jlink
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Stephen and Chaim Sussman with the sofer. (Credit: Jerry Schranz)

Bar Mitzvah boy David Gellis with the sofer, Rephael Hirsch. (Credit: Jerry Schranz)

As a child’s bar or bat mitzvah approaches, thoughts often turn to “becoming a Jewish adult,” “taking on additional mitzvot,” “celebrating,” “party,” and even “mitzvah project.” However, even when taking on a mitzvah project, rarely does an 11- or 12-year-old child’s mind turn toward Torah restoration. And even more rarely does that child decide to donate his or her b’nai mitzvah gifts toward that restoration.

As reported in the May 7 edition of the Jewish Link, the tiny and aged Jewish community of Paterson has two old Torahs—one dating from the 1920s and the other from the 1950s. These Torahs were in such terrible condition that when Fair Lawn resident Jerry Schranz took them to a sofer to be evaluated, he was told that it would cost the community $3,600 to repair them. That was approximately $3,600 more than the residents of the HUD-subsidized Federation Apartments in Paterson had to spend.

A fundraising effort began, ultimately netting even more than what was needed for the Torah restoration, resulting in talleisim and shul chairs also being restored. As this process continued, Schranz decided to attempt to locate the families of the people whose names were inscribed on the Torahs, to share the news of their restoration. He was able to locate family members of the people memorialized on both Torahs, one search leading him to Goldie, a 99-year-old woman in Florida who is the daughter of one of those individuals. Goldie’s grandnephew, Chaim Sussman, coincidentally lives in Teaneck and was thrilled to hear that the family Torah was being restored.

Jewish geography being what it is, Sussman happens to play softball in a local league, along with close family friend and Teaneck Doghouse proprietor Jonathan Gellis. When Gellis heard about the Paterson Torah restoration project, he wanted to participate. He discussed it with his family, after which his son, David, decided that he wanted to honor the Sussman family by contributing $1,800 from his upcoming bar mitzvah gifts toward the restoration of the Sussman family Torah. The only condition of this gift was that David wanted to read from this Torah at his shul on his bar mitzvah, which was to be on Parshat Lech Lecha.

“Our plan had always been to write a Torah in honor of David’s bar mitzvah,” said Jonathan Gellis. “‘Fortunately,’ we could not find a local shul that needed one, so we dropped the idea. When this opportunity presented itself, it was perfect.” Bashert, as they say.

The sofer, Rephael Hirsch, had members of the families re-ink some letters of their Torah in order to fully participate in the mitzvah. Both Torahs were completed by Shavuot, and the Sussman Torah was recently delivered to the Gellis home so that David could practice reading from it in advance of his Bar Mitzvah.

“David is a pretty mature and level-headed kid,” said his father. “He was so happy to donate to the Torah restoration project. It was exactly what he wanted for his Bar Mitzvah.” Well, that and “winning his middle school basketball championship,” joked Gellis.

“I didn’t know I was going to become a bit of a historian, but it feels so good for me to know that reconnecting families with a Torah means so much more than simply restoring the Torah, though the halachic process was also very enlightening for me—seeing a Torah being restored and being able to ink letters along with the families was a great moment for me personally,” said Schranz.

To follow the story of the restoration project, visit www.patersonshul.com.

By Jill Kirsch