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Western Massachusetts nontraditional Jewish organization looking to buy a Torah of its own



Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2016
NORTHAMPTON — Several families gathered around the kitchen table as Alison Morse unfurled a Torah, recounting the story of Jacob and his 12 sons spreading out and carrying on the Jewish tradition like stars in the sky.

“Can you imagine the places and people it has seen?” Simona Pozzetto said in her Florence home Monday night as she admired the scroll. “And now it’s in my kitchen.”

Circles for Jewish Living, an independent organization that includes families who are mostly unaffiliated with local synagogues, is raising money to buy a Torah, a scroll handwritten by scribes on animal parchment that is used in religious ceremonies. As a Jewish community without a central building, the group is hoping a Torah will provide an anchor.

“The Torah really is the heart of the Jewish people,” CJL director Morse said. “It holds our history, our laws, our ethics and our values.”

The group is trying to raise $9,900 through an online crowdfunding campaign that goes through March 10 for the Torah, a spring dedication ceremony and an inscribed tallit, or prayer shawl. So far, Morse said they have met about three-quarters of their goal. With their donations, contributors are welcome to submit a name of someone they would like honored on the tallit that will be wrapped around the Torah.

Founded in 2010, the organization offers home-based classes for children and adults, and helps students prepare for their bar or bat mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony for boys and girls.

The appeal of Circles for Jewish Living, several of its members said, is that it offers education without the rigid structure of a synagogue, and is open to families of various backgrounds.

“We’re coming from different places,” said Pozzetto, 48, who grew up in Italy and was raised Catholic, then converted to Judaism in 2006. And as an organization, CJL is “inclusive and forgiving,” she said.

Her husband, Ed Weisman, 51, grew up in a Conservative Jewish household outside Boston and attended services on the Jewish High Holy Days.

“Simona and I came in with so many differences,” Weisman said. “It made sense to have some commonality.” The couple agreed their three children, two of whom were adopted from Ethiopia, should grow up with a sense of Jewish identity.

Religion, Pozzetto said, “doesn’t have to be institutional.” Her husband agreed. “You can get lost in all the commentary and all the ritual,” Weisman said. “Or for kids, you can bring it back to the essential kernel.”

And this focus on the “fundamental text,” he said, is what he has observed as he listens to his 12-year-old daughter Tess prepare for her bat mitzvah with Morse in weekly sessions at their home.

David Marlin and Joanna Grand, both 47, who have a son preparing for his bar mitzvah, said they decided to join CJL as a family that’s more culturally, than religiously, Jewish. Though once members of Congregation B’nai Israel, the Northampton couple said for now CJL is a better fit.

Acquiring a Torah, Marlin said, “makes it so we don’t have to rely on these formal institutions to go through the process.”

For the past few years, CJL has rented a Torah for students’ bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies, paying $360 each time. As the organization grew, Morse said, it made sense to consider purchasing a Torah of their own. The group, which now has 25 members, has served 45 families since its founding, Morse said.

The group is looking to buy a Torah from Rabbi Kevin Hale, director of the Ray Torah Institute in Leeds, which has rented the Torah to them in the past.

While new Torahs, which take a year to make, can cost around $30,000, the Torah CJL is looking to purchase costs significantly less because parts of the scroll have been replaced over the years.

“If you roll through it you’d see different handwriting and different colors of ink,” he said, noting that one portion in reddish-brown ink is likely more than 150 years old.

But the variations in parchment or handwriting should not affect the way the Torah used in religious ceremonies, Hale said.

“Ritually speaking, what’s important is, is it kosher or not?” he said. And this Torah is, Hale said, explaining that each portion of the Torah was written according to ancient rules that date back to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

As the 613th commandment says, all Jews are meant to experience writing the Torah for themselves, Hale said, adding that “we’ve been writing Torah longer than we’ve had rabbis or synagogues.”

In the U.S., Hale said, most Torahs reside in synagogues, though he said it’s completely normal for schools or even individuals to own the scrolls. “It’s one of the building blocks of Jewish communal life,” Hale said.

Indeed, this seems to be the sentiment motivating Circles for Jewish Living.

“It’s an anchor,” Morse said. “It’s a piece of history and it helps to elevate us, and at the same time it gives us roots.”

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.