Las Vegas Metro Police and medical workers stage in the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 1. Photo by Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

How Will I Dance During Darkness?


As a husband and father living in Las Vegas, I have been shaken to the core by the act of pure evil that transpired last week in our city.  

It is a very painful and dark time. The mass shooting that killed 58 people and wounded close to 500 has left all of us stunned as we try to regain our senses in the aftermath of this inhumane act. We are mourning as a community and as a nation.

Yet, as the pain sinks deeper into our consciousness and our minds wander in dismay, we in the Las Vegas Jewish community are preparing to celebrate the happiest day on the Jewish calendar, Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the annual completion of the Torah reading cycle with joyful dancing.

How can we possibly dance and celebrate while our hospitals still are filled with wounded and our dead are not yet buried? What do I as a community leader say to the countless people from throughout the world who are turning to us for guidance?

Our history as a people is filled with persecution and suffering. Yet, we have documented stories of Jews defiantly celebrating Simchat Torah even within the walls of concentration camps. How did they do it? What was their secret?

The essence of Torah is selflessness. Its clarion call is for us to “Love our neighbor as we love ourselves.” It inspires us to believe in the essential good within each person.

So, let me share with you how I will dance this Simchat Torah.

As I hold on to the Torah, with my tightest embrace, I will close my eyes and reflect upon the many heroes, citizens and law enforcement officers who ran into the line of fire to save the lives of others. I will reflect upon the hundreds of people I saw waiting in line for eight hours to donate blood in order to help strangers.  

I will remember how I saw a wounded veteran wheeling herself around the long lines, handing out cold drinks and food to those waiting to give blood. I will honor the friends I have in this community — the doctors, police officers and volunteers who are working around the clock devoting themselves to helping others.

As I do this, my tears of pain will transform into joy because we know that the power of good within the many is infinitely greater than the evil within the few.

Although the pain and darkness may never go away, the light and joy it has revealed will shine forever. 


Rabbi Schneur Hayes is a Chabad emissary and educator in Las Vegas.

A woman makes a sign at a vigil on the Las Vegas strip following a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., October 2, 2017. Picture taken October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

When the Torah Opens Our Hearts


To welcome new families to our religious school, we bring the Torah to their homes, parading through the rooms. A blessing of nourishment in the kitchen. Communication in the family room. Comfort and affection in the bedroom. We open the Torah on the dining table and show children the words they will chant when they are 13, when they’ve barely left childhood and hardly know who they are.

It may seem strange to take that which is so sacred out of its pristine sanctuary and bring it to a world of domestic untidiness. However, Torah goes there on its own. This book we extol on Simchat Torah with dancing and singing has something to say to soldiers about packing a spade with which to bury their excrement during war (Deuteronomy 23:13). It concerns itself with menstruation, skin ulcers and fallen sheaves. It speaks of blood, sex and death. It doesn’t shy from humanity’s appetites and lusts; in fact, Torah assures humankind that in spite of the “sin that crouches at your door” (Genesis 4:7), “you shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

When I was in rabbinical school, studying Torah night and day, I suddenly became frightened. What if this wasn’t meant for me? One Thursday, I was supposed to lift the Torah. I hesitated. How many Jews believe a woman shouldn’t carry the Torah? What if they were right? I loved Torah and I feared God. I wept to a male Conservative rabbi. “I don’t want to touch something I’m not supposed to,” I said. “I want to be a good Jew. But I’m impure.”

He took no pity on me. He said sternly, “If you think you have the power to contaminate the Torah, then you are incredibly arrogant.”

And with that, I was permitted. The Torah, while about our flaws, is far and away above our flaws.

With Simchat Torah, we complete an ancient Jewish recovery program. The program began with Rosh Hashanah, a celebration of our creation, for in order to improve ourselves, we first need to decide we are worth the effort. Then we move through the Ten Days of Repentance, making amends to those we have wronged, to reach Yom Kippur, a spiritual summit from which we take stock of our experiences and chart our next steps.

Then we build a sukkah, hammering together a loose, temporary construction. Yom Kippur is dedicated to the imperfections of character, and Sukkot to the imperfections of body. We move from an exalted dream of the possible to the hard and often futile work of realizing the dream. Sukkot teaches that everything is vulnerable to collapse. It is the festival of the wilderness, and despite the battles, rebellions, hunger and thirst, we are explicitly commanded to be joyful.

The “program” culminates in Simchat Torah, the holiday upon which we celebrate reaching the final chapter of Torah, only to reroll the scroll right back to the beginning. The story ends before we arrive, just before the Israelites cross the Jordan into the Promised Land.

So, what are we celebrating? The opportunity to start again? But why celebrate going back to the beginning when we haven’t even completed the journey?

The wisdom of Simchat Torah is to recognize and elevate the journey, and not the arrival. The destination of our lives is uncertain. We set goals, trying to anticipate storms, when in fact, all we do know is that none of us gets out of here alive.

The Hebrew word for ark, aron, means “cabinet” and “casket.” On the desert journey, one aron carried the covenant and the shattered fragments of the first tablets. A second aron carried the remains of Joseph. Shards and bones.

At the beginning of our Kol Nidre service at Temple Isaiah, when we open the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, it is empty. A hollow, dark rectangle. A grave. The Torah scrolls are carried in silent procession from the back. The heart is restored to its chest. At the closing of Yom Kippur, during Neilah, we pass our Torah scrolls throughout the entire congregation, an usher at the end of each aisle helps, and a thousand people hold a Torah against their hearts.

The day after we held the Torah so tight this year, the deadliest shooting massacre in modern U.S. history was perpetrated in Las Vegas, with 58 people dead and nearly 500 injured. 

The wisdom of Simchat Torah is to recognize and elevate the journey, and not the arrival. 

How is it possible to dance with the Torah now? To observe z’man simchateinu, a “time of our joy”? How do we hold tightly to a holy scroll at a moment of such darkness?

Simchat Torah is a celebration, yes, but it is also a protest. It is a spiritual resistance. Torah champions a radical idea: One God. A universal moral code of conduct. The opening words, “In the beginning,” are already a polemic against history being cyclical and fate being predetermined. Genesis unfolds into Exodus, the inspiration behind nearly every revolution against bondage and injustice.   

Simchat Torah is a celebration of the power to protest, even against God. “Will not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” Torah asks (Genesis 18:25). Torah even names its protagonist Yisrael, “One who wrestles with God and with man and prevails” (Genesis 32:29).

In the short story “Yosl Rakover Talks to God,” Zvi Kolitz writes: “I love [God]. But I love His Torah more. Even if I were disappointed in Him, I would still cherish His Torah. God commands religion, but His Torah commands a way of life — and the more we die for this way of life, the more immortal it is!” In times of darkness, when we question and even rail against God the most, we still hold fast to our Torah.

