Buy Torahs online, but beware of dangers

Save-A-Torah Inc. rescues and restores Eastern European Torahs and donates them to needy congregations.

torah scroll 88 (photo credit: )
torah scroll 88
(photo credit: )
New Jewish communities are relying on the Internet to communicate, organize, build community - and sometimes to obtain Torahs. Four-year-old Minyan Tehillah in Cambridge, Mass., applied online to Save-A-Torah Inc., a Maryland organization that rescues and restores Eastern European Torahs and donates them to needy congregations. "We qualified - we're students and young adults," ritual coordinator Rachel Milner Gillers says. Commissioning a new Torah, which can cost $20,000 to $60,000, was out of the minyan's reach. The Torah arrived in the fall of 2005, in time for the High Holidays. It had been hidden in a church basement wall in Romania in 1944 just as the town's Jews were being rounded up and deported. The Save-A-Torah team found it several years ago, using X-ray and sonar equipment. Minyan Tehillah turned again to the Web to raise funds to help reimburse Save-A-Torah for its recovery costs. The fundraising process, conducted entirely on the Internet, proved to be an excellent community-building tool. People donated online at various giving levels and their names were listed, along with those their gifts memorialized. And at the Torah's March 2006 dedication ceremony, people "sponsored" each Torah chapter, again online. "In the end it was a blessing that we needed to fundraise for it," Gillers says. The Torah became a rallying point for the fledgling community. "It's one of the only things our minyan owns," she says. Kavana, a cooperative Jewish community in Seattle, found its Torah on eBay. Kavana Member Stacy Lawson knew that the group's rabbi, Rachel Nussbaum, had bought her kiddush cups on the popular online auction site, so Lawson went online and saw that eBay also offers Torah scrolls. She and Nussbaum decided on one scroll, and the bidding war began. "It was 4 a.m. and I was bidding against '4frumboys,' " says Lawson, referring to the nicknames eBay users concoct. "I thought, 'if they're bidding on it, it gives me a little more interest.' " The Torah was listed as kosher, but Lawson e-mailed the seller in Bnai Brak, Israel, with further questions. He told her the scroll was "meshuach," meaning the parchment is coated with a substance that makes it easier for the scribe to write on. Unfortunately that can also make the letters peel off, rendering the Torah non-kosher. The seller assured Lawson that the scroll was meshuach only on its underside, so no letters were affected, but the 4frumboys team pulled out and Lawson's bid was accepted. Then she got nervous. How could she inspect the Torah? What if it was stolen property, or not fit for ritual use? Relying on eBay's disciplinary policies and a money-back guarantee from her credit card, Lawson went ahead with the deal. One Shabbat morning in late January, an enormous, beat-up cardboard box arrived at her door. Inside was the scroll. "I thought that was unusual, given the sanctity of a Torah," she says. Lawson and her 8-year-old son, who had been eagerly following the eBay auction, carefully opened the box and saw that the etzei haim, the wooden sticks on which a Torah scroll is wound, were broken. "I was just crestfallen," she recalls. Fortunately, the scroll was undamaged. It was to be used for the first time for Feb. 17 Shabbat services by Kavana's newly formed "hard-core minyan," the community's first prayer group. But was the scroll hot property? Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox Union's rabbinical association, says one should always get a Torah's history from its seller, which Kavana did, and make calls to verify its chain of ownership. The Orthodox Union has a system by which Torahs can be marked and traced, he says. Lawson and Nussbaum are convinced their Torah is kosher in every way. They point to the fact that it was openly advertised on eBay, and the etz haim bears the inscription of the congregation in Ramat Gan, Israel, that previously owned it. But Lawson urges caution for anyone thinking of purchasing a Torah this way. Don't do it, she warns, just because you think you can "get one for cheap."