When Temple Sinai’s Senior Rabbi Jamie Gibson retires in June, he’ll leave the Reform congregation with more than just memories. Last month, a scribe began the work of creating a new Torah scroll to commemorate Gibson’s 32 years with the synagogue.
Temple Sinai’s new Torah will be historic. Not only is it the first to be written for the synagogue, but it will also be the only Torah penned by a female scribe in the region. The scroll will be one of only 21 worldwide, and Pittsburgh’s first, created by a woman.
The idea of writing a new Torah scroll and employing a soferet (a female scribe) was a simple one, according to Executive Director Drew Barkley, who credits the outgoing rabbi.
“He embraced the project. He understood the impact. Being Jamie, he immediately said, ‘I want a soferet.’ It came from him. It’s who we are. He wanted it to be inclusive and make a statement.”
Once the decision was made to employ a soferet, Barkley worked with the temple’s Torah Project Committee and its chairperson, Nancy Gale. After a search using the website stamscribes.com, which bills itself as “a collective of progressive Jewish scribes from all over the world,” the committee settled on Linda Coppleson.
Coppleson grew up in New Jersey and first became interested in Hebrew calligraphy while attending Brandeis University. Reading “The Jewish Catalog,” a guide she describes as a “how-to-be-Jewish book,” the Judaic Studies major came across a section about scribal arts.
“I just thought this was the best thing since sliced bread. I went out and bought all these materials and started to teach myself,” she said. “Eventually, I found a teacher.”
Coppleson’s first teacher was a commercial artist who learned Hebrew so he could create logos for synagogues.
While working at a Jewish day school teaching Tanakh and Jewish history, Coppleson began writing ketubot (Jewish marriage contracts) for friends and friends-of-friends. In 2001, she decided to bring her passion together with her vocation and begin the process of learning how to write a Torah.
More than learning the skill of the scribe, Coppleson faced a challenge in finding anyone to teach her. The Talmud prohibits women from writing a Torah and that view is still held by much of the Orthodox Jewish world.
Eventually, a rabbi scribe living in New York agreed to be her teacher.
“I would meet with him every couple of weeks. I would practice and I would show him what I had done, and he taught me how to write, how to cut the quill, how to do a lot of the practical things,” she said.
As important as that early help was, Coppleson credits a study group that met every Monday night for over two years as the most influential part of her training.
“I was in a chavrusa with the first woman to write a whole Sefer Torah,” Coppleson recalled. “We studied sections from Talmud and Keset HaSofer, which means ‘The Inkwell of the Scribe.’”
While Coppleson was unable to take the exam normally given to men before they begin writing Torahs as a trade, the soferet eventually felt ready.
“At some point you say to yourself, ‘I think I can do this now.’”
In 2010, Coppleson was one of six female scribes that completed a Torah scroll for a Reconstructionist congregation in Seattle, Washington, writing close to 20 of the 62 pages.
“After that, I was contacted by a synagogue in Park Slope and that was my first solo commission.”
She has also completed Torahs for the Conservative Jewish day school where she worked, as well as for synagogues in Chicago, California and New Orleans.
Despite appearing to be in line with current trends, Coppleson doesn’t view her work as an overt feminist statement.
“I grew up in Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s synagogue. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and (Rabbi Abraham Joshua) Heschel,” she said. “He was very liberal in terms of religious practice. The idea of being close to the Torah and not being on the bimah because I was a girl never entered my mind.”
Although egalitarianism is important to Coppleson, she is quick to point out that this was “something I wanted to do for myself. It wasn’t for a movement.”
Coppleson visited Pittsburgh on Nov. 22 and 23. Participants in the project were able to hold her wrist as she scribed the first portion of the temple’s Torah.
Writing a Torah is a mitzvah in Jewish tradition. Barkley wanted to allow the entire community to participate in that mitzvah, whether they were Jewish, part of an interfaith family or simply felt connected emotionally to Gibson.
Gibson explained that since Coppleson is writing the Torah and participants are touching her wrists, “we can welcome anyone. Everyone can participate equally.”
The Torah will be completed sometime next December and Coppleson plans to return to the city several times throughout the year, allowing for additional opportunities for those wishing to participate in the writing of the scroll.
“I was so excited to have our congregational family come together to embark on this journey into the Torah,” Gibson said. “Just seeing the ‘bet’ of ‘B’reishit’ written on the parchment was thrilling, knowing we are renewing our Jewish commitment in our source and making it come alive for the generations to come.”
The commission of Temple Sinai’s new Torah is just one element of an entire year celebrating Gibson’s legacy. Other activities include an artist-in-residence weekend in March with Dan Nichols, a performance by the band Nefesh Mountain in May and a Friday night Shabbat featuring URJ President and CEO Rick Jacobs on April 3.
Gibson’s last Shabbat as senior rabbi will be on June 19 and 20, 2020. pjc
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.