A local synagogue Torah is taking a trip outside Pittsburgh. A 4,279-mile, one-way trip, to be exact.
Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill is donating one of its roughly half-dozen Torahs to a Reform congregation in Milan, Italy.
It all started with Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who retired in June after 32 years leading the Squirrel Hill Reform Judaism congregation. To honor Gibson, congregants hired a scribe to handwrite a new Torah, a one- to two-year process, in his honor, said Drew Barkley, the temple’s executive director. When some members learned of the plan, a few wondered if the congregation needed an additional Torah.
“We thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good question!’” Barkley laughed. “Some synagogues are lucky to have one. We have five or six, each with a unique history. So, we thought, maybe we should donate one of our existing Torahs.”
Enter Lynn Magid Lazar.
Lazar’s been attending services at Temple Sinai for more than 20 years and also serves as a board member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The latter organization, which prides itself on its ability to get Torahs to communities that need them, found Temple Sinai a recipient in need in Italy: Congregation Lev Chadash.
“It’s like having a pen pal assigned to you,” Barkley said. “Everyone here said, ‘Milan, Italy? I’m going to that one.’ Everyone was making plane reservations before we hung up the phone!”
Though COVID-19 has put a halt on those plans, Temple Sinai officials said they still are very much looking forward to hand delivering the Torah to the Italian congregation and taking part in the ceremonial passing of the religious text.
“It’s a powerful, powerful thing, to see the exchange, to see the Torah get passed from one group to another,” said Lazar, who saw an exchange in Israel and also the repatriation of a Torah to southeast Asia.
Then, a friendship bloomed. Though about nine in every 10 American Jews are Ashkenazi, most observant Jews at Lev Chadash in Milan are Sephardic and the two sides bonded over a common love: food. The Italian counterparts even led Zoom sessions for about 70 Temple Sinai congregants on the subject.
“These are the most extroverted, friendliest, warmest people,” Barkley said.
The groups started exchanging notes of friendship, too.
“In Pesach, we like to think that the sea opened and we were free, but the story does not end with the sea closing on the Egyptians,” wrote Lev Chadash board president Aldo Luperini, discussing the struggle in the U.S. with COVID-19. “It was necessary to cross the desert before we were completely free. With patience and one step after another, we will soon be able to gather.”
Temple Sinai, in turn, has been preparing for the Torah to pass over the Atlantic Ocean. Members of the congregation are working on a needlepoint mantle for the donated Torah, designed by a member.
Temple Sinai members also are focusing on the writing of the new Rabbi Gibson-inspired Torah by a female soferet. The scroll will be one of only 21 worldwide, and Pittsburgh’s first, created by a woman. And earlier this year, the Temple Sinai community aimed to collect 304,805 pennies — one for each Hebrew letter in the Torah.
“We’re doing a very good job of keeping it in the minds and hearts of our community,” Lazar said. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.