We are the inheritors of our biblical ancestors’ audacious optimism when they packed timbrels as they rushed out of Egypt, with the faith that, no matter how long the journey, good will triumph and we will sing and dance.

We celebrate Simchat Torah not because we are in denial of the darkness, but because the very act of celebrating ignites a spark and edges us closer to redemption.

There is a Chasidic story of a boy who asks his father for an apple but is refused. The boy quickly recites the blessing over eating fruit. Not wanting his son to be guilty of reciting a blessing in vain, the father gives him the apple. Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet used this story to teach that we celebrate with joy despite a world of darkness, because by putting blessing into the world, we necessitate a good response. He taught the Chasidic maxim: “Simchah breaks through barriers.” He wrote, “We can draw an analogy between this maxim and the fact that Mashiach, too, is referred to as ‘The one who breaks through’ (Micah 2:13). This comes to teach us that simchah, joyfulness, has the power to break through the walls … and hasten the coming of Mashiach!”

We celebrate Simchat Torah not because we are in denial of the darkness, but because the very act of celebrating ignites a spark and edges us closer to redemption.

My favorite Simchat Torah was in the mountain city of Safed, the people spilling out onto the crooked streets singing and stamping, the Torah sailing above as they marched past crumbly buildings pocked with bullet holes. Am Yisrael chai! The people of Israel live!

We set our goals on Yom Kippur. But try as we might, there is no guarantee those goals will be achieved in our lifetimes. We don’t know who will live and who will die. On Simchat Torah, we remember that our lives, however fleeting they may be, are bound up in an eternal story. We make peace with the fact that the journey may never be completed, our dreams may not all come true, and still rejoice that we are links in a chain of tradition that affirms life and hope.

When Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion was burned at the stake, he was wrapped in the blessed Torah scroll with wet wool over his heart to prolong his death. His disciples cried out to him, “Master, what do you see?” He answered, “I see the parchment being consumed by the flames, but the letters soar upward!”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said, “I do not ask You to tell me why I suffer, but only whether I suffer for Your sake.”

On Simchat Torah, we celebrate the power to turn darkness into light by transforming chaos into meaning.

The Israelites had to have a lot of courage to leave Egypt, but they weren’t yet free. They were lost. The difference between being free and being lost is direction. On Shavuot, we celebrate the receiving of our set of directions. On Simchat Torah we celebrate our continuing interpretation of this treasure map, and our faith that there is indeed a way for this impoverished world to reach the X that marks redemption. 

As in many congregations, we will open one of our scrolls on Simchat Torah so that the parchment is entirely revealed. The Torah we will open is one that traveled with me to London, wrapped in a baby blanket.

That Torah was one of the 1,564 Czech scrolls gathered by the Central Jewish Museum in Prague during the Holocaust. Under Nazi supervision, every scroll was labelled in Czech and German, giving the name of the community and congregation from which it came. Ours was one of the 216 scrolls that had lost their tags. It is known as an Orphan Scroll. Twenty years after the war, the scrolls were discovered and brought to Westminster Synagogue, from where many were distributed to temples all over the world. I was taking the Torah to London for a reunion of the scrolls, 50 years after their rescue.

In the TSA security line at the airport, two Charedi men kept looking back at me, whispering to each other. Finally, one man asked, “Are you holding a Torah?” I nodded. His eyes widened. Then he declared, “You must go before us in line,” and he cleared a path. “The Torah should always go first!”

At the museum at Westminster Synagogue, I saw the piles of scrolls that were too damaged to be lent out. Some by fire, some by water. Some had their skin nibbled by rodents. Some were rotten or torn, grim testimony to the fate of the people who had once prayed with them.

Our Orphan Torah is not as beautiful as others I saw, with their flourishes and ink as bright as patent leather. Ours is all scratches and stains, faded chunky letters, ungraceful lines, age spots, wrinkles and puckers. It is considered nonkosher.

What does our Orphan Scroll tell us, that heralds from not one, but all destroyed congregations? What does it say about racism, fear and hate? About survival and hope?

It says: All of humanity is descended from one couple. Every person is made b’Tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God. Here is the Sabbath, the world’s greatest religious gift. Here are the Ten Commandments, an ethical blueprint of civilization. Love your neighbor as yourself. Welcome the stranger in your midst. Proclaim liberty throughout the land. I turn a slave people into a nation of priests. I am the voice of Sinai. I am the DNA of history. I am the hard consonants brought to life by the soft vowels of your breath. I am the Tree of Life. I am witness to the worst and best humanity has to offer. When there are no more human witnesses, I will remain, my letters soaring into the sky.

Simchat Torah is a celebration, yes, but it is also a protest. It is a spiritual resistance. … It is a celebration of the power to protest, even against God.

The first letter of the Torah is the beit of bereshit and the last letter is the lamed of Yisrael, and together lamed-beit spells lev, which means heart. The whole covenant is framed with love. A love letter addressed to a world aching with pain and sorrow, hand-delivered and sealed with a kiss.

At Simchat Torah, we dance to open our hearts. So let’s dance. 


Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles is senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah and author of the children’s book “The Goblins of Knottingham: A History of Challah” (Apples & Honey Press, 2017).

FILE PHOTO: Jason Aldean performs at the 52nd Academy of Country Music Awards Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., February 4, 2017. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo

Dancing With Darkness


Country music star Jason Aldean, performing at the outdoor Harvest Festival in Las Vegas on the night of Oct. 1, was just beginning a new song when bullets from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel began raining down on thousands of unsuspecting concertgoers.

After the killer was done, 58 people perished and nearly 500 were injured.

We still don’t know what motivated Stephen Paddock to commit this monstrous act, but we do know what enabled him to do it: Living in a free and open society.

Paddock was free to book two adjoining hotel rooms and bring along an arsenal of high-powered guns and rifles. The hotel’s personnel were not free to check his luggage, lest they violate his rights. Had a security official said to him, “Excuse me, sir, this luggage is unusually heavy, we have to check it,” he could have sued the hotel.

Paddock knew that America had given him a safe space to carry out his destruction. He knew he was living in a country where the right to be left alone is sacred. He had complete confidence that if he acted “normally,” he would be free to crack open his hotel window and start shooting.

We soon realized that the two stories were connected by a difficult question: How do we rejoice when darkness strikes? We are not robots. When tragedies consume our consciousness, how can we be expected to dance and celebrate? How does the Jewish tradition handle such dilemmas?

Paddock used his freedom to destroy the same freedom in others. Through the long lenses of his weapons, he must have seen the faces and bodies of those “others” exercising their freedom to be left alone, their freedom to enjoy a concert under the stars. With each pull of the trigger, he killed the freedom of movement that he himself cherished and gorged on.

