Borderline Views: Torah to Zion
by David Newman
I have been privileged during the past 10 years to bring a number of Torah scrolls from the UK to communities in Israel. In most cases these have been scrolls which are either surplus to the synagogues in the UK or are from synagogues which have closed down and are disposing of their assets. The recipients are mainly young communities which require the minimum of one Torah scroll – two would be better – for weekly use, but do not have the necessary resources for initiating the writing of a new scroll.
There are other needy recipients, not least army bases and some public institutions such as universities and hospitals. Even the trains bringing workers into Tel Aviv evry day have cars reserved for prayer services, and they too are in need of usable scrolls. These diverse prayer groups would be grateful for such a gift from a Diaspora community.
The process of transporting a Torah scroll is an interesting one. One can have a special box built for it, but this can be quite expensive and takes up a lot of luggage room. Or one can simply walk onto a plane carrying the scroll and find an appropriate place to store it – a place where it will not be disturbed. I have found El Al to be particularly helpful and, if notified in advance, it will give priority boarding and make a shelf or a closed space available in which to store the scroll safely.
Walking into the departure lounge of Heathrow Airport with a Torah scroll in one’s arms is a sure guarantee of a seat and, on most occasions, a lively conversation with fellow travelers about the origins of the scroll, its destination, and the thought of getting their own communities to donate one to a community here.
Taking the scroll through security checks is not always that easy and, in the UK at least, it is advisable to inform the airport chaplain in advance. It is always useful to be surrounded by fellow travelers who will add to the explanation when needed, to see it safely through the X-ray machine (which the rabbis allow) and, in some cases, to open it and put the cover back on when an overzealous security official (and in the post 9/11 era there are plenty of these) insists on seeing what’s inside.
There have unfortunately been many cases of Torah scroll thefts in recent years. Just last week the Israeli police announced that it had broken up a gang who had been responsible for a wave of thefts at synagogues throughout the country. Seventy scrolls were found at the home of one of the suspects.
It is therefore necessary to ensure in advance that there is no problem with the customs authorities. It is important to have letters from both the donor and recipient communities which attest to the fact that this scroll is being given as a present, and is not intended for commercial use. The Ministry of Religious Services, in turn, issues a customs permit for the import of a Torah scroll (which is required for the customs official at Ben-Gurion Airport).
Most scrolls are instantly visible, but there have been cases in which the scroll has been removed from its wooden holders and wrapped inside a suitcase.
It is always good to receive a Torah scroll that’s ready for use and has no blemish. Equally, there is no point in bringing in a scroll that is in such a bad state that it is either impossible to repair or that the repair would cost almost as much as the writing of a new scroll. This is always checked out at the point of origin. Often communities are willing to donate their surplus scrolls, only to find out that there is no point in transporting them because of the poor state of the parchment or the illegible letters.
I have heard of cases where well-meaning donors have gone to great lengths to have Torah scrolls transported only to find after arrival that they are in such a bad state that the only thing for them is to be buried with other holy manuscripts. Torah scrolls, like people, have a life expectancy, and with some exceptions, 120-150 years is considered reasonable.
Most scrolls will require some repair. After having it checked by a scribe at the point of origin, I always have it repaired by qualified scribes here. Any repair up to approximately $3,000-$4,000 is well worth it, and is not normally beyond the capability of the recipient community. Most qualified scribes are able to identify the general state of the scroll quickly, and are often able to tell you the rough date and place where it was first written.
It is also common for the donors to have the scroll dedicated in the name of an individual or community. New Torah mantles are prepared, in some cases the wood is refurbished or replaced and the scribes ensure that the Torah is fit for use. It is also possible to have a computer inspection of the scroll to ensure that every letter is okay, and each scroll can be assigned a unique identification tag in a national computer database in the event of future theft. Some insurance companies now insist on such an ID before issuing a policy for a synagogue.
The final stage in the process is the induction of the old-new scroll into the recipient community. This is often done in a ceremony organized by both the donor and the recipient communities, to the lively sounds of music, dancing and general celebration. It is an event which transcends all political, social or cultural divisions, and which expresses the essential Jewish link between Israel and the Diaspora, and which has far greater significance and meaning than the writing of a cheque or the internet transfer of money.
At the risk of making this article into a promo, I urge communities and individuals in the Diaspora to check their stock of Torah scrolls. If you find that you have one scroll too many (perhaps even more than one) consider forging a link with a needy community here and arranging for its transfer. It gives a new meaning to the links between Israel and the Diaspora.
David Newman is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben- Gurion University. For further information or assistance on the transfer of Torah scrolls to Israel, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.