Rabbi Shmuel Miller

Rabbi Shmuel Miller, founder of Midrasho Shel Shem and a sofer (Torah scribe), died over the Rosh Hashanah holiday on Sept. 5. Los Angeles’ Sephardic community has lost one of its most beloved figures. 

Rabbi Miller, known affectionately to his friends and community as “R’bbe Shmuel,” was the founder and spiritual leader of the unique L.A. synagogue Midrasho Shel Shem, a haven for transplanted French- and Hebrew-speaking Jews residing in Los Angeles. Interestingly, many immigrants of North African heritage were able to connect to their Judaism by first embracing their cultural roots through the Midrasho. From the backyard synagogue’s 17th century Moroccan interior design to the rav’s penchant for wearing the traditional tarboush (fez) and jelaba (North African robe), Rabbi Miller stood out, recalling for many, a less complicated era of their recent ancestors’ generation.

Rabbi Miller’s broad appeal in the Los Angeles Sephardic and Mizrahic communities went well beyond the exotic outer appearance. As a university-trained cultural anthropologist, French intellectual, linguist and ordained Orthodox rabbi, he was also an expert sofer whose approach to Judaism blended the mystical with the philosophical. 

Rabbi Miller was always authoritative and authentic, whether teaching mystical chanting and recitation of Tehillim (Psalms) accompanied by traditional instruments or lecturing in French, English, Spanish, Arabic or Hebrew. Among the rare men of his generation to unabashedly espouse Judeo-Oriental modes of dress, architecture and pronunciation, Rabbi Miller’s daring and nostalgic embrace of a lost world taught uncounted Westernized Sephardic Jews to appreciate their ancestors’ often-downplayed history. 

In L.A.’s Orthodox community, Rabbi Miller stood virtually alone in fusing Jewish-Sufi mysticism with a love of Jewish law and philosophy. He was inspired by the mystic Rabbi Avraham, son of the 13th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides, whom he considered his teacher and spiritual master.

This beloved teacher’s inspiring and original presence will be greatly missed by all his students the world over. One of the great lights of Sephardic Judaism in Los Angeles has gone out, but his memory will continue to ignite the hearts and minds of those he has touched.

Never Too Old to Write a Letter … of Torah

The Jewish Home for the Aging has never had a Torah it could call its own. Since the home first opened in 1912, synagogues or individuals have donated Siferei Torah to the senior-living community, but the scrolls were often old and tarnished, with faded letters or finger smudges on the parchment. These Torahs are considered pasul, or unfit for public reading, but they were the only ones available to the home for religious services.

Now the Reseda-based home, which provides care to about 2,200 seniors through its in-residence housing and community-based programs, is in the process of creating its own kosher Torah — a “Torah for the Ages,” as the project is being called.

“It’s upsetting to this point we haven’t had our own Torah,” said Corey Slavin, vice president of fund development, who with home CEO Molly Forrest conceived the project.

Slavin said the $200,000 raised for the project more than covers its costs, and remaining funds will be dedicated to various programs and services at the home. The home expects its Torah, begun April 13, 2008, to be completed sometime in 2010.

Rabbi Shmuel Miller, who has worked locally as a sofer (Torah scribe) for 15 years, was commissioned to write the Torah, which will rotate between the home’s synagogues at the Eisenberg Village and Grancell Village campuses when finished. Officials hope the Torah will inspire its residents and their families to remain or become connected to their faith and community.

The Torah’s production is quite a community effort. In keeping with the 613th and final commandment mentioned in the Torah — “Now write this song for yourself and teach it to the Children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19) — residents, family members, sponsors and anyone else who wants to may write a letter in the home’s Torah. Thus far about 100 people have written in the scroll.

Rabbi Sheldon Pennes, the home’s spiritual life director, said that writing in the Torah is considered the responsibility of each Jew.

During a writing session on Feb. 22, 101-year-old Cedelle Weiner found herself up close and personal with the Torah for only the second time in her life.

The first time was a year ago.

She said she did not feel very Jewish until coming to the home and found she was inspired to study with Rabbi Anthony Elman, who works at the home’s Grancell Village campus.

“This is a completely new life for me,” Weiner said as she underwent the ritual hand washing and said the appropriate blessings.

After sitting down next to Rabbi Miller, the scribe, Weiner put her hand on his and watched as he filled in a silhouetted letter from the word hamoftim (“wonders”) from the Torah’s penultimate sentence: “He had no equal for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his servants….” (Deuteronomy 34:11).

“The home is fantastic,” Weiner said when she was done. “I have been entertained, and now I’m getting a Jewish religion I have never had. At 101, I’m doing something different, and I am now writing [in the Torah], which I never did before.”