“Some days it’s tough just gettin’ up” were the words Jason Aldean was singing when Paddock’s gunfire intruded. He kept singing for a bit (“Throwin’ on these boots and makin’ that climb / Some days I’d rather be a no-show lay-low ‘fore I go outta my mind”) before quickly running backstage.

Journalists can’t run backstage when mayhem happens. We do the opposite — we run toward the mayhem. We put our emotions aside and hunt for facts. To help our readers make sense of the senseless, we look for smart analyses and insightful commentary. We did all of that in preparing for this issue.

But we had a conflict: We had planned a beautiful cover story for this issue on the joyful holiday of Simchat Torah. What should we do with it? Our first instinct was to move it inside the paper and put the Vegas tragedy on the cover, as we usually do when disasters strike. In this case, however, I decided to call the writer of the Simchat Torah story, Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles, and discuss the issue with her.

We soon realized that the two stories were connected by a difficult question: How do we rejoice when darkness strikes? We are not robots. When tragedies consume our consciousness, how can we be expected to dance and celebrate? How does the Jewish tradition handle such dilemmas?

My friend Zoë seized the moment and decided to rework her piece. Hence the cover: “How do we rejoice at Simchat Torah during times of darkness?” It’s worth a read.

Three of our columnists — Danielle Berrin, Marty Kaplan and Monica Osborne — also weigh in on the difficult questions that have come out of Vegas. A Chabad rabbi living in Las Vegas writes about how he will dance at Simchat Torah despite the darkness. Reporter Kelly Hartog details how the local Jewish community in Vegas is responding. Rabbi Naomi Levy offers a special prayer for the victims. And our millennial poet, Hannah Arin, who was raised in Las Vegas, writes about a “desert that speaks.”

On our debate page, we have two views on the Second Amendment, one by our columnist Ben Shapiro and the other by Philadelphia attorney and gun-control activist Karen Kaskey.

Meanwhile, Karen Lehrman Bloch weighs in on the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal that has provided its own source of darkness, while new columnist Dr. Jennifer Yashari writes about the challenges of living with a degenerative muscular disease that strikes mostly Persian Jews.

As consumed as we are by one event, the weekly rhythm of our stories continues. Senior Writer Eitan Arom reports on the plight of the Yazidis, which the community learned more about during Yom Kippur services, while Kelly Hartog writes about a newsstand owner in Brentwood who is taking a stand against Whole Foods.

So yes, darkness hits us time and time again, but life and Torah continue…. In our free society, maybe that is the best message we can deliver to the forces of darkness: no matter what comes, we ain’t going nowhere.

From Israel, our political editor Shmuel Rosner weighs in on the Iran deal, while Debra Kamin profiles a biker, former drug addict and dog rescuer in “Humans of Israel.” You’ll find many more stories throughout the paper, including a book review on “The Salome Ensemble” and Naomi Pfefferman’s story on a new film about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

To coincide with the new beginning of the reading of the Torah, we are launching this week a new feature called “Table for Five,” in which five different voices comment on a verse from the weekly Torah portion. In this issue, we have American Jewish University’s Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Sephardic Rabbi Marc Angel, Jerusalem scholar Tova Hartman, Venice Rabbi Lori Shapiro and Hancock Park Chassidic Rabbi Reuven Wolfe weighing in on a seminal episode from the Garden of Eden.

So yes, darkness hits us time and time again, but life and Torah continue. When Jason Aldean was interrupted by the guns of evil, he was about to sing, “But when she says baby / Oh, no matter what comes ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

In our free society, maybe that is the best message we can deliver to the forces of darkness: No matter what comes, we ain’t going nowhere.

Simchat Torah: Celebrating Torah’s ending and beginning


People are drinking, singing and dancing. It’s loud and crowded. No, you’re not at a bar — or even a bar mitzvah. It’s Simchat Torah. 

The holiday celebrates the culmination of the year’s Torah readings and is, quite literally, a time to rejoice. 

“I love that Simchat Torah is a joyous holiday,” said Rabbi Donald Goor, rabbi emeritus at Temple Judea in Tarzana. “I love that the Torah is at the center of the holiday because it is the center of who we are as a people.” 

Most synagogues encourage their congregants to sing and dance, along with performing hakafot (carrying the Torah scrolls around the sanctuary). This expression of joy extends to all participants — from the oldest to the youngest.

“I’m always busy moving the Torahs from person to person. It’s powerful for me. I look at the people who are at the service; I know the kind of year they have had, I know which people really need to touch a Torah,” Rabbi Lisa Hochberg-Miller, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Torah in Ventura. 

Day-school children also get to share in the fun. 

“We hold a number of wonderful services at which we complete the reading of the Torah and then begin the cycle anew,” said Bill Cohen, head of school at Kadima Day School in West Hills. “We sing many songs, and our students parade around school singing and dancing in celebration of the holiday.”

One of the most exciting parts of a Simchat Torah service comes at the end, when some congregations unroll the Torah scroll (or scrolls) to encircle the sanctuary. 

“Our congregation is surrounded by Torah,” Goor said. 

While this tradition is beautiful, the danger of exposing the parchment is not lost on the clergy. 

“We’re always a little bit afraid of someone crashing into the Torah,” he said, “but the joy overwhelms the fear. It is a sense of awe for little kids, and it teaches two things: that Torah is accessible for all of us and that you have to be careful with the Torah.”

Temple Beth Torah uses Simchat Torah to symbolize more than just the end of the Torah readings for the year. 

“I ask all of the kids who have had their bar or bat mitzvahs to stand in front of their Torah portions after we unroll the scroll,” Hochberg-Miller said. “We start in Genesis and each child will read snippets of his or her Torah portion. We pass the yad. … We may end up having eight or more kids who will read or chant their first aliyah. It reconnects them back to Torah and that special moment. It gives us a sort of ‘Torah year in review.’ It reminds the kids that life is not just about one moment.” 

Other special traditions permeate the holiday celebration at many local shuls. At Temple Judea, every child receives a candy bar during the service. 

“Children should always associate sweetness with learning,” Goor said.

The profoundness of being able to physically touch a Torah has special meaning for Jews who are experiencing religious freedom for the first time. 

“I have a congregant who arrived from Moscow about nine years ago. She is at our Simchat Torah service every year. This was not something she could have ever done while she was in Moscow. She never could have gone to synagogue and danced with the Torah,” Hochberg-Miller said. “Every year she is there without fail. It always sort of comes back to how we have to hold this as precious and value this and not take it for granted. It’s a reminder for us.”

At the crux of the holiday is a basic tenet of Judaism: love for learning. 

