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Project Sefer Torah: Now therefore write this song for yourselves

The Jewish Press

The last commandment of the Torah is a self-perpetuating one. Having a new Sefer Torah written is not a daunting communal undertaking, but is quite a challenge for the average Jew. One solution is to fulfill one`s obligation at a Siyum Sefer (festive completion) by shading in the outlines of the last letters of a newly completed scroll.

I saw a siyum recently after we unexpectedly became involved in the acquisition of a Sefer Torah. The tale begins in the lobby of an Istanbul hotel in the spring of 2003. My husband had flown from Tel Aviv to Turkey on a business trip. Mordechai was heading for the Sisli synagogue that morning when the word “Shalom!” rang in his ears. This friendly greeting came from a middle-aged Australian tourist. Though Mordechai could not linger to chat, he realized the man had something to communicate.

Indicating the tallit bag under Mordechai`s arm, he said, “You look like a religious man. I saw something that might interest you — an old Hebrew scroll in an antique store at the bazaar.”

“Really? Can I get hold of you this evening and hear more? I might want to take a look.”

Later that day, the Australian passed on the business card of the storeowner, Mr. Mahmoud. He couldn`t elaborate on the scroll that had sparked his curiosity, but from its size Mordechai assumed it was the Book of Esther.

A hectic schedule of meetings and inspections in various parts of Turkey left no time to checkout the lead out further, so Mordechai called his trusty Chabad connection, Rabbi Mendy Chitrick, before leaving Turkey. He asked him to look over a Purim megillah in the old souk.

“If it`s cheap enough, I`ll buy it,” he said, giving the address.

Rabbi Chitrick went a few weeks later to investigate.

“I saw it. It`s not a megillah — it`s a Torah!” he announced to his astonished friend. Mordechai had often fleetingly thought of dedicating a Torah scroll in memory of his late father. Perhaps now he would have that opportunity.

The next time he was in Turkey, he arranged to visit the tiny store together with Rabbi Chitrick, who knew some Turkish. They eventually found it tucked away in the inner recesses of the Grand Bazaar. Mahmoud showed off a consignment of Judaica obtained from Yugoslavia during the civil war a while back: a motley, battered assortment of old kiddush cups, havdalah plates and spice boxes. Then there was the scroll, the prize item, rolled loosely around two dark wooden handles (etz hayims). Scrutiny revealed a Torah fragment of significant size — the whole of Leviticus (Vayikra), and two-thirds of Numbers (Bamidbar) until the middle of Pinchas. Numbers was incomplete because the dealer had cut off a part that he sold to another customer. The trio sat down over drinks to negotiate a price. They explained to Mahmoud that the scroll was incomplete and only part of a much larger whole. After some haggling, they shook hands on a final price of $800 in cash.

Mordechai took the holy parchment to Israel, collecting the handles later from Rabbi Chitrik. Analysis revealed that the fragment had originated in a Polish or Lithuanian Ashkenazi community before winding up in Yugoslavia, and probably dated from the 1920s. Though it needed some repair, its condition was fairly good. To meet the challenge of finding the missing parts, Mordechai visited different scribes (sofrim), sometimes with no tangible results. He eventually found Deuteronomy (Devarim) through a Chabad chasid in Lod and put it aside. This portion had been saved from a fire. Its dimensions and Beth Yosef style of writing matched the Turkish fragment.

Over a year had gone by and the first two books of the Torah were still not forthcoming. After Mordechai spoke to Reb Arye, this Raanana scribe photographed one column of the fragment and sent it to a dozen professionals in Israel and overseas. One night of Chanuka three or four months later, Reb Arye called with the welcome news that he had found a good match for Genesis (Beraishit) and Exodus (Shemot).

They went to Bnei Brak to see Reb Avraham, who specialized in putting together Torah scrolls. He told them that he had bought the beginning of the Torah five years ago, expecting to sell it quickly, but had been unlucky and it remained on the shelf in his storeroom. He was amazed at the closeness of the match, the differences making almost indistinguishable — and thought that his section came from the same area as Mordechai`s original fragment.

“Perhaps it was waiting for you all these years,” he said to Mordechai. “The Holy One of Israel had you in mind and that`s why I couldn`t sell it.”

Reb Avraham assembled the Torah and commissioned a scribe to add the eight missing yeriot (about 32 columns). He did the proofreading, and checked and made corrections. Finally the Torah underwent a computer scan. He advised retaining the wooden handles, as they were part of the history of the scroll.

From start until completion, Mordechai`s project took two-and-a-half years. The Torah`s new home was the young township of Modiin — a magnet for young couples — where Mordechai`s son, Reb Binyamin, had recently moved with his family. Its dedication on the 10th of Elul 5765 met with singing, dancing, jubilation and flashing lights that held the children spellbound. Balconies filled with spectators. Rav David Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Modiin, said that he had never seen a parade with so many baby carriages. Dedicating this restored Torah at the Hoshen Modiin congregation in honor of Alexander de la Fuente, z”l, was a proud moment for our family.

My father-in-law had saved a Sefer Torah from the Honen Dal synagogue in the Hague during WWII. He buried it, and recovered it when he returned from hiding in Belgium. But tragically, his family and congregation were wiped out by the Nazis. His wife, small son and this rescued Torah accompanied him to the USA in 1952, along with another homeless Torah scroll. A framed picture shows Alex in a top hat and striped pants, holding a Torah at its rededication in New York. Both scrolls were donated to Sephardic synagogues.

The photo depicts a moving moment for this new immigrant as he restarted life on a different shore over 50 years ago. His final resting place in Israel is not far from Modiin, where his grandson and others will be reading from the new Torah scroll, which is also a survivor now that it was joined together and became whole.