"I feel very sad that the Torah will be leaving," wrote Ruth Hirsch. "I hadn't realized how much it meant to me that it was here, available in a sense. How good it felt to dance with it and stand close to it on Simchat Torah. Thank you very much for bringing it here!"
This letter was from former Berkeley resident Ruth Hirsch, now living in Jerusalem. Other people in our community in Tzfat and our extended community all over Israel have expressed appreciation for having the Torah here in a community where women can be called to the Torah, can read from the Torah, and can lead parts of the davvening. Most people who come to the services are observant, many like to include chanting and movement and meditation in within the morning service, all appreciate the opportunity for women to participate fully.
Since the Minyan now has two ancient Torahs, I suggested in August that the Minyan might loan one of them to a small group of people in Tzfat who have been doing alternative High Holiday services for several years, but who have not had a Sefer Torah for their services. The Minyan Council approved the idea and we brought the Torah to Israel last September. Having it here in Tzfat inspired the community to meet more frequently than just for the HHDs. We had several Succot services and then celebrated Simchat Torah together with a large potluck lunch after the service that included over 50 people and several generations.
On the night of Simchat Torah we had a gathering for women only so the women of Tzfat would have the opportunity to dance with the Torah. It has been many years since the observant women have had such an opportunity. Women do get to touch the Torah in Israel. There are observant shuls where the men carry the Torah close enough to the women's section to allow women to kiss the Torah, but women do not get called up for aliyot or get to read from the Torah or get to hold the Torah. There is a Mizorti (Conservative) synagogue in Tzfat that does have women who read from the Torah, etc., but in most observant synagogues the women do not get their own Sefer Torah to dance with on Simchat Torah.
Many women from many different communities in Tzfat came to be with our Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah night, and we danced with it even longer than the men did n most of the surrounding synagogues, because waves of women came all through the evening. Some women did not feel comfortable dancing with it themselves--it was too new an idea for them--but they enjoyed watching others dance with it. Many of the observant women who came would not have danced with it had there been men present, and that is why we made it a women's only night.
After the High Holiday cycle was over, we decided to do a Shabbat morning gathering once or twice a month. Each morning service is different with different people leading different parts of the service. Some services have a more traditional format and some have more a Jewish renewal flavor with chanting, meditation, movement, and experiential components. We read the entire Torah portion, thanks to the knowledge of David Friedman who is able to leyn. Others, including myself and Reuven and Moshe Tov (a former member of the Minyan who lives in Tzfat and at whose house the gatherings take place), have also read from the Torah. We have individual aliyot as well as group aliyot and introduce them with kavanot and follow them with personalized blessings. Several people in the community have appreciated the opportunity to try new ways of shaping the Shabbat morning prayer service. The potlucks we sometimes have after the service are also appreciated, since there are not a lot of opportunities for people from so many different communities to join together on Shabbat.
One of the sweetest uses of the Torah was for a baby naming for a newborn girl. Mother, daughter, and father were all able to come close to the Torah while David read the portion of the Torah that was the baby's birth parsha. There was not another observant community in Tzfat that where mother and daughter would have been included in this way. The Thursday morning service where this occurred was a traditional service held in the art gallery of the father.
The Torah was loaned to the Tzfat community (nicknamed the AQ Minyan--Artists Quarter Minyan) on the condition that it would be returned before the next High Holy Days. Many of the long-time members of the Aquarian Minyan have a special attachment to this Torah which has been part of the community for over 26 years. Ariel Lenchner, a long-time member of the Aquarian Minyan who was born in Israel and who was visiting her family and friends here for Pesach offered to carry the Torah back with her when she returned to the San Francisco Bay Area in May, so it was agreed that she should do so. The community here is extremely grateful for the time the Torah has been with us.
When we were gifted with this Torah in 1978, we were told it was over 400 years old and came from Germany. It was hidden during the Holocaust and then remained in a warehouse in New York after the War for 30 years, before being restored, brought to San Francisco, and bought by Marie and Lew Winston as a gift for the Aquarian Minyan. It is an extremely beautiful Torah with extraordinary crowns that no one here has ever seen before. It also has kabbalistic ornamentations on some letter--such as spirals with some of the peys-- that makes it particularly appropriate for it to have resided in Tzfat for a while, since Tzfat is known for its schools of Kabbalah, both past and present.
I will always remember this spring as a frantically busy yet happy time.
Julie Sherman and I and a faithful band are working flat out on bringing the Fundraising Auction together: acquiring donations, thinking of new donors, planning the auction website and the live event. It is scary to be planning something so big; exciting to be learning new skills; gratifying that so many members and friends of the Minyan, and other businesses, are donating; and endlessly fascinating to see the creative donations our uniquely wonderful Minyan members dream up.
Would you like your portrait painted by Frank Born, or would you rather have Rob Katz write you a song, or will you prefer to have your picture taken by Avery Cohen or one of our other photographers? Or would you like some soup from Len and Tovia or some pie from Julie? Perhaps you'll go to Shabbat dinner at the Barkans or at Estelle and Steve's. Or maybe you'd like some chocolate, and perhaps you'd like to eat the chocolate in a beautiful bed and breakfast on the coast.
All this activity is building community as well as raising money for the Minyan. And the community is thriving. The High Holiday planning group has already met. This past weekend (May 20-22) we had three events and close to twenty people at each one. Our service leaders are planning a new series of Shabbat morning services in Berkeley. What a pleasure and what a spiritual uplift it is, to experience the creativity and intimacy, the depth and spontaneity, the tradition and innovation, that are the Minyan; and to see the different leaders and participants committing themselves to make it happen. I appreciate you all!
And as we thrive internally, we are in the midst of a summer-long program of outreach into the community at large. Our new Marketing Coordinator, Shauna Rabinowitz, has been successful in listing our events more widely, and getting a good story about the Torah into the J , the Jewish weekly. As we put on a very public auction, raise money, do PR, and have great events, we are reaching out for the new members and participants who will become part of the Minyan and help us be sustainable while still being ourselves.
We are designing a new brochure and will be making it available at many events this summer: our own auction, the Jewish Film Festival, the Solano Stroll, and How Berkeley Can You Be? We are in discussions about cosponsoring a concert with the Israeli singer Galeet Dardashti and her band Divahn (http://www.divahn.com/). And our Fall weekend with Rabbi Goldie Milgrom (September 9-11) will include a Shabbaton, a Sunday teshuvah workshop, and a Saturday evening program for the public aimed at healing painful feelings about negative childhood experiences with Judaism.
So, as the Aquarian Minyan moves through the first decade of the Twenty-First century, it's quite a ride! We are truly "Renewing the old, making holy the new," as we remain faithful to our roots in authentic and heartfelt spiritual experience while at the same time opening ourselves to new experiences and possibilities. I hope it's working for each of you, and that you will, as always, bring your voice and your spirit fully into this holy community.