“Simchat Torah helps us celebrate learning — the notion that learning doesn’t end. No matter who we are, we always have something to learn,” Goor said. “It’s a great start for the new year.” 

Simchat Torah: 7 Rounds


This post originally appeared on Neesh Nosh.

We end and we begin. With the ending of the holiday of Shmini Atzeret, we beginSimchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah) which celebrates the completion of the year-long reading of the Torah. And, then we begin anew with a celebration of life in the story of creation in Bereshit (Genesis). The holiday is an extraordinary community celebration of dancing and singing with Torah scrolls for seven Hakafot (circles).

Simchat Torah symbolizes the cycles of our lives. As the Earth rotates, our lives rotate throughout the year; Torahs scroll cycle along their wooden spines each week; our food grows in cycles; on Simchat Torah while holding the Torah, we circle as a community; and we cycle together throughout the Jewish calendar.

In the spirit of the seven Hakafot, I created a Simchat Torah recipe reflecting the cyclical nature and joy of the holiday. It’s common to eat foods that are rolled like scrolls and I would suggest that there is this option for this dish, too. 

The are seven round-ish organic fruits and vegetables(from the Plummer Park farmers market in West Hollywood, CA) in the dish that symbolize the seven Hakafot. It is a recipe filled with a montage of plants and seeds: some ingredients are sweet, others bitter, one a bit tough and others soft. In some ways, this dish symbolizes the diversity of Torah’s many ideas, teachings, values, thoughts, experiences that inspire, guide, challenge and teach us in our lives.

And, as Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar, wrote this week about Simchat Torah,“the Torah we learn and teach should help us become kinder, more generous, more empathic and willing to give; if it merely buttresses our biases and hardens our hearts, then it is simply not Torah.”

Chag Sameach!

Simchat Torah Rounds

Ingredients

Preparation

1. Wash all ingredients

2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees

3. Cook quinoa (1 cup dry quinoa, 2 cups water, simmer over low heat until done)

4. Slice eggplant into thin rounds. Place on cookie sheets or trays lined with parchment paper. Drizzle two tbsp olive oil over them. Bake for approximately 30-40 minutes until lightly browned but not crispy.

5. Finely chop onion, apple, pear, quince and persimmon. Remove seeds from pomegranate.

6. Over low heat, add 1 tbsp olive oil to pan. Add onions and heat until translucent. Then add fruits and heat until soft but not mushy, approximately 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and add pomegranate seeds. Add salt and pepper to taste.

7. Mix 3 tbsp tahini paste with lemon juice from 1/2 lemon. Add cold water until it becomes a thinner liquid and lighter in color. Add pinch of preferably smoked Maldon salt (love the light flavor it adds to the tahini). Optional to add garlic.

8. Once eggplant is done, remove from oven and cool.

9. Place eggplants on platter and add small scoop of quinoa and fruit mixture (option to roll the eggplants). Drizzle tahini on top. Serve.

For more recipes, visit Neesh Nosh.

Rabbinic group: Women permitted to dance with Torah scroll


Women are permitted to dance with a Torah scroll on the Simchat Torah holiday, an Israeli modern Orthodox rabbinical organization ruled.

Beit Hillel posted the religious ruling on its website for the holiday, which falls on Wednesday night and Thursday.

The ruling also encourages synagogues to be more inclusive of the elderly, the youth and people with disabilities during the celebration, which includes seven circuits of the Torah scrolls with singing and dancing.

In the Orthodox community, women generally are not permitted to read from the Torah scroll or hold a Torah scroll.

“Women who see this as important are permitted to dance with a Torah scroll or around a Torah which is on a table in the middle of the dancing,” the religious ruling read.

“In our generation, many women are active partners in prayers and classes as they are in other parts of community life. … If women’s participation on Simchat Torah amounts to watching from the women’s section or arranging the tables for kiddush, then this is a sad fact.”

The ruling also recommended other ideas for involving women more in Simchat Torah celebrations, including designating a woman as the kallah Torah, or bride of the Torah, in the same way as a man is designated as the chatan Torah, or groom of the Torah, and to make sure there is enough dance space for the women, as well as consult with the women on the songs that will be sung.

Beit Hillel was founded in 2012 to counter religious extremism and bridge the secular-religious divide.

Schools caution on alcohol during Simchat Torah


Dozens of men sit around a few tables, humming a soft Chasidic niggun (tune), swaying slowly back and forth, noshing on cold cuts, salads and light snacks. Some are sipping on small cups of vodka. Most wear white dress shirts, black dress pants and a long black coat. 

This is a Chabad-Lubavitch farbrengen, and save for the brand-name foods and Styrofoam plates, it’s a scene that has been re-created countless times for centuries around the world. Yiddish for “joyous gathering,” this particular farbrengen took place after Shabbat morning services earlier this summer at Congregation Levi Yitzchok in Hancock Park.

“Think of it as a Kiddush, a sit-down Kiddush,” albeit one with its own unique Chasidic twist, said Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, a regular at Levi Yitzchok.

Farbrengens, conducted thousands of times per year at Chabad houses across the world, are one of the movement’s favorite methods for transmitting wisdom — through Chasidic stories, personal experiences and teachings from previous leaders (rebbes) of the Chabad movement. Every element of the celebration is meant to encourage one thing, according to Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, a Levi Yitzchok attendee: “to inspire one in the service of HaShem.”

Alcohol appears in moderation, he said, to assist attendees find inspiration that may help them improve their connection to God and Judaism.

“Alcohol is not the driving factor of the farbrengen. You can have a wonderful farbrengen without any alcohol,” Greenbaum said. “At times the function of a little bit of alcohol will help them rise past their certain inhibitions or challenges or be able to help them in the process.” 

In Shusterman’s words, alcohol can help people be more “receptive” to the ideas being discussed.

A normal farbrengen, part of holidays and lifecycle celebrations, is low-key, with drinking ranging from none to at most a few l’chaims and quiet tunes sung with everyone seated. Come Simchat Torah, though, that all changes. 

At Levi Yitzchok and dozens of other congregations across Los Angeles, the alcohol will be flowing, food will be piled high, feet will be sore from dancing, and most, if not all, the tunes will be sung loudly. In fact, the partying at Levi Yitzchok will begin the night before Simchat Torah, on the evening of the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, when the congregation will perform hakafot (reading prayers while carrying a Torah around the bimah) and eat a festive meal under the sukkah

Save for sleeping, eating and some occasional traditional praying, the beginning of Shemini Atzeret until the end of Simchat Torah is, according to Greenbaum, an “ongoing farbrengen for 48 hours.”

As a preemptive caution for parents heading into the holiday, heads of school from four local Orthodox high schools (YULA Boys, YULA Girls, Shalhevet and Valley Torah) wrote an e-mail to parents to look after their children on Simchat Torah. 

