Unfurling a piece of history: Womens Torah to embark on eight-day local tour

One of the most eagerly anticipated visitors to the Bay Area in quite some time combines ancient tradition with a thoroughly modern (some would say groundbreaking) approach — all without technically saying a word.

The Women’s Torah, the first known Torah in history to be scribed and embellished entirely by a group of women, will be in the greater Bay Area for eight days starting Feb. 22. For the women who worked on it — including six scribes, eight artists and dozens of other volunteers — it’s a chance to celebrate a collaboration that spanned more than seven years and three continents. The scroll was completed Oct. 15, 2010.

Members of the Seattle-based Women’s Torah Project, which grew out of the Kadima Reconstructionist Community there, will visit congregations, community centers and campus Hillel houses to discuss the making of a Torah and what it means for women to be entering into the traditionally male profession of Torah scribe.

The cover of the Women’s Torah features a pomegranate design decorated with personal doodads; the copper rimonim were crafted by Bay Area artist Aimee Golant.

“Kadima started as a small community, and as we grew and our kids were having bar and bat mitzvahs, it started to be inconvenient to always be borrowing Torahs,” said Wendy Graff, a Kadima community member who headed the Women’s Torah Project. “When we decided it was time for our own, the idea came up — why don’t we commission the first one to be scribed by a woman? It just fit with who we are as a progressive community.”

When they looked around 10 years ago for a female scribe, however, they realized “there really weren’t any,” explained Graff, who grew up in San Mateo and belonged to that city’s Peninsula Temple Beth El as a child. In the Orthodox tradition, scribes are exclusively male, and the schools that train scribes are usually part of an Orthodox community — in other words, not open to women.

“Circumstances forced us to look at multiple scribes, and then we found out that was halachically acceptable,” said Graff.

Kadima members found a handful of women who’d been training on their own (most under the guidance of male scribes) and were interested in the project; also, the community underwrote the costs of training for two others. In the end, the six female soferot (scribes) worked separately in four countries: two in Israel, two in the United States, and one each in Brazil and Canada. Julie Seltzer of Berkeley created four of the Torah’s 62 panels  in 2009 shortly before beginning her tenure as the scribe-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Women’s Torah scribes (from left) Linda Coppleson, Rabbi Chana Klebansky and Rachel Reichhardt discuss the placement of text on a panel of the Torah scroll. photo/jtnews/joel magalnick

“I loved the idea of a group of people coming together to write the Torah,” said Seltzer, a Jewish educator who began training in 2007 with scribe Jen Taylor Friedman of New York (the first woman known to have written a sefer, or handwritten, Torah).

“I love that they decided their primary goal was not necessarily to have [continuity] aesthetically [within the scroll],” Seltzer continued, “but to give women an opportunity to write who might not otherwise ever get that.”

Seltzer, who is currently working on a scroll for a congregation in San Diego, will speak about the experience of writing a Torah when the Women’s Torah makes its final Bay Area stop, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Hillel at Stanford on Feb. 29.

Aimee Golant of San Francisco was among the artists who helped embellish the scroll. As a metal worker, Golant regularly creates mezuzahs, menorahs and other Judaica, as well as rimonim (adornments) for Torah scrolls. For the rimonim for the Women’s Torah, Golant chose copper, “a warm color, and not one necessarily associated with material wealth. I wanted my crown to be about humility and sharing, not about glory and showing off.”

Working on the Torah was a tremendous learning experience, as well, said Golant. “This project represented a way for a population that doesn’t usually get to be a physical part of the Torah to get closer to it — not just reading it or gleaning it but sewing, writing, actually making it,” she said.

The collaboration didn’t stop at the writing and embellishments. As the 62 panels came in from all over the world, the Women’s Torah Project organizers asked Kadima members to donate scraps of fabric and doodads from curtains, aprons, skirts or other items belonging to their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and other female relatives they wanted to honor; those pieces now make up the seeds on a pomegranate that forms the centerpiece of the Torah’s mantel. Community members were welcome to take part in sewing the panels together, and attaching the embellishments.

“Anybody who was there during those three days can tell you — you just could not help but feel the presence of something bigger than all of us,” said Graff. “To get to sew it together, in the presence of ancestors, there was this remarkable sense of being held in community together.”