Rose Bentow, 86, almost couldn’t contain her excitement as she fulfilled the commandment. She was one of several Holocaust survivors who were sponsored by family members, community members or total strangers to come and write a letter in the scroll.

The moment harkened her back to her small Polish town, circa 1928. Her grandfather told her to stay out of a particular room because a man was writing the Torah and couldn’t be bothered.

Little Rose’s curiosity got the better of her, so she quietly opened the door.

“I said, ‘He’s playing with a feather. He’s not writing,’” she recalled. “I asked my grandparents, ‘Why can’t I go in?’ They said, ‘This is how you write the Torah.’”

Pennes, the home’s spiritual life director, said everyone experiences the moment differently.

“It looks like just someone writing letters on a piece of parchment,” he said. “But it’s a spiritual event. People feel it spiritually, emotionally. It’s hard to put into words.

“Children see it simply. But when you’re older, you appreciate it differently, especially when we recite the Shehecheyanu. The idea of living to this point is amazing. That process heightens sensitivity to the mitzvah that’s about to happen.”

For more information about the Torah for the Ages, visit http://www.jha.org.

VIDEO: Torah dedication by Chabad of Thousand Oaks

Chabad of Thousand Oaks was honored to receive a Torah, generously donated by Rabbi Mordechai and Ethel Bryski in memory of their parents (great-grandparents of Rabbi Chaim Bryski, Rabbi of Chabad of Thousand Oaks), survivors of the Holocaust. This scroll was rescued from the Holocaust as well, and was painstakingly restored before coming to its permanent home at the Thousand Oaks Jewish Center.

Shavuot 5768: Praise for the scroll

In a knowledge world ruled by books and pages and digitized memory, why do Jews hold onto the scroll?

As Shavuot (with its focus on receiving the Torah) begins, I must ask: Could it be that rolled along together somewhere in our minds with the love of Torah is the love of scroll?

We are fascinated with book forms that when opened, extended, unfolded or unrolled change shape before our eyes. In the scroll, we have a form that can also expand our minds.

Though the scroll is used in other cultures and religions, it remains a distinctive Jewish form, distinguishing it especially from early Christian writings that used the newer form—the Roman codex, or book, to record their writings. It is our handmade, not mass-produced form passed from generation to generation that we read, study and honor.

Seeing the words of the Torah scribed in perfect columns makes us think of a book. But as the parchment unrolls without a beginning or an end in sight, we think of a journey. You find your place in a book by turning the pages, moving through paper by the numbers. With the Torah, you turn and turn and move through place and time.

Grab on to the wooden spindles to which the Torah is attached, the etzai chaim. As your hands and arms move, you also move through time, places, names and law. As you cross the Red Sea, you cross the sea of context as well. As you scroll, and the portion is chanted, the physical action moves you inside the story: the sea parts, you hurry through, and are saved and ready to sing as you reach the other side.

Consider that in the Torah when the Ten Commandments are given, they are written on two tablets. From a book designer’s point of view, the tablets are two pages—a spread. Form-wise this is perfect—attention is focused only on the two tablets; nothing more is needed.

Yet the Torah is not contained on a series of tablets or pages, it is on a roll. So where is our attention directed?

Open the Torah scroll to a single column and that is what we see. Open it two columns, three, four, and our attention suddenly opens to the entire beautiful calligraphic panorama before us.

As time passes the scroll becomes more modern. As an information system, the scroll is a forerunner to many of our modern information systems that also work by revolving mechanisms: computer hard drives and DVD players. We scroll down our computers only reluctantly, hoping what we need is in the opening screen. But unlike the monitor, the Torah scroll encourages us by its form to scroll across—to continue to read, visualize and, week after week, make the journey’s end.

Our brains are wired mostly for visual experience. It‘s a visual system that is ready for more. As you scroll through the Torah, names and places pass by and the mind makes connections. The scroll encourages the particular form of Jewish study that requires skipping from passage to passage, and from book to book. (So, add Web surfing to the claims of Jewish invention). The form helps the mind hold together as one the words, the verses and parashot from throughout the Torah.

For those whose task it is to the find the place in the Torah for their congregations, the scroll can be a curvilinear calendar, the position of the reading being associated with season or date. Many of us know that if the left side is small, then the end of the Jewish year is approaching and it is time to send out your Rosh HaShanah cards.

Even our Shavuot readings remind us of the scroll’s circularity. On this holiday, many read the liturgical poem Akdamut, which pays poetic homage to the endlessness of Torah. The end of each line ends with the Hebrew letters tav-alef (image, right), the final and first letters of the Hebrew alphabet, reminding us that when we get to the end of the scroll we begin anew.

Our culture places high value on creating whole designed environments. In restaurants, hotels, theaters and homes, we surround ourselves with music, lighting, art and colors. We admire the seamless and the artful motif.