In a phone conversation with the Journal, the head of school of Shalhevet, Rabbi Ari Segal, said that while its nice “when a shul can have alcoholic beverages served in a responsible way,” he hopes that parents and community members model “normal alcoholic consumption” for area youths.

“We are not waiting until someone ends up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning,” Segal said. “They [minors] are kind of trying to imitate the adult behavior I see, but without the level of responsibility and care.”

Rabbi Dov Emerson, the head of school of YULA Boys, wrote to the Journal in an e-mail that the high school plans to host about 150 students, parents, rabbis and relatives for hakafot and a holiday meal on Simchat Torah evening that he said would be safe and uplifting.

At Levi Yitzchok, Greenbaum said that a few hundred men will gather on Sept. 27 at the close of Simchat Torah to sing melodies that have passed down through Chabad over hundreds of years. With a packed house and an intensely celebratory holiday winding down, it won’t resemble in style Levi Yitzchok’s typical, laid back Shabbat farbrengen. But its purpose — to help people overcome their spiritual and religious challenges by bringing together Jews to eat and sing — will be exactly the same.

“It’s easier to battle the yetzer hara [evil inclination] when you have a few yetzer tovs [good inclinations] working together,” Greenbaum said.

Israeli rabbi said to be suspected of stealing Torah scrolls


Police in Israel have reportedly arrested a rabbi suspected of stealing Torah scrolls from the synagogue of his community near Be’er Sheva.

Kikar HaShabat, a hebrew-language news site on religious affairs, reported that police requested on Oct. 10 that the Be'er Sheva Magistrate's Court remand the suspect for a further 24 hours. He had been arrested the previous day, the news site reported. 

According to a report on the Hebrew edition of the news site Ynet, the rabbi –- who was not mentioned by name -– had confessed to taking seven Torah scrolls from the synagogue of Brosh, a moshav north east of the city in Israel's south.

The alleged theft was discovered on Simchat Torah, on Oct. 8. In many Orthodox and Conservative congregations, this is the only time of year when Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark. Worshipers then dance with the scrolls as part of the Hakafot ceremony, and some read the scrolls at night.

In Brosh, the worshipers opened the ark at the request of a boy who wanted to see the actual scroll, Ynet reported. Upon opening the ark, the worshipers found blank paper sheets which may have been placed inside for weight.

Mordechai Deri, a regular frequenter of the synagogue, told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv that he then inspected all other seven Torah scrolls and found they had been replaced, too.

The report said the rabbi declined to answer Ma’ariv's questions.

The Jews, stuffed cabbage and Simchat Torah


It’s almost encoded in your Jewish DNA: How you make your stuffed cabbage all depends on where your grandmother came from.

For many, the delicacy is served on the holiday of Simchat Torah much the same way that latkes are associated with Chanukah, hamentaschen tag along with Purim and Shavuot comes with a plethora of dairy dishes.

So how did the overcooked, gelatinous, rolled-up dish become associated with the last festival of the High Holidays season?

“Most of the traditional foods we eat on Jewish holidays start out with a seasonal reason as to why we eat them, and later a religious significance is tacked on,” says Gil Marks, a Jewish food historian and author of the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.” “Vegetables like cabbage were in season during the fall and very cheap, so stuffed cabbage became one of the most popular traditional foods eaten. Cabbage was the odor of the shtetl.”

Travel back some 500 years to the 16th century, when Jews first started living in shtetls. The Jews mostly kept to themselves, but the food they ate often was a kosher adaptation of what their non-Jewish neighbors were eating, Marks says.

Stuffed cabbage was a staple dish for peasants during the cold season in places such as Turkey and Persia, and it arrived to the Jews of Europe from the south and the east, according to Marks. Jews living in places like Russia and Poland learned the dish from the Tatars, a Turkish group that ruled the area in the 16th century, while Jews living in southern European countries such as Hungary and the Balkans learned it from their Turkish neighbors, who then were under the control of the Ottoman Empire.

Eastern European Jews adapted the dish with cabbage and kosher meat, naming it after a dove because the rolled up item resembled a bird in a nest. So in Russian it was called golub, in Ukraine holub and in Yiddish teibel — all words for dove.

Those living in the Ottoman Empire made the dish using local grape leaves. They gave the dish a more literal name in Turkish, like sarma, which means wrap, yaprak for leaf, or dolma for stuffed.

From here, Jewish communities added their variations. Many Hungarian Jews use a dash of marjoram, Syrians add cinnamon, Persians throw in some dill and mint, and Romanians toss in lots of garlic and paprika.

As meat was expensive, many Jews in the Middle East and Romania would add rice to reduce the share of meat needed, while Eastern European Jews would add bread, barley or kasha. Some Middle Eastern varieties use only rice for the stuffing.

“They didn’t always have money to buy meat, but when they did, they saved it for special occasions and served their best dish on Simchas Torah,” Marks said, using the Ashkenazic pronunciation for the holiday.

When Jews began to immigrate to America in the 19th and 20th century, the dish took on new variations, like cooking it in a tomato stew or a sweet-and-sour sauce.

“I’ve met so many people over the years that like to make their own little variation of the dish, adding a little sour cream or parmesan cheese,” Joan Nathan, a Jewish cuisine author and television producer, told JTA. “But honestly, why change a recipe that has been through so many generations and is perfect the way it is? We use the same recipe, year after year, and that’s what makes it so special.”

With the dish appearing at the end of Sukkot year after year — Simchat Torah comes the day after Sukkot ends, and some American Jews spend the holiday’s first day, called Shemini Atzeret, eating in the sukkah — Jews began ascribing new meanings to stuffed cabbage. (Or, perhaps, those points of significance were hidden in the folds of the cabbage all along.)

“Some believe stuffing a food represents the time of harvesting, since Sukkot marks the fall harvest. More importantly, it was easily transferable in and out of the sukkah,” Marks said. “It also has an interesting visual. One stuffed cabbage on a plate noticeably resembles a rolled up Torah scroll — and two, side by side, also looks like a Torah, rolled up halfway.”

Tori Avey, a Jewish convert who writes the culinary blog Shiksa in the Kitchen, says readers from all over the world have sent recipes to her. Some were identical.

“For a sweet and sour flavor, readers wrote to add sour salt, although some opt for lemon juice or apple cider vinegar,” Avey told JTA via email. “One reader with Russian ancestors uses lemon peels. Some readers said they use sauerkraut for the sauce, and others use convenience ingredients like cranberry juice, V-8, and even grape jelly.”

Whether you stew it, boil it, saute it or steam it, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to preparing stuffed cabbage. The important thing, Marks says, is to remember your roots.

