By Rabbi Josh Weinberg, ARZA President
“משה קיבל תורה מסיני ומסרה ליהושע, ויהושע לזקנים, וזקנים לנביאים, ונביאים מסרוה לאנשי כנסת הגדולה.” אבות א:א
“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.” Pirkei Avot 1:1
Dan, the customs official at Ben Gurion airport, had just told me to have a seat with my Torah and wait. For those of us accustomed to Israeli bureaucracy, the fateful “wait here a few minutes” might seem like a true test of endurance, and a warning to cancel all plans for that day. When he came back offering me a cup of coffee, I really thought I was in for it. However, 10 minutes later we signed the necessary paperwork, paid our fees and were actually cleared to leave with our Torah.
“So, is that a real Torah anyway?” he asked as we were leaving? “Absolutely,” I said “A great mitzvah…” he called out to us with a wink that showed us that even the customs official felt the importance of bringing the gift of Torah to a fledgling Israeli community and that Israeli bureaucracy is, of course, also Jewish…
Standing in the arrivals hall, back near the vending machines, we took the Torah out and I passed it to Yael Karrie, the student rabbi of Shaar HaNegev. Amidst swarms of Orthodox Jews, I wasn’t sure how a woman would fair holding a Sefer Torah in the airport, and we decided it would be worth the risk. I handed her the Torah, and an elderly head-covered woman came running up to ask if she could kiss the Torah, and ‘may it bring good things for the people of Israel!’
Traditionally, when we take the Torah out of the ark during services we chant the following words from the book of Isaiah: “כי מציון תצא תורה” – From out of Zion comes Torah”. Over the past 6 months we have had the pleasure of changing Isaiah’s words. One specific Sefer Torah has been on a journey from West to East – from San Diego to the Negev. As we bring the Torah to Israel let us now say: “”אל ציון תצא תורה – “UNTO Zion shall go Torah”. “Torateinu ARZA,” or “Our Torah to the Land” is an initiative of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), through which one Torah scroll — generously donated by Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego — is traveling the country, synagogue to synagogue, and will then be donated to Kehilat Sha’ar HaNegev, a Reform community in the Northern Negev desert. Since February, the Torah has been visiting dozens of our communities, events, conventions and ceremonies. I had the great honor of walking with the Torah during Shabbat morning services at the URJ board meeting in Cincinnatti, and now the even greater honor of receiving the Torah as it landed at Ben Gurion airport in Israel.
We had previously planned for our Torah – Torateinu – to join the celebrations at the Kotel and to send the message that until the egalitarian section of the Kotel is completed to our satisfaction, we will keep asserting the right of women to read from the Torah in the women’s section. We then subsequently made the hard decision that this was not the right time to bring the Torah into the Kotel plaza. The Tfila of Rosh Hodesh – both from Women of the Wall and many others – was dedicated and directed towards the three kidnapped teenagers Eyal, Gil-ad and Naftali, who we continue to keep in our thoughts as we move from shiva to Shloshim.
Let this Torah be a symbol of light, unity and good will that is so desperately needed in Israel during these days. Let it show the world that we in the Reform movement hope to make Torah accessible for all Jews and that our communities and congregations place Torah in the center of their existence. As each community held and then passed the Torah, we became aware of the importance to have a strong presence in Israel. To work for recognition for our movement and to show Israeli society that there are many ways to be religious. The more votes we have this coming spring for the World Zionist Congress elections, the more our Reform communities in Israel will thrive, and the more Torah we will be able to give to Israel and to the world.
The Torah has now made Aliyah, and I encourage you all to go visit it (and the community) soon! This could not have happened without the generosity of Rabbi Michael Berk of Temple Beth Israel, San Diego and Rabbi Rebecca Epstein for her meticulous coordination, enduring oversight and of course, passion for Israel, Torah and the Jewish people.
For more stories and pictures of the Torah’s travels and visits: https://www.facebook.com/torateinuarza