Georgetown congregation honors traditions with Torah restoration

Over the course of 120 years, even the finest-made Torah can require a number of restorations. As has been the tradition for millenia, the responsibility for that restoration falls to the men and women of an individual Jewish temple.

The call to perform this restoration is, in fact, found in the text of that which often needs restorations, says Temple B’Nai Chaim member Lisa Somer.

“When the people restore it, they own it,” she said. “Jewish congregations have come together for generations to restore their Torahs. The text in the Torah actually talks about writing the Torah.”

Ms. Somer is the organizer of Temple B’Nai Chaim’s most recent Torah restoration project, which is aided by Sofer (scribe) Neil Yerman, an artist and calligrapher.

“What’s so special about this project is that we are involving the congregation,” Ms. Somer said.

Already, 120 of the temple’s members have aided Mr. Yerman in making corrections to the Torah. The project’s organizers hope this number rises to include every member of the temple.

“Just yesterday we had about 70 families participate, and we also have another session on April 8,” she said on Monday. “There are about 200 families in the congregation, and we hope to have a great participation rate.”

Temples are deeded with the upkeep of their own scrolls, Ms. Somer said, because it helps reinforce the continuity of the Jewish faith and its followers. This particular restoration was funded by a small group of donors who made the project possible for the entire congregation to take part.

This scroll has been restored and kept up by members of the temple for many years, she said.

“Unlike a normal book that would get worn and probably thrown out, it lives and it breathes” with the life of those who have worked on it, she said.

Like the Bible for Christians, the Torah is the most important document in the Jewish faith, Ms. Somer said.

“It’s unique to Judaism. No other religion worships or praises a scroll. The Torah scroll is something that lives on from generation to generation,” she said. “It’s used in all of the different services at the temple. During a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, this is the scroll they will use.”

In modern times, few members of the congregation are well equipped to help restore a Torah. In almost all cases, a well-seasoned scribe with a steady hand is required to properly restore the cracked ink and stained parchment an old Torah can present.

“The scribe’s job is to write, clean, and restore Torahs,” Ms. Somer said. “Mr. Yerman has done this his entire life. The Torah has 304,805 Hebrew letters, and if you are writing a new scroll it takes about a year when you consider the weekends and holidays he has to observe” per Jewish law.

Unlike a bound book, scrolls have an interesting set of problems as they age. Because they were originally designed to be unrolled and read in a dry Middle Eastern climate, the animal hide a Torah is printed on is not well-suited to the humid Connecticut weather.

“Scrolls are made from animal skin. They tend to get affected by the elements because of the humidity of New England. The skin tends to sweat in the summer, which causes the parchment and ink to get wet in between as you roll up the Torah like a poster,” Ms. Somer said. “The moist ink bleeds to the paper it’s folded onto and rubs, and the letters become either faded, or pieces are missing or broken.”

Mr. Yerman’s job is to find those broken letters and rejoin them, Ms. Somer said. He will also look for discolorations in the actual scroll — a natural reaction to contact with human skin.

At 120 years old, Temple B’Nai Chaim’s European-made scroll has been restored a number of times, but not for the past 18 years. Ms. Somer herself has been a member of the Georgetown temple for 15 years and has not had the chance to work on one before.

“Not all temples do this,” she said “I was able to find other places online when I searched, but I’ve been a member of this temple for 15 years and we’ve never done this before. This is not something that happens all the time. They did do a restoration 18 years ago, but a lot of people who had done it yesterday hadn’t done it before.”

For more information on Temple B’Nai Chaim, or its Torah Restoration project, visit templebnaichaim.org.