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A Sacred Craft

Local rabbi highlighted in “Commandment 613”

By Stacey Dresner

WESTERN MASS. – Miriam Lewin was in Leeds visiting her first cousin Rabbi Kevin Hale in August of 2016 when she learned of his work with the Czech Memorial Scrolls.

Hale is one of 17 authorized scribes who work on the restoration and repair of scrolls that were rescued after World War II by the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. Today more than 1,500 restored Czech Torah scrolls are on permanent loan in Jewish communities all over the world.

“I always knew what he did,” Lewin said. “But one day I was visiting him at his house in the Pioneer Valley and he was telling me about the work that he does with these specific scrolls — the Torah scrolls from the Memorial Scrolls Trust — and that he goes to a lot of congregations and works on the scrolls, and I blindly said, ‘That sounds like a film!’ Kind of like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney saying, “Hey, let’s put on a show!’”

The result of that family encounter is “Commandment 613” a 23-minute short film, directed and produced by Lewin that will be featured in the Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival from March 5-8. A virtual discussion of the film with Lewin, Rabbi Hale, and cinematographer/editor Randi Cecchine will be held on March 8 at 7 p.m.

Commandment 613 tells not only the story of Rabbi Hale’s work, but shares some of the history of the historic Czech Torah scrolls.

Czechoslovakia had a thriving Jewish community for more than 1,000 years, but the community was all but destroyed after the Germans invaded the country in March of 1939. During the war, Judaica, including 1,800 Torah scrolls from the regions of Bohemia and Moravia, was taken from synagogues, collected by the Nazis and eventually stored for decades in a basement in Prague.

In 1964, the Czech government offered the long forgotten scrolls to a British art dealer, and they were acquired by the Westminster Synagogue in London. Soon the Czech Memorial Scroll Trust was founded to protect and keep track of the precious Torahs. And for more than 50 years, scribes like Rabbi Hale have painstakingly restored these scrolls so that they may still be used in Jewish communities around the world.

The documentary got its title, Rabbi Hale explains in the film, because “it is “generally accepted that the last [commandment] — 613 — is God saying to Moses, ‘And now write this song for yourselves and teach it to the children of Israel’”…or write your own Torah.

Hale took an interesting journey in becoming a sofer. Growing up Reform on Long Island, in a family that he calls “classic Jewish German secular,” he dropped out of Hebrew school before he could be bar mitzvahed.

His mother Irene and Miriam Lewin’s father Frank are brother and sister. A photo in the film shows Irene as a little girl and Frank as a teenager, standing with their parents Lisa and Max on March 17, 1939, a week before they left Germany.

“That photo came from Kevin. He’s the family archivist on that side of the family,” Lewin said.

Hale’s paternal side was also from Germany. Hale says that his father Ken (nee Heilbut) didn’t even know he was Jewish until the rise of the Nazis.

After receiving a BA in Classical Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies and Archaeology from Yale, Kevin Hale worked as a “self-employed toy maker” in Berkeley, California for several years. At the age of 29, after a trip to Germany to see extended family still living there, he had a calling to become a rabbi.

“I sensed that there were treasures in Judaism,” Hale says, “and I wanted to find them.”

Growing up with Hale “No one saw ‘Rabbi’ coming,” laughed Lewin. But she says his work as a sofer makes sense.

“Kevin is curious and creative and a tinkerer,” she said. “He comes from a family of people who build things. His father’s an engineer. His brother is a photographer and maker of tiny incredible objects. They are all builders, and Kevin has all of those ‘want-to-build it’ tinkerer skills. He just gets interested and he says, ‘Oh, I’m going to figure out how to bake matzah…I’m going to figure out how to mow a maze in my yard. I’m going to build instruments’ — He builds tons of instruments. He’s always stopping to think about how to make something. And he was always been like that.”

Lewin and Cecchine were able to spend time filming Rabbi Hale at work in his Leeds office/workshop where he explains his work. In his creative, down to earth way, Hale shares some of what goes into restoring a Torah — from the ink and tools used for different parts of the process, to the animal skin parchment and how the Torah panels are sewn together, to ancient customs and rules scribes follow during different steps of the scribing process. (To illustrate one custom, Rabbi Hale even references Lord Voldemort, the evil wizard in the Harry Potter books).

“I really pushed for us to film in his studio,” said Cecchine. “We didn’t use a lot of the footage, but I loved the studio tour that he gave on camera. I love his relationship to his objects, to the tools and toys that he tinkers with, and his relationship to sacred craft and fun.”

