In a ceremony as old as recorded time, the Jews of Congregation Kol Ami, 2425 E. 2760 South, on Wednesday celebrated Siyum HaTorah - the completion of a new Torah scroll.
The Torah was donated by Emanuel (Manny) Pepper, who says the inspiration to purchase the valued possession came to him in the middle of the night. He had been wondering what he could do to honor his wife and daughter, both of whom died in the past two years. One night, about six weeks ago, he suddenly awoke.He thought, "I know what I'm going to do for my wife. I know the Kol Ami needs a Torah - I'll donate my own Torah."
When he called Rabbi Frederick Wenger, the rabbi said, "Manny, are you sure?"
Pepper replied, "I've thought about it and I'm sure."
The Torah consists of the Five Books of Moses and must be handwritten in Hebrew on parchment that is made from calfskin, the skin of a kosher animal. A scribe will spend 1,500 hours or about one year to complete a Torah, leaving the last few letter outlined to be filled in by the community receiving it. The parchment alone costs close to $5,000 - so the gift of a Torah scroll is a significant donation.
It was 64 years ago when the last new Torah scroll was given to the old Montefiore Synagogue, so Kol Ami was packed with local members anxious to participate in what can be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Most of those assembled did not know the man who was presenting Kol Ami with a new Torah.
Pepper, who was born and raised in Salt Lake City but moved away 17 years ago, brought the new Torah to Utah with the last few lines unfinished so that the donor and special honorees could symbolically participate in its completion. Rabbi Shimon Kraft of Los Angeles is a Sofar, one trained to write and repair Torahs.
"Siyum means sealing/completion, and the scroll is actually not kosher until the last letter is completed," said Kraft. "This Torah was made by a Hassidic Jew in Hazor, Israel. Can you imagine his surprise to find it ended up in Utah among the Mormons!"
"The Torah is written with black ink on a white parchment to show this is a world of contrast. The only reason that we can appreciate good is because we know evil," said Kraft.
"This is a true celebration. The great joy of it is that the same values and mores of our forefathers can be passed on to our children," he said.
While Kraft sat at a table in the social hall of Kol Ami, the children of the synagogue's religious school gathered around to watch the words being completed with 10 honorees: Rabbi Frederick Wenger, Laurence D. Loeb, Sam Shapiro, Edward Eisen, Max Eisen, Abraham Guss, Isaac Rose, Nomi Loeb, Harris Lenowitz and Manny Pepper.
As Pepper finished the final letters, the congregation joined in joyous Hassidic and Israeli dances and sang traditional Hebrew songs. A Chuppa or canopy was made from a prayer shawl (tallit) to cover Pepper, who carried the new Torah as he led a joyful singing procession through the halls of the synagogue into the sanctuary.
The procession was met at the door of the sanctuary with congregants holding the synagogue's other Torahs. Congregation members circled the sanctuary three times, carrying the scrolls in their beautifully embroidered velvet mantles topped with silver ornaments. Members of the congregation reached out and reverently touched the Torahs as they passed and then touched their fingers to their lips.
During each circling or hakkafah, the Torahs were passed to someone else to allow them the honor of carrying the sacred scrolls. A special moment occurred when Professor Natalya Rappoport, the W.W. Clyde Chair of Engineering at the University of Utah, was given a scroll to carry. Up until a year ago, such a religious ceremony would not have been allowed in her native Soviet Union.
A very special white and gold embroidered Chuppah stood on the bimah (platform) in front of the Ark of the Covenant where the Torahs are stored. The Chuppah had been donated to the Montefiore Synagogue by Pepper's mother and was used during his marriage in 1945. He stood under the canopy with the Torah dedicated to his late wife, Lorraine, and daughter, Berrie. To his right hung needlepoint replicas of the famous Chagall windows that represent the 12 tribes of Israel and are in the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Pepper spent two years completing the pictures, making the wood frames as well.
Pepper remarked that he was full of tears. "This is the best thing that I could have done for my family," he said.
Congregation President Jay Jacobson accepted the donations telling Pepper, "You truly walk in the way of Torah. May we read, learn and live by the words of the beautiful Torah you have given us."