The scroll, the Torah, is a gateway to a whole environment as well. It unrolls in so many ways, and as it does, we can become enveloped by its words and texture, and understand that indeed everything is in it.

It is said that on the first night of Shavuot, at midnight, the heavens open.

This year, imagine they unroll.

Edmon J. Rodman, a book and toy designer, designed “Mitkadem” and “Jewish Holidays Building Blocks” and is the author of “Nomo, the Tornado Who Took America By Storm.” He is a Torah reader and occasional roller at the Movable Minyan. Rodman built a pyramid of matzah last Pesach

—Jewish Telegraphic Agency

On 27 May, 2007, 10 Sivan, 5767. The United Congregation of Israelites in Kingston, Jamaica, celebrated the arrival of a new sefer torah. The torah was carried by Rabbi Yitzhak Kimchi from Jerusalem. They were met at the Tinson Pen airport in Kingston. The rabbi and the torah preceded the motorcade through the city to the Jewish Heritage Centre in Kingston. The scroll was then taken into the synagogue Shaare Shalom. Rabbi Yitzhak Kimchi completed the writing of the torah. Then the sefrei torah were taken out of the ark and paraded in a semi-circle. The congregation exploded in joy with dancing and clapping of hands. This was followed by a service of thanksgiving.

The Case of the Missing Torah

Did a rabbi steal the Sefer Torah? A Montreal resident claims that a Torah she loaned to a local senior home has illegally ended up in a Southern California synagogue. And now she’s on the hunt to find it.

The 60-year-old scroll was housed at the King David Senior Residence in Montreal, and in August, the owners say they gave it to Rabbi Simcha Zirkind to find out its worth, who then took the Torah to New York, where a sofer, or religious scribe, in Brooklyn bought it from him for $8,000. The sofer then allegedly resold it for a higher sum to a New York-based philanthropist who donated it to a baal teshuvah (newly observant) synagogue somewhere outside of Los Angeles.

The dispute highlights a disturbing trend of trading religious goods of questionable origins.

But Montreal resident Betty Malamud-Bloomstone disputes that the Torah ever belonged to the King David. Malamud-Bloomstone claims that her father, Shloime, donated the Torah to the Rabbinical College of Canada in the late 1940s, and that the College loaned it to the old-age home in 1974 because the residents needed a Torah for services. According to Malamud-Bloomstone, even though the residence has been sold five times in the years since, the Torah has always remained in the chapel, on loan from the college.

"The Torah was very precious to my father, and he would turn over in his grave if he knew that it had been sold," said Malamud-Bloomstone, who is now trying to locate the California synagogue to which the Torah was donated.

Malamud-Bloomstone admits that without the cooperation of the Brooklyn sofer, who has divulged no other details of the sale, finding the synagogue is like "trying to win the lottery."

Neither Malamud-Bloomstone nor Josie Solito, the owner of the King David Senior Residence, allege that the sofer knew the Torah did not belong to Zirkind. Solito told The Journal that Zirkind had offered her the money from the sale, but she refused it.

Solito lodged a complaint with the Montreal Police Department against Zirkind.

Rabbi Saul Emanuel the executive director of the Montreal Vaad Hair, the city’s Jewish council, told The Journal that the Vaad has issued a summons for Zirkind to appear and explain his side of the story.

Zirkind would not comment to The Journal, except to say that Solito’s story was incorrect.

According to Malamud-Bloomstone, Zirkind maintains that the King David donated the Torah to him.

Up to 100 Torahs are stolen every year from synagogues in Israel alone, says Rabbi Yitzchak Goldshtein of Machon Ot, a Jerusalem-based Torah identification service (www.ott.co.il). Torahs are handwritten by sofers on parchment and are worth anywhere from $2,000 for a nonkosher Torah (one in which letters or words are missing) to $35,000 or more for a new Torah.

Generally, synagogues wanting to purchase a Torah scroll will contact a dealer, who — budget permitting — will either negotiate with a scribe to write a new scroll, or will find a secondhand scroll for the synagogue to purchase.

Stealing and selling a stolen Torah can be relatively easy. Many synagogues do not have good security around the Ark where the Torahs are kept. And since people in synagogues basically trust each other, no one would necessarily question someone walking out with a scroll. Also, without its velvet covering, one Torah is almost indistinguishable from another to the untrained eye, so a thief can easily concoct a story about the scroll’s origin when he unloads it on a dealer.

Yet, synagogues can prove ownership of a Torah. Machon Ot runs the International Torah Registry, which assigns a unique code to each scroll and then enters it to a computer database. Machon Ot locates the code by placing a template of a line from the top of the scroll to the bottom in six different locations of the Torah, and then registers what words fall directly beneath each other. Since every Torah is handwritten, the shape and size of the words and letter differs slightly between each one, and no two would have exactly the same word alignment.