“People remember the different variations of stuffed cabbage based on their mothers and grandmothers,” he said. “It’s not just about food. Eating something as traditional as this is a cultural experience, one that is spiritual and nostalgic. It manages to transcend time, its food for the soul.”

Sukkot and Simchat Torah calendar


SUN | SEPT 30

BETH CHAYIM CHADASHIM

Help the LGBT congregation build its sukkah and add decorations made with recycled and found oubjects. Service and potluck follow. Sun. 10 a.m. (sukkah building), 4:30 p.m. (sukkah decorating), 6 p.m. (service and potluck). Free. Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6090 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023. bcc-la.org.

SUKKOT PICNIC

Join the Israeli Leadership Council, MATI and Mitchabrim — organizations dedicated to strengthening the Israeli-American community — at this folksy Sukkot festival. Arts-and-crafts, Israeli folk dancing, Sukkot decorating, kids activities and more make it a can’t-miss event for the entire family. Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Free. Warner Rancho Park, 5800 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 466-6454. jewishla.org.


THU | OCT 4

MAGICAL MYSTERY SUKKAH TOUR

JConnectLA’s Sukkot-meets-bar-crawl features singing, jamming and visits to mega-size sukkahs around town. Ages 21-36 welcome. Thu. 6:30-11 p.m. $13 (advance), $18 (on the bus, seats limited to 50). Meeting place: Chase Bank, 9080 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 244-5577. jconnectla.com.

 A MOVABLE FEAST

AtidLA’s progressive Sukkot dinner features Sukkah-hopping, drinks and dinner. Each course takes place in a different sukkah around Sinai Temple. Thu. 7 p.m. $10 (members), $15 (general). Sinai Temple, meet in Pilot Plaza, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 481-3244. atidla.com/#sukkot.
 


FRI | OCT 5

NASHUVA: SHABBAT, SUKKOT AND DANIEL PEARL WORLD MUSIC DAYS

Join Rabbi Naomi Levy and the Nashuva Band in a celebration of the Sabbath, the Festival of Sukkot and legacy of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal bureau chief who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in 2002. Part of Daniel Pearl World Music Day — an international network of concerts that use the power of music to reaffirm a commitment to tolerance and humanity — song, prayer and a special musical dedication in the honor and memory of Pearl highlight the occasion. An outdoor Sukkot festival follows, featuring a sukkah, Israeli food, live music and more. Fri. 6:45 p.m. Free. Brentwood Presbyterian Church, 12000 W. San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. Service streamed live on jewishournal.com. nashuva.com.
 


SAT | OCT 6

SINGLES IN THE SUKKAH

Spend a night in the sukkah with Ravakim, a cross-denominational gathering of singles in their 40s and 50s at Temple Beth Am. Enjoy Israeli wine and cheese as well as a chance to meet new people. Sinai Temple co-sponsors. Sat. 7:30 p.m. $10 (by Oct. 3), $15 (door). Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7354, ext. 215. tbala.org/ravaksukkah.


SUN | OCT 7

SOPHISTICATED SUKKAH

Storyteller Joel Ben Izzy, who has traveled the world gathering stories, tells Jewish tales with a modern and personal twist. Musical ensemble Klezmer Juice accompanies. An autumnal buffet in the sukkah follows. Sun. 4 p.m. Free. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 445-1280. wbtla.org.

SUKKOT DINNER AND SIMCHAT TORAH CELEBRATION

Kehillat Israel throws a holiday celebration with Sukkot festivities, tikkun olam opportunities, arts projects, a free pizza dinner and a Simchat Torah celebration. All ages welcome. Sun. 5:15 p.m. Free (RSVP required). Kehillat Israel, 16019 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. (310) 459-2328. kehillatisrael.org/sukkot-simhat-torah.

EREV SIMCHAT TORAH CELEBRATION

Dance with the Torah and unroll it into a great circle during this event at Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform congregation. Sun. 6 p.m. Free. Leo Baeck Temple, 13000 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 476-2861. leobaecktemple.org.


MON | OCT 8

“IT’S HOLY PANDEMONIUM!”

Bring your unbridled enthusiasm and libation of choice and get ready to sing, dance and pray your way through a celebration of Torah, community and life with IKAR. Mon. 5:30-11:30 p.m. 5:30 p.m. (early childhood celebration for ages 0-5 and their families), 6 p.m. (potluck), 7 p.m. (services, no childcare during services; children welcome to join adults). Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ikar-la.org

“WITHOUT MISSING A BEAT”

Family and friends, song and dance, rhythm and melody highlight Adat Ari El’s erev Simchat Torah celebration. Congregational service features a Hakafot drum circle with REMO drums followed by Israeli dancing, and a young family service includes singing and stories. Mon. 6 p.m. Free. Optional family dinner: $9 (general), $8 (children, 3-10 years old), free (children, 2 and under). Online RSVPs accepted through Oct. 5. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 755-3488. adatariel.com.

SIMCHAT TORAH CELEBRATION

Dance the night away and experience Simchat Torah with Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative congregation in Santa Monica. The event features an open bar for adults, services, music and dance, a pizza dinner and candy apples for kids. Mon. 6 p.m. Free. Kehillat Ma’arav, 1715 21st St., Santa Monica. (310) 829-0566. km-synagogue.org.

SINAI’S SIMCHAT TORAH

Rejoice in the Torah with Sinai Temple, a Conservative congregation. Event features a Torah scavenger hunt (for families with children of all ages), a celebration and Hakafot with Sinai’s clergy. Music by Dale Schatz and his band. Mon. 6 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, Ziegler Hall, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org.


Did we miss an event? E-mail calendar@jewishjournal.com.

Where to celebrate Simchat Torah in LA


THU., OCT. 20

ADAT ARI EL AND VALLEY RUACH
No matter your take on the Torah, it’s a scroll worth dancing with. Join Conservative congregation Adat Ari El and the synagogue’s young professionals organization at tonight’s celebration. For the Valley Ruach folk, the festivities includes bar trivia with prizes. Thu. 7-10 p.m. Free. Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 835-2139. valleyruach.org.

CHABAD OF SIMCHA MONICA
Everybody holds the Torah at Chabad of Simcha Monica’s Simchat Torah celebration. All-night dancing highlights the occasion. Nosh and drinks provided. Thu. 7 p.m. Free. Chabad of Simcha Monica, 1428 17th St., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3011. thechabadnik.org.

DANCING WITH THE TORAH
Stephen S. Wise Temple’s Simchat Torah celebration features a family-style dinner, art projects for the kids, singing with the school choirs and cantors and more. Thu. 5 p.m. (dinner and children’s activities), 6:30 p.m. (service and program), 7:15 p.m. (dancing and cookies). Free. Stephen S. Wise Temple, 15550 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles (310) 476-8561. wisela.org/dancingwiththetorah.

