What would you do if invited to participate in the unrolling of a 100-foot Torah scroll and an Israeli-style dinner at a synagogue? Don’t know about you, but I eagerly accepted the invitation from Rabbi Michael Oblath from Congregation Beth Shalom in East Anchorage. In the past, I’ve participated in several Seder celebrations here, finding this community to be warm and welcoming. Relatively small in number, their friendliness, generosity, and willingness to talk always take me by surprise. Many Anchorage congregations I visit are not outgoing, even downright unfriendly, and fail to welcome strangers. Not true at Temple Beth Shalom.
The people I’ve met at Beth Shalom love to eat and talk. They are outwardly friendly and a delight to be with. I had a number of wide-ranging conversations with members, intensely enjoying the experience. Before the Simhat Torah ceremony, an Israeli dinner was served including pita accompanied by freshly made hummus, slaw, tahini, and fresh falafel. Before the meal, Oblath offered a Hebrew blessing. After conversation and cleanup, the rabbi invited the 50 or 60 people present into the synagogue for the Simhat Torah ceremony.
The Torah is the first five books of Hebrew scripture: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Commonly believed to have been written by Moses under divine inspiration just before the Israelites were to enter the promised land, the Torah is continuously read from and commented upon during the synagogue year. Scrolls used for these readings are progressively wound until the end of the year when they complete the Torah readings with Deuteronomy. The Simhat Torah ceremony celebrates the final readings, the commencement of the new, and a re-rolling of the scroll.
The Scrolls of Congregation Beth Shalom
Congregation Beth Shalom is home to three sets of Torah scrolls; The Bayles Torah, Salad Torah, and Tattooed Torah. They are kept in an ark, an elaborate wooden cabinet at the back of the podium. The Bayles Torah hails from Gold Rush days, and was created in Lithuania in the 1870s. Given to his son Sam by Rabbi Afroim Hessel Bayles, it accompanied Sam to Nome in 1900 during the Gold Rush, the same year the Nome Hebrew Congregation was established. With the decline of Nome’s Jewish Community following World War I, the Bayles Torah was transferred to Congregation Beth Shalom. The Salad Torah was principally financed in the 1950s by Hartford, Connecticut clothier Jacob Salad to help establish Congregation Beth Shalom. Finally, the Tattooed Torah, their oldest and largest scroll, was made in Czechoslovakia in the 1850s. As the Nazis overran Europe during World War II, they burned many confiscated Torahs, and put over 1,500 stolen Torahs and religious artifacts in a Prague warehouse, tattooed with unique numbers. In the 1960s an American Jew, Arthur Weir, spearheaded an effort to clean and restore these Torahs, distributing them as a reminder of the holocaust. This scroll even shows burn marks.
Simhat Torah Ceremony Begins
The Torah scrolls were covered with special fabric covers used during the recently concluded High Holy Days. As the ceremony began, the Bayles Torah was handed to congregation members who led a joyful circling procession of members around the synagogue accompanied by the singing of their cantor. This tradition of this festive holiday is the Hakafot (Torah processions) where participants sing and dance with the Torah. Special flags were distributed and waved by all in this procession. After each circuit, the scrolls were handed to another congregation member, until at least seven circuits of the synagogue were completed.
Finally, the Bayles Torah scroll was removed from its High Holy Days coverings, slowly unrolled and the Simhat Torah ceremony continued. Each attendee present was allowed to carefully hold up a portion of the scroll with outstretched hands as it came around, being careful not to touch the print with fingers. I supported a portion of Exodus, close to the Ten Commandments. Made of animal skin parchment, the Bayles Torah is in remarkable condition. After the scroll was completely unrolled, Rabbi Oblath read the final portion of Deuteronomy, commenting upon the significance and meaning of Moses being denied entry into the promised land. Continuing on to Genesis, he read the first few verses of Genesis 1, explaining the mystery and significance of the creation order. The scroll was then carefully re-rolled starting at Deuteronomy going back to Genesis. Upon completion, the colorful regular coverings were put on the scrolls and they were returned to the ark.
After the ceremony, several attendees danced the hora, a well-known dance of celebration. Prerecorded music was played and eight to 10 people began dancing. As the hour was late, I felt it was time to leave. The Simhat Torah ceremony and dinner lasted more than 4 hours. I plan to return for Shabbat services in the future. They observe Friday evening and Saturday morning services.
During my evening I had the good fortune to meet Michael Silverbook, longtime member and past president of the congregation, and enjoyed walking around the synagogue with him during the Hakafot. At one point, he carried the Torah. In 2000, Silverbook took the Bayles Torah back to Nome in celebration of the centennial celebration of the founding of the Hebrew congregation. I eagerly anticipate joining this congregation in their other celebrations.
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