It is the Tree of Life

Posted by July 22, 2020 • Share:

written by Eytan Graubart

Years ago I learned from a rabbi and close friend that to build a Jewish community you need only two things: a kosher butcher and a Torah. And while the reason for having a kosher butcher as one of two pillars makes for a better drash (can we really be a Jewish community if we can’t get kosher chicken for Shabbat?), the reason for needing a Torah is a bit more powerful.

It seems obvious that our holiest item would be something we need to form a community, but Torahs are expensive and hard to come by. I challenged my friend and suggested that knowledge and love of Torah could suffice, but she disagreed. She spoke not about the knowledge within the scriptures, or the metaphorical representation of our history, but rather the spectacle that the Torah creates around Judaism. The experience of seeing, touching, and smelling a Torah is, for many, the actual physical sensation of being Jewish. The ritual involved in taking out a Torah, of blessing a community in the presence of one, is only experienced with the physical object in hand. A Torah has a way of developing a personality as well, much like an old piano, they start to sound better with age and use. Maintaining and caring for a Torah teaches important lessons, and their wardrobes are beautiful tapestries, unique and expressive of their caretaker’s love.

Since our inception in 2014, JCC Maccabi Sports Camp has been blessed with a Torah.Our Torah, like many hard-working camp professionals, had a year-round gig for the months not at camp. For her, it was at Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto.As we prepared for a camp season this year that ultimately would not happen, we also prepared for our first without the Torah that had been with us since the beginning, the one that brought us together. We are touched that this scroll will be making a journey across the world to serve a community in Israel.

Overwhelmingly supportive and welcoming of JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, Etz Chayim went above and beyond by allowing us to borrow their beloved Torah each summer.

During the summer of 2018, a few of our staff asked if they could roll the Torah in preparation for their readings at the next week’s Shabbat service. They invited others who had never seen a Torah scroll opened and rolled into place, to come and be part of the experience. We expected only a few people to show up, but our entire staff came and spent their night off staying up late and learning together. The Torah sprawled out, surrounded by talitot on people of all faiths, in the moonlight of camp, was one of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen.

That Torah now has a new home. After decades at Etz Chayim, JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, and supporting our year round and summer communities, that Torah has traveled home to Israel, where she will most certainly bring light and love to others. We made arrangements for a new Torah this summer, and we are again lucky and blessed to be in a community that supports camp. But even with incredible excitement and energy, we were no doubt going to have to get to know a new Torah. But that’s exactly what camp has always been about; making new friends…also, does anyone know a Kosher butcher?

And now, the history and future of what has been camp’s Torah…

The Story of the Familant Torah

Adapted from the writing of Abra Greenspan

When we, the Etz Chayim travelers were in Israel this past June, we met with Rabbi Lila who had studied with Rabbi Chaim in rabbinical school. She told us her story of ministering to the region and having success introducing secular Jews to the beauty of Judaism. Very unfortunately, she was in a situation in which she was no longer allowed to access the Torah she had been loaned because she is female and had other women accessing it.

After listening to her story, we wanted to help get her a Torah of her own that she could use with people in the region she serves. Rabbi Chaim suggested the Familant Torah as it wasn’t being used. He checked with Rabbi Familant for his blessing (the Torah belongs to Etz Chayim so permission was not needed but his blessing was desired.) Rabbi Familant was extremely enthusiastic and pleased that the Torah would be making aliyah and have a purpose with another rabbi.

The scroll, however, was not in good condition and the poles (atzei chayim) were broken. The scroll was sent to Florida, to a sofer/scribe be repaired. After it came back,  we tied it to new poles that congregant Jon Kaplan made.

There is some mystery surrounding the exact origins of the scroll, but scholars have done their best to deduce its origins. Rabbi Charles Familant was the Hillel Rabbi at Stanford University until 1975, at which point Rabbi Ari Cartun assumed the role.

Thanks to the sofer in Florida, we know that the Torah was scribed in Poland. A sofer can tell where a Torah scroll is from based on the kind of lettering. After that, it got to Germany. On November 9, 1938 during Kristallnacht in Germany, someone rescued the Torah from a burning synagogue. The Torah seems to have been brought to San Francisco by an uncle of Rabbi Joseph Asher, one of the rabbis at Temple Emmanu-El in SF and given to the Temple. It was later passed along to Rabbi Familant when he left Hillel at Stanford. When Rabbi Familant retired, he passed it along to Rabbi Ari Cartun at Congregation Etz Chayim where it has stayed for many years. The Torah has been used at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center Grief & Growing Weekend and has also spent several summers as the resident Torah at the JCC Maccabi Sports Camp in Menlo Park. It was in bad shape when Rabbi Chaim looked at it, no longer kosher because of faded letters and a section that had been eaten away by a rodent.

Rabbi Familant called this scroll a “Survivor Torah” and he was very moved to think of it making “aliyah” to Israel.  When we spoke with him, he stopped us at one point to let us know that the Torah is pasul (not kosher for use in religious rituals).  When he was told that we actually just had a sofer make it kosher, he was very touched.

And now, sometime in the next few months, this Torah will make its way to Israel to serve a community in Northwest Israel. It will be made available to Rabbi Lila and “live” with her on Kibbutz Ha’Ma’apil.

Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik!