From across Petaluma[, California]’s Penry Park, the large and festive assembly strongly resembled a Jewish wedding. But no couple stood beneath the flower-bedecked canopy, waiting to be joined in marriage.
As about 125 people — most from the Chabad Jewish Center of Petaluma — all warmly socialized in the sunshine and enjoyed ornate desserts, rabbi and scribe Levi Potash was putting the final touches on a new, hand-written Torah scroll, over a year in the making. Once completed, the full assembly would celebrate by dancing the Torah down the streets of Petaluma to its new home at the Chabad Center on Keller Street.
“In some ways, this is a wedding,” said Rabbi Dovid Bush. “The comparison is, the Torah is like a marriage contract between the Hebrews and God. It’s the document we live by. That canopy is the same one we use for weddings, and when we are ready, we have another canopy that we’ll use when we dance the Torah through the streets.”
The celebration this past Sunday coincided with Chabad’s sixth anniversary in Petaluma, and gives the community its own Torah scroll for the first time since establishing the center in fall of 2015.
“As a new organization, a new Jewish Center, we didn’t have the resources to purchase one of our own,” said Bush, explaining that Torahs generally cost $25,000 to $50,000, and some can top $100,000. “We’ve had a borrowed Torah we’ve been using for the last six years. It does the job, but for us to finally have our very own Torah, that’s a whole different ballgame.”
As children played with balloons tied into the shape of flowers, Stars of David and even blue and white Torahs, a Klezmer band entertained a crowd gathered under a tent, where tables stood full of festive desserts and stacks of blue yamakas, emblazoned with menorah emblems and the words “Chabad Jewish Center of Petaluma.”
Throughout, a steady stream of attendees visited Potash, the scribe, under the canopy, taking pictures and watching as the final lines of the new Torah were carefully penned.
“A Torah scroll is cool for so many reasons,” said Bush. “The first Torah scroll was written by Moses, which eventually went into the Ark of the Covenant, then a copy was made for each of the 12 tribes. Today, every Torah — from Israel to New York to Petaluma — is a precise, letter-for-letter copy of that original Torah scroll. That consistency and precision is part of the beauty of the Torah, and part of what binds us together as Jews.”
The written Torah, also known as the Pentateuch, is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It tells the history of the Jewish people from the creation of the world through to the journey of the Jewish people in the desert, and includes the laws and lessons that have guided and inspired the Jews for thousands of years.
“Torah means literally means ‘guidance,’“ said Bush. ”It’s a users manual for how to live a meaningful life.“
The physical Torah itself is a scroll of parchment made from the hide of a kosher animal, usually calfskin, though goats, sheep and deer can also be used. About 65 animals go into making a Torah scroll, a process that takes about a year, and has been done more-or-less the same way from the very beginning. Using quills made of turkey feathers, and an organic, plant-based ink, a scribe carefully hand-letters the text onto the parchment, with absolute accuracy being the goal.
“It’s an art. There are many nuances to how the lettering should look,” said Bush. “A Torah contains a total of 304,805 individual letters. If there is a mistake, if it is missing even a single letter, then it is invalid. It isn’t kosher.”
The parchment is then wrapped around two wooden pillars known as the Pillars of Life or sometimes the Trees of Life. Rabbis can roll the scroll to any lesson they want to read at any particular moment.
“You can’t print a Torah on the computer,” said Bush. “It would not have the same energy.”
That said, computers are sometimes employed to help confirm the accuracy of a newly created Torah scroll, Bush explained. After the scribe’s work is independently verified by a second scribe, the pages can be scanned and then checked by computer.
Once the final letter is put in place, the scroll is placed into a special covering, then topped with a Keter (a silver crown). Altogether, once completed, a Torah scroll can weigh 30 to 40 pounds.
“I don’t know if this is significant for the greater community of Petaluma, maybe it is, but for the Jewish community, which is pretty small here, there aren’t that many events that bring everyone out like this,” said Morty Wiggins, who attends services at the Chabad Center. “Jews are very clannish, you know. So its nice to find a reason to come out and see the rest of the clan sometimes, and this is a pretty nice reason.”
Noting that, in light of a national uptick in antisemitic violence across the country last May, there was a small presence of Petaluma police officers in Penry Park on Sunday, Wiggins said it’s important for the Jewish community to have public events.
“Absolutely it is. It’s great for the whole community to see us celebrating in public once in a while,” Wiggins said. “Joy and happiness, who doesn’t like that? That’s an easy vibe to relate to. Any time you can send love and togetherness into the world, I’m all for it.”
Among the attendees was California Assembly member Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, who took the stage to present a framed proclamation honoring the Chabad Center for its six years, and commemorating the new Torah scroll.
“Let me point out that the proclamation is signed by 14 members of the state legislature, many of which are Jewish,” he said.
For Levine, the day’s event was one he said he would not have missed.
“Sonoma works hard to be a welcoming community for people of all faiths,” he said after his short speech. “The Jewish community in Petaluma dates back to the late 1800s, so its amazing to see it continue to thrive to this day, and to see that Jewish continuity throughout our community. As for what it means for Chabad of Petaluma to have its own Torah, well, the Torah is our sacred book. Having a Torah of its own means this community is thriving.”
Potash posed for a few final pictures as the last touches were added, and with that, as Bush and his family looked on, and the gathered crowd surrounded the canopy to witness the moment, the Torah was complete.
“Time to dance!” shouted Bush, as the Torah was carefully covered, the crown was put in place, and it was lifted high for all to see before its journey around the corner to the Chabad Center.
“There is a beautiful custom that is done at the conclusion of the reading of the Torah in synagogue,” Bush explained. “We lift it up and everyone sees the columns of the Torah. We lift it high, like a clock tower, like the one we have here in Petaluma. The Torah is our clock tower. It’s our guide. It’s our anchoring document. Yes, the Torah is a Jewish thing, but there are many, many beautiful messages in the Torah that can be meaningful to anyone.”