One of the many aspects of Jewish life in the Valley of the Sun, which drew me to Phoenix nearly 20 years ago, was the rich history of this dynamic community.
In 2003, when I arrived at Congregation Beth Israel, I felt an acute sense of humility knowing I was “standing on the shoulders” of the many great leaders that have served our sacred community. After all, the men and women of the Phoenix of the 1920s ultimately became the individuals who built many of the Jewish institutions and organizations which are at the core of our community to this day.
From the opening moments of our Kabbalat Shabbat at the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center on Oct. 22, we commenced the celebration of CBI’s 100th anniversary. Our centennial celebration marks the past, present and future. For the first time in over 70 years, CBI’s members worshiped on the consecrated ground of our first synagogue building.
The following weekend we marked the transition to the next 100 years — l’dor va’dor (from generation to generation) — as the opening letters of the Book of Genesis were placed on the first piece of parchment of the Centennial Torah we have commissioned in honor of our anniversary.
The idea for the Centennial Torah Project took form over the past two years as we put in place the plans to write our own sefer Torah (Torah scroll), which would be celebrated and embraced by future generations of our congregational families. While we could never have imagined the impact of COVID-19, which delayed our celebrations by one year, the act of commissioning a sefer Torah during a global pandemic provided us with an even greater sense of God’s healing spirit and Eternal teaching; the salvific nature of the Torah itself gave us hope in the darkest days of the past two years.
Writing a Torah is a once in a generation mitzvah and our campaign to commission a new Torah is an act of unrequited love for the Jewish people and our beloved congregation. This centennial Torah embodies the very essence of our moment of transcendent celebration. It is the epoch story of our people’s past, our guide for daily living and our hope and faith in the future.
Over the course of the past two months, I have stood in awe, watching our families, along with our religious school and preschool students as they sit with our sofer (scribe) and write the first letters of Genesis. Our sofer sits patiently with every grandparent, parent and child to teach them the true meaning of fulfilling this mitzvah. With each stroke of the kulmus (quill), our children sit still and our adults are mesmerized, seeing themselves as active participants in the ongoing revelation which began at Mount Sinai over 3,200 years ago.
In these singular moments, as ink touches parchment, we witness a moment of transcendence as the seeds of Torah are planted for the minds and spirits of coming generations. In these moments we can envision the Jewish women and men of the next generation who will make this Torah their very own “Tree of Life.” I hope they will find God’s presence in this centennial Torah and know how very connected we are to them through this act of love for God, Jewish living and the Jewish people.
In 1950, at the consecration ceremony for CBI’s second location downtown, my predecessor Rabbi Abraham Lincoln Krohn (z”l) shared this eternal truth which has humbled me over the past two decades:
“The essence of its [Torah’s] being, the secret of its power, the meaning of its message and the gallantry with which it has defended the goal of all its striving, have remained constant…[Thus] we celebrate, the continuity from faith to greater faith in the enduring search of [every Jew] for God.”
I pray that 100 years from now, when CBI celebrates is bicentennial anniversary, our grandchildren and their grandchildren will understand that our centennial Torah represents our hopes, dreams and love for them. JN
Rabbi Stephen Kahn is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.