Members of the small Sephardic congregation, Kehilat Sfarad, are primed for a particularly meaningful Rosh Hashanah 5776, as they celebrate the receipt of their very first Torah in the congregation’s 29-year history.
The Torah, along with its silver adornments, a yad and a shofar, were donated to Kehilat Sfarad last week from Beth Israel Congregation in Latrobe, Pa., which closed earlier this year and is in the process of winding down its affairs.
Kehilat Sfarad, which meets for High Holiday services in the ground floor sanctuary at Congregation Poale Zedeck, serves about 40 local Sephardic Jews, mostly of Spanish, Portuguese, North African and Middle Eastern descent. It hosted its first minyan in 1986 at Shaare Torah Congregation, renting space off and on for several years. Last year, Kehilat Sfarad moved its minyan to Poale Zedeck.
While Poale Zedeck allowed the group to borrow two Torahs for its holiday minyans last year, the congregation was interested in obtaining a Torah of its own, said Abraham Anouchi, founder and president of Kehilat Sfarad. One of the reasons the Sephardic minyan was looking for its own Torah, Anouchi said, is that it hopes to begin holding Shabbat services once or twice a month in addition to its High Holy Day services.
“Last year, I was looking for a Sefer Torah, but I couldn’t afford it,” Anouchi said. A Torah in good condition can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000.
Anouchi, 85, decided to reach out to area small town synagogues that were closing as a result of dwindling Jewish populations, to see if any would be interested in donating a Torah to Kehilat Sfarad. Anouchi’s wife, Patricia Love Anouchi, had heard about Beth Israel in Latrobe through her work on the steering committee of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. Sharon Perelman, associate director of the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which is helping several area synagogues plan their legacies, also suggested Anouchi get in touch with Beth Israel.
In December 2014, Anouchi sent a letter to Mickey Radman, president of Beth Israel, asking that the congregation’s board consider donating one of its Torahs to Kehilat Sfarad. Anouchi offered to raise about $2,000 in an expression of appreciation for the donation.
While Beth Israel had received inquiries about its Torahs from congregations in 48 states, according to Radman, its board ultimately decided to give one of its Torahs to Kehilat Sfarad.
“We decided to donate it to the Sephardic congregation in Pittsburgh because they do not have a Torah, and because you cannot be a congregation and not have a Torah,” Radman said.
While Radman is unsure of the Torah’s history, he heard that it was the first Torah to be purchased by the congregation in 1907 and that it may have originated in Egypt, and then migrated through Poland.
Beth Israel has donated two additional Torahs to the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach Island.
Because the Latrobe Torah donated to Kehilat Sfarad may have originated in Egypt, Anouchi believes that it may, in fact, be a Sephardic Torah.
Differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Torahs include minor variations in the script; in Sephardic Torahs, the crowns on some of the letters have small circles, while in Ashkenazi Torahs, the crowns have horizontal bars.
Anouchi, who is also a member of Young People’s Synagogue in Pittsburgh, traveled to Latrobe last week along with Kehilat Sfarad’s rabbi, Baruch Friedman, and its chazzan, Shimon Ohayon, to see the Torah.
“Mickey Radman was cordial, and a delightful person to meet,” Anouchi said. “But after he showed us the Sefer Torah, and all the silver, he said that the $2000 we had offered in the letter was not enough. He said they wanted $3000. I jumped up and said, ‘Yes.’ He gave us a year to pay. I was delighted. We all agreed right away.”
Members of Kehilat Sfarad do not pay dues, but the congregation does sell its aliyot and its haftorahs, although in a manner in which congregants do not compete with each other for the purchase of the honors, Anouchi said.
Now that the Torah has arrived in Pittsburgh, it is undergoing some minor repairs by sofer Moshe Barucas. Although it will not be ready to be used on the High Holy Days this year, the congregation will have a traditional ceremony welcoming it on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
“We’ll have to tackle the problem of fixing any faulty letters after the holidays,” Anouchi said. “Meanwhile, during the High Holidays we will use another Torah scroll loaned to us by Poale Zedeck. However, it will not prevent us from celebrating the donation of the Latrobe Torah.”
Another local Sephardic minyan is hosted once a month on Shabbat at Shaare Torah Congregation.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.