With a registry system in place like this (as well as other Torah registry system such as the Universal Torah Registry System, which uses a similar method of identification), any synagogue purchasing a secondhand Torah can get a reliable assessment of its provenance, providing it is registered. Many of the old Torahs in synagogues today are not registered.

In the case of the Montreal Torah, Malamud-Bloomstone says that she has evidence that the Torah was loaned to the old-age home and is now trying to recover the Torah. She has contacted the Board of Rabbis of Southern California to see if they could help her, and is considering placing ads in Jewish newspapers all over the state for anyone with information to step forward. The Board of Rabbis, the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of California were unable to provide any leads. Once the Torah is recovered, Malamud-Bloomstone will consider hashing out the question of its ownership in the beit din (religious court).

"We just want to get the Torah back," Malamud-Bloomstone said.

Ask Wendy

His Cheatin’ Heart

Dear Wendy,

My best friend discovered that her husband has been having a long-term affair. First she wept on my shoulder, then she asked me what I thought she should do? Is there a right answer to that question? She and her husband have three small children whose lives must also be considered.

Friend Indeed

Dear Friend Indeed,

The only right answer for now is that, as her best friend, you will stay by her side and support whatever decision she makes. But once that moment passes, it’s time for her to pack her bags — period. Or his.

This may be an oversimplification, but I believe that people fall into two categories: those who cheat and those who don’t. Those that do tend to do so again — especially if their transgression was of the long-term variety. If the wronged party doesn’t lay down the law, the transgressor knows, consciously or unconsciously, that he can get away with it again. Anyone who has seen a 4-year-old in action is familiar with this axiom. At the end of the day, your friend needs to ask herself: Do I still respect and trust my spouse? There can be only one answer to that question. And a marriage without respect and trust is no marriage at all, even if the family is still intact.

Unkosher Gift

Dear Wendy,

We received a beautiful mezuzah and scroll as a gift. Our sofer (scribe) pointed out that although written on kosher skin, some letters were written backwards, several words were in the incorrect order, and the heksher on the plastic wrapping was counterfeit. We do not want to offend the gift-giver but we feel obligated to alert her and the synagogue that sold it to her that the parchment is not kosher. What do you suggest?


Dear Perplexed,

Would you worry about telling someone their tires had been found to have a defect and were being recalled? I suggest you choose your words carefully and remember to express your appreciation. Beyond that, your friend and her synagogue store should be grateful for the information. Someone should be ashamed of himself — or herself — and it isn’t you.

Women Pallbearers

Dear Wendy,

At every funeral I attend I see only men bearing the casket. Does Judaism prohibit women from being pallbearers?


Dear Curious,

If ever there is a time when people cling to custom and ritual, it is at the end of life. Part of the ritual of death is to follow traditions already in place; male pallbearers happen to be one of those traditions. (In Jerusalem, another such tradition is that children, no matter what their age, do not go to the cemetery when a parent is buried. Go figure.)

There is no halachic reason a woman cannot be a pallbearer. According to my rabbi, this minhag (custom) was likely established as a matter of muscle: women were not considered strong enough to carry the casket. But even among the Orthodox community, the long-held tradition is being uprooted, one piece at a time. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of Ohr Torah Institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat, has broken ranks and decreed that it is permissible for women to be pallbearers for other women. If you are a member of a Conservative or Reform community, you have most likely already witnessed this shift.

Ask Wendy appears on the third week of every month. Send letters to Ask Wendy at wbadvice@aol.com or 954 Lexington Ave. Suite 189, New York, N.Y., 10021.n

Ulterior Motives?

Dear Wendy,

My daughter was 10 years old when I married for the second time. My new husband never wanted to fill the role of stepfather; in fact, he paid very little attention to my daughter. But now that we’re divorced (after 17 years of marriage) he calls her frequently and lavishes gifts on her. Recently he bought her a car. What do you make of the alliance and what do you think I should do?

Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

If he can’t have you I guess he’s decided to settle for your daughter. Metaphorically speaking, that is.

The good news is that you’re divorced from him and no longer need to give a second thought to your ex-husband’s motives. Even if they are rather transparent. Your daughter is another matter. It isn’t everyday that someone offers to buy you a new car. On the other hand, this may be your daughter’s way of getting back at you while getting what she never got from your ex when he was her father. Without making a federal case of it, ask your daughter what is going through her head. Talk to her about your concerns — are there strings attached here? — but don’t let the discussion turn into an argument. You are no longer married to this man. Don’t let him come in between you and your daughter; and, whatever you do, don’t let your ex draw you back in. You divorced him for a reason, didn’t you?