By Rabbi Eytan Kenter, Kehillat Beth Israel
As the inheritor of the ritual objects of not only the two legacy congregations that became Kehillat Beth Israel, but also of the Jewish communities of Pembroke and Cornwall, our congregation found itself in possession of 33 Torah scrolls. Upon my arrival at the synagogue a little over three years ago, 11 Torahs were in the arks and the rest were kept under less than ideal conditions in a storage room. For the sanctity of these scrolls, we knew this could not continue.
To determine the status of the Torah scrolls in storage and whether they were eligible for use, we contacted a company, Sofer on Site, to examine all of our scrolls and ensure that those in use are still kosher, and to determine what repairs others would need to resume kosher status.
When Sofer on Site arrived, they quickly worked their way through the 33 scrolls, but couldn’t help but ask about our plans for all of the Torahs. We acknowledged that since the majority of the scrolls required significant work, we would need to figure out how to navigate the bevy of repairs. And in an effort to look beyond our own use, our shul leadership discussed donating some of the scrolls to smaller communities who couldn’t otherwise afford a scroll of their own. A Torah can easily cost upwards of $20,000.
A few months after their visit, I received a phone call from Sofer on Site. An individual had reached out to them for a Torah scroll for his community. Might we be interested in donating one of our scrolls to them? Once we heard a little bit about the community, we knew that we had to assist them.
The request came from the Jewish community of Arusha, Tanzania, a generations-old community made up of descendants of Jews from Yemen and Morocco who arrived in the 1800s. This 70-person strong community lost its Torah in the 1970s – when it was destroyed in fights between Christian evangelicals and the Jewish community – and were requesting one so that they could worship more fully. The leader of the community, who is a lawyer and professor, studies almost daily via Skype with a rabbi in New Jersey in order to gain the skills necessary to guide his community. However, the community remains isolated and unable to fully pray without a Torah.
The Kehillat Beth Israel board overwhelmingly agreed to donate one of our Torah scrolls to this community, but one cannot simply FedEx a Torah to Africa. Additionally, we wished to use the Torah donation as a way to foster a relationship between our communities so that we can continue to support and learn from one another. Therefore, this November, a group of over 30 from Kehillat Beth Israel will arrive in Arusha with a Torah and the opportunity to better understand one another. I look forward to documenting our trip this fall and sharing it with the larger community.
For now, I take great satisfaction that this gift will bring our two communities together. We’ve already seen the impact of this partnership, as one delegate in our group has connected this community with the Commonwealth Jewish Council, providing a link to the wider Jewish world where previously there was none.
As the leader of the community told me, while geographically distant, these conversations make Canada feel mere minutes away. I cannot wait to further develop this relationship and explore the ways in which our communities can continue to enrich each other for many years to come. It is, after all, a very small Jewish world after all.