IT’S HOLY PANDEMONIUM AT IKAR
Bring your unbridled enthusiasm, your libation of choice and get ready to sing, dance and pray your way through a celebration of Torah, community and life. IKAR, a progressive spiritual community, will not have childcare tonight, but kids of all ages are welcome to dance and celebrate. For the potluck, please bring the following vegetarian dishes (and, of course, your drink of choice) depending on the first letter of your last name: A-G: dessert; H-M: entrée; N-S: salad; T-Z: side dish. Thu. 5:30 p.m. (early childhood celebration for children ages 0-5 and their families), 6 p.m. (community potluck), 7 p.m. (services and celebration). Free. Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ikar-la.org.

PARTY AT MORRY’S
Mix and mingle with young professionals at Aish Los Angeles’ Simchat Torah. The all-night night festivities features drinks, a full buffet, dancing, desserts and lots of Simcha. Ages 21-33 only. Tue. 9 p.m.-4 a.m. Free. Morry’s Fireplace, 9118 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 278-8672. aishla.com.

NASHUVA
Join Rabbi Naomi Levy and the Nashuva Band for a night of joy and dancing with the Torah. Snacks and desserts provided. Thu. 6:45 p.m. Free. Vista Del Mar Gymnasium, 3200 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. E-mail return@nashuva.com or visit nashuva.com for details.

VALLEY BETH SHALOM
The Conservative congregation holds a Tot Simchat Torah in the Sher-Lopaty Chapel and a Giant Torah Roll — with lots of dancing — for all ages in Malkin Hall. Thu. 6 p.m. (Tot Simchat Torah), 7 p.m. (Giant Torah Roll). Free. 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000. vbs.org.

Wanna drink? Think again!


This Purim will be the first test of a new teen anti-drinking campaign adopted by Los Angeles’ Orthodox rabbis after a Simchat Torah debacle in which more than 100 teens were seen drinking publicly or intoxicated.

The plan was adopted Nov. 14 at a meeting convened by Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, which was attended by, among others, heads of school of Shalhevet, YULA and Valley Torah — all Orthodox high schools — and rabbis of synagogues in the Pico-Robertson area, Hancock Park and the Valley.

“There were around 100 to 150 teens drinking [on Simchat Torah], so we were concerned about the fact of adults giving that kind of alcohol to kids,” said Debbie Fox, director of Aleinu, which provides counseling and educational services to the Orthodox community.

Rabbis at the November meeting agreed to ask the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), an Orthodox umbrella organization, to ask its members to designate shuls as “dry” — meaning alcohol-free — or “monitored,” meaning the shul would assign someone to make sure that no minors were served. They also reached a consensus to promote more knowledge about the dangers of teen drinking and addiction.

Recognizing alcohol’s long-standing presence in Jewish custom, tradition and culture — especially on Purim, when drinking is a mitzvah — and hearing from some rabbis that it would be impossible to have shuls go completely dry, Aleinu has tried to work directly with the shuls and parents to take responsibility for their teens.

While Aleinu and the RCC did not publish a list of dry and monitored shuls in time for Purim, last month Fox, with RCC cooperation, sent a letter and informational brochure to 85 rabbis, asking each shul to decide what its status would be on Purim, and to speak to their congregations about staying sober.

The Orthodox Union also sent out a letter urging rabbis to ask parents to carefully monitor their children, since drinks in shul are often cited as starting points for kids who later become addicts.

Many rabbis spoke to their congregations on Aleinu’s Feb. 3 “Shabbat of Awareness.” Two days before that event, about 45 rabbis came to The Jewish Federation to listen to an addiction specialist and watch a video in which recovering Orthodox teens explained factors that influenced their drinking and drug habits.

The same video was shown to the 130 parents who attended similar presentations Feb. 18 at Shaare Tefila and Beth Jacob. Also, in recent weeks flyers, posters and e-mails have circulated pleading: “This Purim, Don’t Get Carried Away.”

“These programs should help parents communicate with kids about the impact of drinking,” Fox said. “Our previous experience shows there are hardly ever conversations between parents and children about drinking.”

Shalhevet students who were out last erev Simchat Torah said that students from many different schools — including some from out of the area — were seen in the Pico area under the influence of alcohol. Two had to be taken to the hospital by paramedics, one of whom had her stomach pumped, witnesses said.

“This has been a problem every year,” said Rabbi Avi Greene, Shalhevet’s head of Judaic studies. “This year, certain events just made it impossible to keep the problem quiet.”

According to several witnesses, including students and rabbis from various schools interviewed by The Boiling Point, Shalhevet’s newspaper, teens were able to obtain drinks at several shuls in the Pico-Robertson area. They said alcohol might also have come from the teenagers’ homes.

“Walking down Pico Boulevard, I could barely take a few steps without hearing someone say or do something stupid because they were under the influence of alcohol,” Shalhevet junior Gaby Grossman said.

Perhaps the annual Purim party of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) will be able to distract teenagers from their alcoholic inclination. This year’s party, at Congregation Mogen David on Pico Boulevard, advertises itself as “alcohol-free” and includes all-night security, responsible staff and a packed schedule of activities. NCSY will also keep the Rubin Teen Drop-in Center on Pico near Roxbury Drive open all night as an alcohol-free safe zone.

“We definitely emphasized the absence of alcohol from this year’s event more than usual,” NCSY Vice President of Outreach Stephanie Aziz, a Shalhevet junior, said. “We recognized the goal to keep incidents like this from happening, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure teens have a fun, safe event on these holidays.”

Some students thought Aleinu’s outreach effort represented a stepping-stone toward overall progress.

“I’m in favor of educational programs because they help develop a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong,” Shalhevet junior Jennifer Reiz said. “At the same time, teenagers tend to learn more from their own mistakes and experiences.”

Others questioned whether the plans would succeed.

Educational programs “probably won’t help,” junior Meir Chodakiewitz said, “because when we see adults drink, it seems more OK for us. We drink to feel older.”

Sophomore Jonathan Cohen, who said he saw alcohol being served at as many as five synagogues Simchat Torah night, said designating shuls dry or monitored might slow kids’ drinking a little, “but most kids will still find a way around it.”

Still, most realized that something must be changed, because the current problem is, as one student put it, “intolerable.”

“It’s about time for change,” Shalhevet senior Jonah Braun said. “The debacle of Simchat Torah was a shame to the Jewish community as a whole.”

Louis Keene is a junior at Shalhevet and Torah editor of The Boiling Point, where a version of this article first appeared.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; Deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Simchat Torah


When: Sundown on Sat., Oct. 21, to sundown Oct. 22.