Cecchine has some ties to the Pioneer Valley – she is a graduate of Hampshire College. Having worked with Lewin before on other films, she says she was excited when she was asked to work on Commandment 613.

“I didn’t know anything about what a sofer does or about the Czech scrolls before,” Cecchine said. “The two communities we visited were close to where my parents live, and later I found out that the synagogue where my parents were married and where my sister and I had our bat mitzvahs — Beth David Reform Congregation in Pennsylvania — also has a Czech scroll.”

Before making Commandment 613, Brooklyn-based Lewin had mainly made documentaries for professional development for teachers, many dealing with teaching the arts.

“I’ve never made a film longer than 30 minutes. This is the first time that I’ve made a film without a client, a budget or a deadline,” she said. “We tend to call those passion projects. And I always said I wasn’t going to do one…For me, filmmaking was a craft, a profession. And to be honest, I had seen too many people put their own money into films and [spend] a long time doing them, and have it not work out or take a long time. It was just wasn’t something that interested me.”

But her cousin’s work inspired her.

“I guess I was at a point in my career when I started this one where I was more open to doing something like that. It was a story that grabbed me.”

In the back of her mind, Lewin says, was something she witnessed the year before during her stepdaughter’s bat mitzvah.

During a short delay when the congregation was waiting for someone to arrive, Rabbi Hale – who knew the congregation’s rabbi — invited people to come up to the bimah and look at the Torah.

“He just said, ‘Has anyone not ever been close to a Torah?’ And a lot of people raised their hands among our friends and family. I saw all these people come crowding up around and looking at it with this look of awe on their faces.

“There was something about that moment and the way Kevin explained things in such a natural, unassuming way that stuck in my mind. It was really one of the highlights for me of that beautiful day,” Lewin recalled. “So, when we started filming I somehow knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to see people having that experience of getting close to the scroll when they’re not used to it.”

For that, Lewin and Cecchine followed Hale to Media, Pa., where he was working to restore two of the Czech scrolls.

One, Scroll No. 795, had belonged to a synagogue in Prostjav, Moravia and was now at a Conservative synagogue called Congregation Beth Israel. The home of the scroll, No. 586 is Wesley Enhanced Living. Both scrolls are on permanent loan from the Memorial Scroll Trust.

Lewin and Cecchine spent three days filming Hale as he shared his knowledge of the Torah and the art of scroll restoration in Pennsylvania with groups from young religious school children up to the elderly residents of the assisted living center, all eager for a glimpse of Hale’s sacred handiwork.

“Some of my favorite moments in the film is when you see the people crowding around and Kevin is teaching them things…And people have this look on their faces, like ‘I’m so close to this thing!’ With these particular scrolls that have such meaning for those congregations, the emotion is even stronger.”

Lewin and Cecchine began filming in September of 2016; filmed some scenes in both 2017 and 2018; then finished shooting in 2019. The film was completed in May of 2020.

Filming Hale was easy, Lewin said

“I do have to say he was patient because this is not a fly on the wall, Frederick Wiseman kind of film where things just happen and the camera catches them. He did have to write with a camera, two inches away over his shoulder. He did have to tell us things in a way that made sense for the film to get from Point A to Point B and so we had to ask him the same things again in a later interview. So he was extremely patient.”

Cecchine actually moved from New York to Amsterdam, in the middle of filming, “Which kind of cramped our style. But it also meant that we were accustomed to editing remotely, to having long conversations, to her sending me cuts and me making comments,” Lewin said, preparing the
duo for working together online when the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Cecchine’s move to the Netherlands has also intensified her view of what the scrolls mean to the world.

“I am reminded often of the destruction of the Jewish community here,” she says. “The missing community is a tangible piece of every day life here.  I feel that the saving of the Czech scrolls is such a gift.”

And while the two filmmakers worked well together virtually, the pandemic changed the way Lewin thought she would promote the film.

“I expected to be going to film festivals and to synagogue screenings, not sitting at my desk,” Lewin said.

But the more than 20 screenings she has attended virtually have been as emotional as in-person ones might have been, she says.

“What’s really been interesting is that those online screenings, particularly for synagogues that have one of the scrolls, have been so meaningful for their communities,” she explained. “These people who can’t get together personally, can get together online and focus on something that has great significance for them. Those sessions have been very meaningful for us.”

“Commandment 613” will be shown virtually from March 5-8. To register for the film or the virtual film discussion on March 8 at 7 p.m. visit pvjff.org.

Main Photo: Rabbi Kevin Hale, left, and his cousin, filmmaker Miriam Lewin, working on “Commandment 613.”

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