Rushing out early yesterday morning for jury duty, I had time for only a brief glance at the L.A. Times. On the front page was a color photo of a man wading through hip-high water in New Orleans, hands gloved, arms holding a Torah.
It wasn't until last night that I read Solomon Moore's story behind the photo:
Satisfied that most of his congregants were safe, the rabbi began to worry about the Torahs.
Rabbi Yisroel Shiff of Congregation Beth Israel in New Orleans hoped that his Orthodox synagogue's holy scrolls would come through Hurricane Katrina undamaged. But if not, he wanted them buried in the appropriate manner.
"We bury them with honor, as we would someone we care about — the Torah is the life's blood of our community," Shiff said.
The rabbi, who evacuated to Tennessee before Katrina hit, knew that the temple near the shores of Lake Pontchartrain had been flooded. But, he said, "we believe in miracles. Maybe the water didn't reach the scrolls."
He called Rabbi Isaac Leider, who had spent five years in Israel with the search-and-rescue squad Zak'a, performing sacramental cleanup duties at bus bombings and other sites. Leider — who also volunteered his services at the World Trade Center, the TWA Flight 800 crash site and other tragedies — now works with a Jewish ambulance service in New York City and New Jersey.
He had come to New Orleans to make sure that the bodies of any Jews who died as a result of Hurricane Katrina were treated according to religious law. But he also focused on the task of retrieving the congregation's holy scrolls.
Shiff said at least one of the Torahs had been there when he attended the synagogue as a child — he doesn't know exactly how old the scrolls are.
"We had them appraised and were told our scrolls are much older than 100 years," he said. "They must have come from Europe. The congregation is 101 years old, and they have been with them at least that long."
Often, Torahs are the most valuable artifacts of a Jewish congregation. A new Torah scroll can cost $50,000. Older scrolls — and many are hundreds of years old — often are worth much more.
But their value is not based on the material.
"The Torah is the basis of the Jewish religion," Leider said. "Last week, we were saving lives, but once that was done, this became just as important."
Said Shiff: "The Torah scrolls are particularly precious to people who live by their words."
The Torah tells the story of Moses as he led the Jews out of Egypt. The text, which Christians know as the Old Testament, also holds the most important laws of the Jewish faith.
"The Torah is not stored in a computer file; we don't copy them on copy machines," said Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin, vice president of Agudath Israel of America, an association of several hundred Orthodox congregations that sponsored Leider's recovery efforts. "They are only written by the most devout and knowledgeable scribes."
A Torah is handwritten by a rabbinical scribe trained for years in the art of Hebrew calligraphy. There are centuries-old requirements on the exact size and spacing of characters, and special rites associated with words representing the Ten Commandments and Moses.
It can take as long as a year for a scribe — using a quill and sacred ink made from an age-old recipe — to complete a Torah. The scrolls must be made from cowhide, thinned to a leathery parchment, then woven together with leather thread to complete the text.
The scroll is then wrapped around wooden rods that often are capped with pure silver. Each Torah, the five books of the Jewish Scriptures, is then cloaked in purple velvet and stored in an ark, or cabinet; it is removed only for congregational prayers and on the high holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
And when they are damaged beyond repair — by fire or flood, for example — they must be buried according to Jewish tradition...
Read Moore's entire story.