What:

Simchat Torah ends the days beginning with Sukkot (which began last Friday night) that are known as Z’man simchateinu (season of our joy). The day before Simchat Torah (beginning sundown Oct. 20) is called Shemini Atzeret, which, loosely translated, means “the eighth day of assembly.” Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are often thought of as the eighth and ninth days of Sukkot, but they comprise a holiday separate from Sukkot, which lasts seven days, and in Israel, they’re observed on the same day.

A post-biblical festival conceived in exile, Simchat Torah celebrates the presence of the Torah in the lives of Jews. Congregations read the very end of the Torah and begin again with the first verses of Genesis. The holiday is marked by singing and dancing, similar to that of a wedding. Just as a bride and groom dance with each other at a wedding, on Simchat Torah we hold the Torah in our arms and dance joyously.

What you’re supposed to do:

Go to synagogue. More than even the High Holy Days, Simchat Torah is a shul-based holiday (after all, that’s where the Torah scrolls are).

What happens:

Shemini Atzeret is marked by two special observances: a memorial service honoring the dead and the first recitation for the season of the prayer for rain.

In the Simchat Torah service, the congregation recites or sings “Atah horeita” (“You have been shown”), a series of verses in praise of God and Torah. Then the ark is opened, all the Torah scrolls are taken out, and there’s a series of seven hakafot (processions) with the scrolls, interspersed with bursts of singing and dancing.

Everyone in the congregation is given an opportunity to carry or dance with a scroll (though women may not have a chance to do so in some Orthodox synagogues). The scene becomes a joyous pandemonium of adults and children alike marching, dancing, singing, shouting, and waving flags.

After the processions, a traditional congregation will read the end of the Torah up to the last few verses during the evening service, continuing with those final verses and the beginning of Genesis the next morning (after another round of processions). In a liberal synagogue, the reading of the end and the beginning of the Torah may be combined in a single service.

Some synagogues hold a ceremony called “consecration” at Simchat Torah, during which religious school students in kindergarten or first grade are welcomed into the study of Torah and given toy Torah scrolls.

What you eat:

While Simchat Torah is not closely associated with particular foods, cakes and other sweets symbolizing the sweetness and joy of Torah are common, especially sweets made with stretched dough such as strudel and baklava.

More details about Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret can be found online at sites such as Virtual Jerusalem (www.vjholidays.com) and the Orthodox Union (www.ou.org) or in books such as “The Jewish Holidays” by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld and “Jewish Literacy” by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin.

What To Do With Your Kids

A selection of this week’s Jewish events for children:Ongoing:

“Kids Kehilla” at the Westside JCC emphasizes performing arts and multimedia projects which focus on Jewish values. For children 6-13. Mon.-Thurs., 3 p.m.-6 p.m. For more information on enrollment, call (323) 934-2925.Monday, Oct. 23 Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus: 6:30 p.m. Israeli teen pop comes to the Valley with a live performance by Tze’irei Tel Aviv, “The Young Tel Avivians.” Their 30-minute performance will consist of contemporary and pop Israeli music, sung mostly in Hebrew. 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. For reservations or more information, call (323) 761-8161.Friday, Oct. 27 Sukkot Temple Beth Hillel: 7:15 p.m.-7:45 p.m. “Tot Shabbat” service with stories and songs selected for their appeal to toddlers and preschoolers. 12326 Riverside Dr., Valley Village. For more information, call (818) 761-6983.Also, many synagogues have Simchat Torah celebrations especially for children. Call your local synagogues for more information.

All the Children


On the eve of Simchat Torah, many synagogues auction the three major honors of the day, with proceeds benefiting the synagogue or other Jewish institutions. Two honors, Hatan Torah (for the one called to the final reading in Deuteronomy) and Hatan Bereshit (for the one called to the first reading in Genesis), usually receive the highest bids. The third, Kol Hanearim — supervising the blessing of all minor children as a tallit is held over their heads, while the honoree receives the next-to-last aliyah in Vezot Haberakha — can be a close second.

One year, however, the auction for Kol Hanearim in my synagogue was unusually competitive. When finally over, I asked the man who fiercely bid the highest, why he vied for this honor.

Surprised by my question, he replied as if it were self-evident: “The one who supervises scores of little children crowded under the tallit, reciting the same blessing Jacob uttered over his grandchildren, is himself guaranteed Jewish grandchildren. Could I want less for myself?”

These words come to me again and again, whenever I contemplate the unique Torah portion, Vezot Haberakha, the only parasha not identified with a specific Shabbat. Rather, it is reserved for the joyous Simchat Torah holiday, with its unique Kol Hanearim ceremony, and as such deserves close analysis.

The Talmud, in Sukkah 42a, referring to Vezot Haberakha, provides a provocative comment: “Our rabbis taught: A minor who is able to speak, his father must teach him Torah…. What could be meant by Torah? Rav Hamnuna replied, the Scriptural verse [Deuteronomy 33:4], ‘Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.'”

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, an early 20th-century commentator, questions why the Talmud chose this particular passage as the first Torah verse that a parent must teach a child. Epstein suggests that by referring to Torah as a morasha, an inheritance of all Jews — young and old alike — it rejects the notion that only mature adults are obligated to observe Torah. An inheritance is age-blind, and so too is the Torah.

The word “morasha,” however, may contain another dimension. An early 19th-century German scholar, the Ktav V’Kabblah, notes that the usual word for inheritance is “yerusha,” not “morasha.” In fact, “morasha” is best translated as “a possession” rather than “an inheritance.” The difference is crucial. One receives an inheritance without individual effort, but one attains a possession through personal exertion. Torah, in other words, requires personal exertion rather than effortless lineage. The only way to become fluent in Torah is to work at studying Torah.

Ketav Sofer, a 19th-century scholar, remarks that “morasha kehillat Yaakov,” “a possession of the congregation of Jacob,” means that no Jew is an island onto himself. No Jew can observe all of the mitzvot of the Torah, for the 613 commandments don’t all apply to any one person. Some only apply to Kohanim, others to Leviim, some to women, while others only to those who live in Israel. Only as a part of the congregation of Israel can we become complete Jews.

Certainly these lessons are themes that the beautiful Kol Hanearim ceremony emphasizes. First, each child has a right to Torah, an inheritance that comes with birth.

Second, Kol Hanearim suggests that Torah requires effort. Neither children nor adults will acquire knowledge unless they work at studying Torah. If they put in the effort, they will be rewarded with the greatest gift: the Torah itself.

And, finally, we must appreciate that a Jewish life must include the community of fellow Jews. The little children are blessed as part of an entire group — part of a future community — because Torah can’t be lived in isolation. Instead, our blessing emphasizes the need for everyone to be involved with the Jewish community, for only together do we comprise the congregation that both Vezot Haberakha and Simchat Torah celebrate.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.

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