3; and at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston on Wednesday, June 4.
The synagogues are among about 50 Reform congregations hosting the scroll as it makes its way from Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, which donated it, throughout the United States and Canada. It will arrive in Israel in time for Rosh Hodesh, or the commemoration of the new moon, on June 29.
Receiving the scroll on the eve of Shavuot, the holiday marking the Israelites’ receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, will be especially meaningful for members of Anshe Emeth, said Miller.
Women of the Wall, which advocates for women’s and egalitarian worship at the Western Wall, has sent a letter to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Kotel, informing him the group intends to read from the scroll on June 29 in the women’s section.
WOW spokesperson Shira Pruce, a Rutgers University graduate and former East Brunswick resident, said in an e-mail from Israel that as of May 14 the group had received no response to the letter, “but we are gearing up for a larger public campaign now in the planning stages.”
She said it would be the first attempt to read Torah in the women’s section since the arrest of activist Nofrat Frenkel, who attempted to read from a scroll in November 2009.
“Women have not been allowed to read Torah at the Kotel since the very first WOW prayer in December 1988,” said Pruce.
Instead, the group has read from a scroll at various locations throughout Jerusalem’s Old City. Rabbi Rebecca Solielle Epstein, who is directing the Torateinu ARZA campaign, said WOW had deliberately refrained from reading from a Torah scroll while they and other advocates negotiated with Israeli officials over what earlier this year became the creation of a pluralist prayer area at the Wall.
However, the time had come to take a stand, said Epstein, and to press for full, free prayer for women at the holy site, including the ability to access Torah scrolls at the Kotel for women’s Torah reading.
“Jews around the world care about this issue of full equality in terms of religious sites and prayer…in Israel, a place where all our prayers are answered,” said Epstein, a former assistant rabbi at Anshe Emeth who now lives in Austin, Texas.
At Emanu-El, Rabbi Greg Litcofsky said by reading the scroll on Shavuot, the synagogue’s 10th-grade confirmation class will gain “an amazing connection to the Jewish people all over the world.”
“Can you imagine these high school students will be reading the Ten Commandments from this Torah? It’s such a concrete way of connecting kids with the Land of Israel and other Reform synagogues around the country,” said Litcofsky. “In some ways, it’s like a torch being passed from one synagogue to another as a way of connecting to our brothers and sisters in Israel.”
Rodeph Torah will host the scroll the Shabbat before Shavuot, when the congregation welcomes its incoming confirmation class, said Rabbi Donald Weber.
“We symbolically hand the Torah from this year’s 10th-grade to the incoming class as they begin their year-long journey to confirmation, just as this Torah is beginning a new journey,” he said. “We really like the connection. What I especially love is the physical connection to the land and people of Israel and the Women of the Wall. We hope it will inspire next year’s confirmation class, but for me it is inspiring to see Reform Jews stand up and say Israel and Reform Judaism are connected. We’ve not said that enough.”