I have a challenge for the New Year. It has nothing to do with politics or borders, the subjects with which this column usually deals. But it does have a lot to do with the strengthening of links between Israel and Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora.
It is not about giving money, nor is it about aliya.
Neither is it about the lowest common denominator, anti-Semitism, which is used as a means of selling Israel to a cynical Diaspora, often as a last resort when all other positive messages have failed. The idea is to create a global network of communities throughout Israel and the Diaspora and link them through the donation of unused Torah Scrolls from those communities which have too many, to those new young communities in Israel which do not have any. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of communities throughout the Diaspora that have unused Torah scrolls which are only ever brought out for communal dancing on Simhat Torah but remain little more than an ornament on display for the rest of the year. There are also communal synagogue organizations in many countries which have a store of unused Torah scrolls which have accumulated over the years, as their affiliate communities have either closed down or no longer have room for storing their own large number of Torah scrolls in one place.
At the same time there are new communities being set up throughout Israel on an almost daily basis in new settlements and in new neighborhoods.
Many of these have no Torah scrolls of their own and are in desperate need of scrolls which can be used on a regular basis. Most of these young communities do not have the resources necessary to commission an entirely new scroll which, anyway, takes a great deal of time to prepare – normally upwards of a year.
Such a global network will enable Israel-Diaspora links to be created through links which are not dependent on monetary donations. The donor and receiver communities can get together to decide how the new scroll is to be dedicated, in the name of an entire community or an individual. Communities can work out together the logistics of how and when the scrolls will be dedicated in their new abodes, often involving a ceremony at which members of the donor community will come to Israel to participate – perhaps as part of a community trip to Israel in which this would be one of the highlights.
Scribes devote so much time to the writing of Torah scrolls with the specific intent that they be used, rather than sitting idle in a dark ornate Ark, to be viewed from afar for a few brief moments every week during the course of the Shabbat or the weekday service when the Ark is opened and closed.
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To implement this project, with a minimum of cost, requires the cooperation of a large number of actors: A nonprofit organization needs to be set up to ensure the smooth administration of the logistics, to match up communities (a sort of Torah matchmaking bureau) and to offer assistance and advice concerning the logistics involved in the physical transfer of the scrolls. A database of potential donor and recipient communities needs to be created on a website which can be accessed by those desiring to give, or who are in need of a scroll.
For the project to succeed will require community leaders (rabbis and lay leaders) to sign on to the project and spread the world among their synagogues and to explain to some reluctant community leaders how much more appropriate it will be if their unused scrolls are used in this way rather than languishing in the back of a dark cupboard, even if that cupboard is closer to home.
It will require Israeli ambassadors, the Foreign Ministry and the Jewish Agency to support the project and promote it along with the many other pressing social and political causes for which they attempt to raise support throughout the year.
It will require the scrolls to be checked by local scribes before they are sent or transferred to Israel, in order to ensure that they are fit for use according to halachic requirements, or that the amount of work required for a scribe to make any necessary corrections is minimal (no more than $3,000 to $4,000 per scroll at most). There is no point in agreeing to part only with those scrolls which require a great deal of work, or with scrolls that will later be found to be beyond repair (as is indeed the case with many old, unused scrolls). These are the scrolls which can remain on display for use on occasions such as Simhat Torah.
IT WILL require El Al to agree for the free passage of scrolls on their planes, preferably accompanied by a regular fare-paying passenger who can place them in an empty locker or, if unaccompanied, as part of the closed baggage compartment.
It will require the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Israel Customs Authority to ensure that, having received bona fide agreement on the part of both the donor and the recipient communities, the scroll is designated for regular use and is not being transferred from one country to another for the purpose of any financial gain. All customs dues and taxes would be waived – as has been the case with Torah scrolls which I have had the personal privilege of bringing from the UK to Israel during the past decade.
It will require customs and security agencies in the donor countries to be informed in advance that a Torah scroll is to be transported, so that the security checks undertaken while passing through the airport are carried out with the utmost care and respect. Many airports throughout the world have religious chaplains, including local rabbis, and they need to be enlisted to assist in the smooth passage of the Torah scroll at the point of departure.
It will require the recipient communities to make a commitment to using these scrolls on a regular basis. Should the communities grow and become affluent and sponsor their own new scrolls, then they should agree to pass on the Torah scrolls, with the agreement of the donor community, to other new young communities which are in need.
Creating a global network of Torah scroll donor and recipient communities is another way of forging new links which will enable us to focus on the spirit, rather than the pocket book or security. It will add another dimension to the dynamics of contemporary Jewish life which will be mutually enriching for all.
I seek partners to join in this project. I invite all interested communities to join together in this new global project which will not only serve to commemorate communities which are disappearing as Jews move on elsewhere, but will remind us that the common bond uniting us all, regardless of religious, political and geographical differences, is something beyond politics, beyond economics, beyond security and anti-Semitism.
And what a better time to start this project than the ushering in of a new Jewish Year.
Shana Tova to all my readers.
The author is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone. He can be contacted at newman@ bgu.ac.il.
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