The Torah’s Bay Area tour will include events from Palo Alto to Cotati to Berkeley, and though the stops aren’t exclusively at Reconstructionist synagogues, all four local Reconstructionist communities will be involved: Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati and Keddem Congregaton in Palo Alto are hosting events; Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco is co-sponsoring an event at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education; and the Or Zarua havurah in Berkeley is co-hosting an event at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

The Women’s Torah, which was written by six female scribes

At Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah — a Reform congregation, and the oldest synagogue in Contra Costa County — the Women’s Torah visit happened to coincide with the congregation’s 60th anniversary celebration.

In addition to a talk by Graff to the whole congregation, yad artist Laurel Robinson will visit with Isaiah’s women’s spirituality group to discuss her creative process, while Golant, who has family members at the temple, will visit with Sunday school students.

Absent from the Torah’s tour are Orthodox congregations, in which a Torah written by women would not be considered kosher.

The Women’s Torah, which has been used by the Kadima Community in Seattle since its completion, has traveled around the Pacific Northwest, and once ventured to Southern California for a Jewish Reconstructionist Federation convention in Newport Beach. But this is its first visit to the Bay Area — a region that has an inherent connection to the project, as so many of its artists hail from here, including San Jose native Lois Gaylord, who wove the Torah’s bimah cloth. The stop at the Peninsula JCC will be special for Graff, whose mother is active there.

Graff hopes the Bay Area tour will serve to inspire other Jewish communities to look at Torahs in a new way — and, if they’re in need of a new scroll, to consider a hands-on, collaborative effort like Kadima’s.

“When I grew up, I hardly even looked at the Torah, let alone was I allowed to touch it,” Graff said. “And there was something about putting together this holy object, knowing how profound it was, but also being allowed to actually handle it … and we love sharing that.

“It demonstrates egalitarianism and change. And the idea that creating something in community can really be revolutionary.”


Women’s Torah Project Bay Area schedule

Feb. 22

“From Parchment to Parsha.” Women’s Torah Project director Wendy Graff will speak about the project. Peninsula JCC, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City. 2 p.m. www.womenstorah.com.

Torah viewing. With presentations by Rabbi Jane Litman on the 90th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah, Wendy Graff on the making of the Torah and artist Aimee Golant on her design of the crown. Includes an art sale. Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. 6:30 p.m. www.bjesf.org/events.htm.

Feb. 23

“Women in the Rabbinate.” Talks by Rabbi Jane Litman, Aimee Golant and Wendy Graff. Hosted by Diablo Valley Hadassah. Contra Costa Jewish Day School, 3836 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. 6:30 p.m. www.diablovalley.hadassah.org.

Feb. 24

“A Stitch into Time: Sewing Torah in the Community.” During Shabbat services, Wendy Graff will discuss the creation of a community Torah. Temple Isaiah, 3800 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. 8 p.m. www.temple-isaiah.org.

Feb. 25

Reading from the Torah, with guest Rabbi Jane Litman. More than a dozen women will chant from the Torah. Congregation Ner Shalom, 85 La Plaza, Cotati. 10 a.m. www.nershalom.org.

Mincha service with the Women’s Torah, followed by Havdallah.  Includes Torah viewing and talks by Aimee Golant and Wendy Graff. Plus a showing of the Women’s Torah Project video. Keddem Congregation, 3900 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. 5:30 p.m. www.keddem.org.

Feb. 27

Rosh Chodesh with the Women’s Torah. Artist Laurel Robinson on the history of Torah scrolls and ornamentation, plus chanting from the Torah. Temple Isaiah, 3800 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette. 7:30 p.m. www.temple-isaiah.org.

Feb. 28

Torah viewing and poetry readings by Marcia Falk. Easton Hall, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Graduate Theological Union, 2401 Ridge Road, Berkeley. 7 p.m. www.gtu.edu.

Feb. 29

Torah viewing and talks by Julie Seltzer, Wendy Graff and Aimee Golant. With an artists’ bazaar. Kehillah Hall, Hillel of Stanford, 565 Mayfield Ave., Stanford. 6:30 p.m. http://hillel.stanford.edu.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.