They danced the hora after the scribe — sharpened goose quill in hand — filled in the first Hebrew letters on a sheet of parchment that would become part of a new Torah scroll. The men formed a joyful circle in the front of the ballroom. The women and girls did their dance in the back. • It was a historic occasion for the Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg. This was to be the 8-year-old Orthodox community's first new Torah scroll, the sacred compilation of the five books of Moses — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
About 100 people gathered at the Bilmar Beach Resort in Treasure Island two weekends ago to witness the beginning of the painstaking task of handwriting a new Torah scroll. The sacred document, Rabbi Alter Korf said, represented a link in more than 3,000 years of unbroken history dating back to when God handed the Torah to Moses.
"The power and energy of this moment is so great,'' Korf said to those assembled for the ceremony.
The first two letters written that afternoon just happened to be the ones that begin the Hebrew names of Sheila Wasserman and her brother, Michael Svarc, who are dedicating the scroll in their parents' memory. Their father, Albert Svarc, was born in what is now Slovakia and immigrated to Israel in 1948. He fought in the War of Independence and moved to Chicago in 1955 with his Israeli-born wife, Tikva. They retired to Seminole in 1987. Tikva Svarc died in 1998. Her husband died in January, which prompted their children to launch the Torah project.
"This is something my father had always wanted to do for my mother and his family, who died in the Holocaust,'' said Wasserman, 57, who owns Clear Image Vision Centre in Largo with her husband, Dr. Gary Wasserman.
Michael Svarc, 52, who traveled from suburban Chicago for the Sunday Torah-writing ceremony, told those assembled, including the Wassermans' son, Aaron, that he and his sister would have preferred to have been dedicating the Torah in their parents' honor rather than their memory.
As is traditional, the Svarc and Wasserman Family Torah will be written on parchment made from the skin of a kosher animal. In this case, it will be a cow. It will take about 60 pieces of parchment — sewn together with sinew — to create the document central to Judaism.
Rabbi Yochanon Klein, 29, a fourth-generation scribe, traveled from Miami to write the new Torah's first words. He has chosen a scribe in Israel to complete the task — with the exception of the last few lines. Klein, who spent a year studying to become a scribe, or sofer, said work on the new scroll will take about six months to a year.
"It takes a lot of patience, a lot of time,'' he said.
It is also expensive. The entire project could cost around $40,000, said Korf, who heads the Chabad Jewish Center with his wife, Chaya. The center has invited members to dedicate letters, words, verses or even a book of the Torah to mark celebrations or honor family members. Dedications range from $36 for a single letter to $5,400 for a book.
Korf said participating in even the smallest way lets a person obey the 613th commandment, which states that every Jew should write a Torah scroll. "If you dedicate even one letter, you are considered to have written an entire Torah,'' he said.
The community grew quiet as Klein said a prayer and began writing the first words of Genesis. In another few months, he will return to ceremoniously complete the last few lines of the scroll.
Then, members of the Chabad center will carry and dance with the new Torah, likened to a marriage contract between God and the Jewish people, under a chuppah (wedding canopy).
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.