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A New Home for Old Torah

A fledgling Camarillo Jewish group will dedicate the holy scrolls that were unearthed from a basement in Romania.

September 07, 2003|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

A century ago in Ukraine, a group of Jews would unfurl a particular Torah during their religious services and read reverently from it. When the Torah was paraded through the sanctuary, they would kiss their fingers and gingerly touch them to the scrolls.

Just who those worshipers were is unknown, and whether their synagogue, their village or their children survived the Nazi scourge is open to question. But their Torah -- the hand-lettered parchment that is the holiest of the Jewish Holy Scriptures -- will see new life as the centerpiece of a fledgling congregation in Camarillo.

Chabad of Camarillo, a new worship group in the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox movement, will dedicate the restored Torah in a celebration today.

"It's one of the happiest moments in the Jewish life cycle," said Rabbi Aryeh Lang, 26, the group's spiritual leader. "The Torah represents goodness and light and morality -- everything that's good in the world today."

Chabad has no building of its own. The 40 or so regulars in the congregation meet once a month in the suburban house Lang shares with his wife, Leah, and their 1-year-old daughter, Mushka. After being in limbo for decades in eastern Europe, the Torah will be at home in a traditional ark the Langs are installing in their living room.

According to tradition, the Torah was first received by Moses on Mt. Sinai. The first five books of the Bible, it became the focal point of Jewish law and custom.

The origin of this Torah is unclear. Nobody knows the last time a 13-year-old squinted down at its endless columns of Hebrew text and recited from it at his bar mitzvah. Nor can anyone pin down the first time it was jubilantly marched around a synagogue, a custom linking Jews with ancestors who worshiped before such scrolls more than 3,000 years ago.

Judging from the distinctive style of its lettering, the Torah was penned in Ukraine 100 to 150 years ago, said Jacov Safranovitz, a Los Angeles rabbi who spent nearly a year restoring it.

Safranovitz, 63, is a sofer, or scribe, who must pore over every one of the Torah's 304,805 Hebrew characters. Those that are faded he meticulously re-inks with a quill he fashions from a turkey feather. The task is itself viewed as sacred, and Safranovitz must cleanse himself in a mikvah, or ritual bath, before undertaking it.

Safranovitz acquired the Camarillo scrolls from the massive collection of Moses Rosen, the late chief rabbi of Romania. Rosen was a charismatic figure, forging uneasy alliances with successive Communist dictators in exchange for benign treatment of the Jewish community.

"He had crates of Torahs in the basement of his synagogue," Safranovitz said. "He was trying to protect the future of Judaism."

Some of the Torahs that found safe haven were from neighboring Ukraine, where an estimated half of the once-thriving Jewish population was wiped out during World War II. German soldiers sweeping through Russia methodically shot more than 33,000 Jews in two days at the infamous ravine of Babi Yar. After the war, Jews who remained or returned were repressed for decades by Communist regimes.

A number of U.S. synagogues have retrieved Torahs that survived World War II in Europe. But the one that wound up in Camarillo has special resonance for Lang and his Chabad congregants.

Their movement was started by a rabbi in Russia in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The lettering of the Camarillo Torah indicates it was written by scribes who were among his followers.

"Nothing is by chance," Lang said. "To be able to have this type of Torah even adds to the joy."

Chabad members in Camarillo will gather today in Mission Oaks Park. A few dignitaries will speak, thanking Don Benji, a Los Angeles businessman who donated the scroll to Chabad. Congregants will gather around it beneath a chupa, or bower traditionally used in weddings. A klezmer musician will play.

But mostly, the community will celebrate.

"I hope everybody brings their dancing shoes," Lang said. "This will be a real happy time."

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