Temple Sinai is in a long-distance relationship.
Since 2019, the Pittsburgh Reform congregation has built a relationship through emails, texts and video chats with Lev Chadash, a congregation in Milan, Italy.
They made it official in May under the chuppah in a transatlantic celebration attended by members of both congregations.
Lynn Lazar credits the World Union for Progressive Judaism, where she served on the board of directors, and the organization’s Rabbi Nathan Alfred, for the shidduch.
The origins of the relationship go back to Temple Sinai’s decision to have a new Torah created in honor of retiring Rabbi Jamie Gibson, Lazar said. The congregation knew it would be left with an extra Torah after the project and decided to donate the scroll to a congregation in need of one.
“This was my brainchild,” she explained. “I said, ‘We’re beginning this project for Rabbi Jamie to create a Torah, and we’d like to find a match and donate one of our other Torahs.’”
Lazar’s only requirement was to find a congregation with whom Temple Sinai could build a relationship.
Lev Chadash, Alfred suggested, was in desperate need of a Torah. He thought a pairing might work despite an age difference that might make some suitors blush — Temple Sinai is a 77-year-old Reform congregation while Lev Chadash is a 20-year-old progressive synagogue.
The Italian congregation had two Torah scrolls, both unreadable in sections, neither kosher. One of the scrolls was a Czech scroll damaged in World War II with holes in it; the other was almost completely illegible. The congregation looked into having the latter scroll repaired but couldn’t afford the costly price tag.
So damaged were the scrolls, Temple Sinai Executive Director Drew Barkley said, that the congregation had to examine the scrolls each week and decide whether they would be able to read the weekly Torah selection.
Having found a match they were excited about, Temple Sinai swept right in, and congregational leaders were soon emailing and Zooming their European match, creating bonds despite having to work through language barriers.
Temple Sinai had the scroll it was planning to donate examined — and repaired where needed — to ensure that it was giving a usable Torah to the Italian congregation. They assumed the donation would occur shortly after it identified Lev Chadash.
“We nurtured the relationship and planned to visit for Simchat Torah in 2020,” Lazar said. “And then, of course, nobody went anywhere in 2020.”
Stymied by the pandemic that prevented travel outside of the country, the two congregations continued to find creative ways to deepen their relationship.
“In 2020, we had a Zoom session in which they talked about and taught what they called their Rosh Hashanah seder,” Temple Sinai Executive Director Drew Barkley said.
In fact, he continued, because of the COVID-19 delay, the relationship between the two congregations grew deeper than would have been possible if Temple Sinai had simply traveled the Atlantic and presented the Torah in 2020.
“The time and dedication that both sides spent for 2½ years in keeping this idea alive and making it happen, and the anticipation and the exchange of communication, enhanced what happened there,” Barkley said.
As often happens in long-distance relationships, another party entered the picture; and while that often means the end of an affair, this one strengthened the bonds that had been formed.
“Lev Chadash’s current rabbi [Sylvia Rothschild] is a woman from England who before COVID traveled there once a month,” Lazar explained. “Then she couldn’t travel there at all. So, she was almost a third arm of this relationship that helped to keep it going. She looped us in with the congregation and stayed connected. It became a three-way thing for all the time that she maintained this relationship and couldn’t physically be there either.”
The virtual relationship moved in-person when Temple Sinai congregants flew to Italy in mid-May. Barkley was charged with shepherding the Torah across the ocean, secure in a golf bag and protected in bubble wrap.
After arriving in Milan, the Pittsburgh contingent — which included Lazar, Barkley, Gibson, as well as Cantor David Reinwald, Rabbi Sara Perman and Temple Sinai Development Director Leslie Fleisher, among others — were offered a tour and spent time on Thursday, May 19, and Friday, May 20, with their hosts before Shabbat began.
On May 21, the Torah was officially donated to Lev Chadash in a ceremony that included all three clergy members chanting from the scroll. After the ceremony, the relationship between the two congregations was finalized beneath a procession that wound through the streets and included a chuppah held aloft by Barkley and others.
“It got really emotional,” he said. “Seventeen years of doing this for a living, and this was the apex of my career.”
An announcement was printed in the Milan section of Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera. There’s even a video, as Fleisher recorded Lev Chadash member Vincenzo Yehudah Caruso chanting Torah, in a trope that will be unfamiliar to some.
Fleisher said the two congregations shared an Italian phrase during their days together that was the perfect sentiment for the trip: “Siamo due comunità che hanno formato una grande famiglia unita,” or, “We are two communities that have formed a big family.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.