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Sunday, January 07, 2007

A 'Community Torah' is a celebration of freedom

A FEW HUNDRED RUSSIAN JEWS WHO WERE DENIED RELIGIOUS FREEDOM FOR DECADES WITNESSED THE COMPLETION OF A NEWLY WRITTEN TORAH FOR THE CHABAD-RUSSIAN CENTER OF SUNNY ISLES BEACH ON THURSDAY. IT WAS THE FIRST TIME THAT A MAJORITY OF THE MEMBERS HAD EVER WITNESSED A TORAH COMPLETION AND DEDICATION CEREMONY

BY SANDRA REMILIEN
Special to The Miami Herald

When Igor Medge left Moscow in 1991, he never imagined that he would sponsor the writing of one of the 54 sections of a Torah.

Medge was used to religious oppression in Russia due to his Jewish heritage.

''It was difficult to attend Jewish services because we were afraid some anti-Semitic person would go after us,'' Medge said. ``In Moscow, I remember some years when there was a religious holiday, the government put cars in the street to disturb Jewish people to go to synagogue.''

As a result of these hindrances, some Jews have no idea about Jewish religion and life. Medge and the majority of the Jews who attended a Torah completion and dedication ceremony recently for the Chabad-Russian Center of Sunny Isles Beach had never witnessed such an event.

''This is kind of an unusual event because it's the first time in my life since I participated in such an event,'' Medge said.

While there is a stark contrast in the religious climate of South Florida and that of Communist Russia, Medge envisioned his life in South Florida as one that simply offered the freedom to worship.

But South Florida had more to offer the 54-year-old Medge. Sixteen years after leaving Moscow, Medge has discovered a Jewish tradition. He is one of the approximately 50 families from the synagogue who contributed more than $50,000 to pay expenses for the Torah. David Joukov contributed the Torah's crown.

''I signed myself a letter in the Torah,'' said Medge, who was also one of the first members of the Chabad-Russian Center of Sunny Isles Beach. The synagogue is the only one of the 127 Chabad centers in Florida that specifically targets and works with Russian Jews.

Alan Frank, a member of the Torah Dedication Committee, said writing in the Torah is a one of the 613 mitzvahs, or obligations, that a Jew should fulfill.

''We're commanded as Jewish people to write at least one letter of Torah in our lifetime and we're honoring the commandment of God by doing this,'' Frank said.

The process to get the new Torah took less than two years. It included the preparation of the parchment, which entails the stretching, drying and shaving of cow hide in order to get it ready to receive the ink. The actual writing of the Torah took almost a year, almost all of its 304,805 letters written in Israel. The last six lines were completed by community members and sponsors with assistance from Rabbi Yochanon Klein, a scribe.

The Chabad-Russian Center of Sunny Isles Beach already possessed two Torahs. The Torah is a sacred document in Judaism comprising the first five books of the Bible. One of the community members is sponsoring another Torah, which will take another year to be completed.

Vladimir Turovskiy, a 38-year-old Hallandale resident and Russian immigrant who worships at the Chabad-Russian Center, said the new Torah is special because unlike the other two Torahs in the synagogue, it was funded by the contributions of the members of the synagogue.

''It's a proud moment because it's brand new, created especially for the synagogue,'' Turovskiy said. ``This was actually sponsored by all the members so it's a collective effort.''

The completion and dedication ceremony for the Torah was like an elaborate wedding ceremony.

After the last few letters of the Torah were written and the ink had dried, the Torah was raised and the assembled group broke out in song. A burgundy mantle and a silver crown were placed on the newly written Torah and it was ready to marry the other two Torahs in the synagogue.

''The Torah is welcomed like a bride,'' Rabbi Alexander Kaller said. ``When the Torah was given, it was like an engagement ceremony between God and the Jewish people. Every time we write a new Torah, we reaffirm to God commitment to his laws.''

The new Torah was escorted like a bride under a wedding canopy to her awaiting groom, the existing two Torah scrolls in the synagogue.

Some verses from the Siddur, a prayer book, were recited in order to bless the Torah.

Following the recital, the Hakafoth, a ceremony during which the Torah was carried around the synagogue seven times with traditional hymns and song, took place. The ceremony continued until 10 magnums of vodka were consumed.

Kaller said the completion of the Torah creates a sense of unity in the Jewish community in Sunny Isles Beach.

''This is a community Torah,'' said Kaller said. ``We're united as a community.''



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