By Stacey Dresner
NORTHAMPTON – After a 45-day online campaign to raise $9,900, Circles for Jewish Living (CJL) has purchased its very own Torah.
An independent educational organization of mostly unaffiliated and interfaith families in the upper Pioneer Valley founded by Jewish educator Alison Morse, CJL offers home-based classes for children and adults. Its programs include an afterschool program for grades K-8, bar/bat mitzvah lessons and Mincha celebrations, holiday celebrations, community events and adult classes.
“Our goal from the inception of this project was to have a Torah for CJL bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies,” Morse explained. “We had been renting a Torah over the years and realized that it was time to own one. The Torah will also serve as an anchor for our community without walls, giving us a sense of time and place historically.”
CJL had been renting a Torah from Rabbi Kevin Hale, a local scribe for the past five years.
“Once he knew we were looking for a less expensive option, he mentioned that he had a Torah for sale through The Ray Torah Institute, Morse said. “Rabbi Hale’s mentor was Rabbi Eric Ray, a world-renowned sofer, artist and authority on the provenance of Torah scrolls, who could identify and write 2,000 distinct Hebrew scripts. The Ray Torah Institute is named in his honor.”
The Torah is being housed in the home of a CJL member. The group is personalizing the Torah by inscribing a tallit with the names of people that campaign contributors are honoring. Because this Torah is kept in a portable carry bag, it will always be wrapped with this tallit, from the Bialystoker Synagogue in New York City.
“Having a Torah for the CJL community can only enhance each student and their family’s ties to Judaism,” said Paula Yolles, the parent of a CJL student. “I remember the first time I saw a Torah scroll unrolled, the beauty, the awe, and the deeper connection that I gained to Judaism from that experience. Over 20 years later, the image and feeling is still so strong and powerful in my head and heart.”
Morse enlisted the help of Jewish crowdfunding website “Jewcer” to raise the funds for the Torah.
“I attended a Jewcer workshop at a newCaje conference in LA several years ago and participated in one of their webinars in December,” she said. “Jewcer supports their participants giving feedback to launch successful campaigns. Unlike other crowdfunding platforms, you get all the money you raise whether or not you meet your goal and it is the only crowdfunding platform dedicated to Jewish projects.”
The $9,900 raised during the “Keeping Torah Alive” campaign funds the Torah, the inscription of names that the campaign contributors are honoring on the tallit that will wrap the Torah, and campaign production costs and scholarships for CJL students.
“I was delighted and pleasantly surprised by the number of donors and their generosity,” said Morse, who added that people in the community can still donate even though the campaign formally ended on March 11. Funds can be donated on the CJL website, circlesforjewishliving.com.
As an independent home-based organization, CJL seeks the support of private funders. CJL has a fiscal sponsor in Avoda Arts and all contributions are tax-deductible according to IRS 501(c)3 regulations.
“Funds raised at this point will support after school and bar/bat mitzvah student scholarships,” she said. “We have several families in need. During this campaign, one family shared that due to financial constraints, their children will not be able to participate in the CJL after school next year even though their kids really enjoy the program.”
Morse added that CJL is growing and expanding its offerings.
“We are in the process of developing a CJL membership for local and out-of-town families. Local individuals and families will be able to join our cultural and holiday activities throughout the year. Out-of-town members may receive a newsletter and provide fiscal support for CJL through their membership fees,” she said. “We are exploring more adult programming, beginning with a gathering for women to discuss an article from Hadassah magazine paired with wine, snacks and an opportunity to enjoy each others’ company. We look forward to opening these gatherings to the greater community in the future.”
And the campaign to own its own Torah has brought the CJL community even closer.
“Families have been very excited to undertake the commitment of Torah ownership. We had a larger than usual turn out at our Chanukah party when we dedicated ourselves to the crowdfunding campaign,” Morse said. “We rented a space at the Florence Community Center instead of meeting in one of our homes to accommodate the larger group.”
The group will return to the Florence Community Center on the evening of May 8 for a special Torah dedication celebration.
“Rabbi Ben Weiner of the Jewish Community of Amherst will guide us as we unroll the Torah to learn about sections of note and various passages that are uniquely written in the scroll. The tallit inscribed with names will be displayed and there will be an opportunity to give blessings to each other while gathered under the tent of our greater community.”
That evening Alisa Greenbacher, CJL’s family educator, and Heidi Hass, a theater improv specialist will lead the group in Torah improv games. The event will also feature a vegetarian potluck feast and live music with ice cream donated by Herrell’s.
“The community is very welcome to attend,” Morse said. “We would enjoy seeing many of you there!”
CAP: The newly purchased Torah will be used during the dozen upcoming bar and bar mitzvahs that CJL will celebrate.