In Pirkei Avot, Shimon Hatzadik states that the world stands on three pillars: the Torah, service of God in the Temple in Jerusalem and acts of kindness.
Indeed, no religious item connects the Jewish people as the Torah does. No city connects the Jewish people as the Holy City of Jerusalem does.
And no singular commandment connects the Jewish people as does the commandment to perform acts of kindness.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the city’s 1967 reunification, on Jerusalem Day, May 24, 2017, the Afikim Foundation is putting all three of these pillars together.
As part of its Jerusalem50 educational program, and in cooperation with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the foundation is coordinating the writing of a Global Unity Torah. But to purchase a letter, the currency is not in dollars but in acts of kindness.
“The Global Unity Torah will provide Jews worldwide an unprecedented communal platform to do good and inspire goodness in others,” says Rabbi Raphael Butler, founder of the Afikim Foundation.
There are 304,805 letters in a Torah, and all it takes to have a letter of one’s own is to perform an act of kindness and share it on Afikim’s website through social media.
The Afikim Foundation, which was founded in 2002 by Butler, provides creative Jewish educational and cultural initiatives worldwide. Its programs include the Healthy Lifestyles Program for Jewish junior high schools, Holocaust educational exhibits, materials and programming, and providing curriculum materials and resources for Hebrew schools and for bar and bat mitzva and after-school programs.
It also deals with the monetary side of Jewish life, consulting individuals in the philanthropic community who are seeking guidance in fulfilling their communal priorities and giving financial assistance to various individuals and families in need.
“Jerusalem50 is exemplary of the Afikim Foundation’s mission of reaching, teaching and inspiring a searching Jewish world. As an innovative incubator, Afikim is where profound Jewish ideas take flight, and we envision Jerusalem50 having a poignant and lasting impact on the Jewish people,” says Butler. “By using kindness as an impetus for change and Jerusalem as a uniting factor, we can transform our world.”
Individuals and families from all walks of Jewish life will unite with organizations, congregations, agencies, schools and Jewish groups from all corners of the globe to purchase their letters or a section of letters in the Torah with acts of kindness.
In addition, participants may enhance their acts of kindness by supporting Yad Eliezer’s Feed the Baby program, a project of one of Israel’s largest hessed organizations.
Those who receive a username on the jerusalem50.org website can reserve a letter on the site, which was scheduled to be up and running after Simhat Torah. For those who don’t know Hebrew, there is a Hebrew chart with transliterations and meanings of the letters and a link for children with activities and the audio pronunciation of each letter. The website also lets users randomly choose a letter to purchase, and a certificate will be generated for users following the completion of each deed.
In addition to the Torah, Afikim has produced a set of eight 91 cm. x 122 cm. fabric murals with beautiful scenes of Jerusalem. It will be distributing colorful booklets featuring information on the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification, and an interactive, multimedia traveling Jerusalem exhibit with an accompanying study guide for educational institutions. To spur on even more participation in the project, three individuals who purchase a letter will win flights to attend the ceremony in Jerusalem.
The Torah, which is being written in accordance with Ashkenazi customs, will be dedicated on Jerusalem Day, and Afikim will save a permanent digital file of the Torah, its letter writers and their deeds. The organization hasn’t yet decided on the details of how and where the inauguration of the scroll will take place and where the Torah will be housed after the inauguration. But it said it would like to have it in a Jerusalem location where it will be continuously used.
According to Karen Hochberg, Afikim’s director of community programs, the idea for the Global Unity Torah as a Jerusalem Day event went hand in hand.
“The idea of unification lent itself to the Torah, which unifies Jews as a people, and kindness/hessed that all Jews value,” she says.
Another catalyst for the initiative was the anonymous donation of a Torah scroll by a family in memory of their grandfather who had saved a Torah scroll from a burning synagogue on Kristallnacht.
In a promotional video produced by Afikim, the story of the Torah is revealed. On the Night of Broken Glass, the grandfather was told that the Nazis had set fire to the town’s two main synagogues. He quickly left the house intending to save the Torah scroll that his father had commissioned.
Seeing the burning synagogue, he and several of his friends didn’t hesitate, running into the fiery building to save the Torah scrolls. The Nazis were waiting outside for them with clubs, fists and bludgeons, and when they exited they began beating them – but the Jews refused to let go of the holy scrolls. He survived the beating and managed to limp home. The following day the Gestapo came to arrest him, but he was let off due to a case of mistaken identity.
The family arranged to be smuggled into Belgium, and they managed to board the last ship from Belgium to the United States before the gates of the New World had closed. The Torah he saved is now in a small house-synagogue in Brooklyn.
“My grandfather was willing to give his life to save that Torah, and he would be proud to know that in his merit we have undertaken to support the writing of a new Torah scroll marking Jerusalem50,” a representative of the family says in the video.
“The idea that it will unite Jews the world over is truly special and most rewarding, and we are grateful to the Afikim Foundation for this unique and special opportunity.
Am Yisrael hai [the people of Israel lives]!” As Hochberg says, this program will reveal hundreds of thousands of ways that goodness can elevate lives and give honor to Jerusalem.
“Our goal is to create a communal platform for goodness in honor of Jerusalem,” she said.
And there is no fear that not everyone who buys a letter will actually have done a good deed.
“With hundreds of thousands of acts of hessed being inspired and shared via social media, we believe the impact will be vast.”