Torah from around the world #11

11 March 2010 / 25 Adar 5770

Five years have passed since I helped the newly formed English-speaking ex-pat congregation in Brussels find its way. The first, somewhat primitive, synagogue was set up, the bimah and the Ark had been made, the first prayer books were printed, and my congregation in Amsterdam had loaned them a Sefer Torah. The then-chairperson, Lauren Nijkerk, had asked the World Union to register the congregation on their waiting list for a Sefer Torah if one became available.

Some time before, a pretty American girl and her parents left their Rabbi’s office where the date had been set for her Bat Mitsvah. On the way home, she started to cry: “Why did I get such a horrible parasha to read? Vayakhel! All about building that Tabernacle in the desert so long ago. Only lists of clasps and planks and bars and posts and poles and curtains and pegs and sockets and what women had spun in blue and purple and crimson yarns and linen, and goats’ hair and dolphin skins (!). I had wanted a good story, about Noah and the Ark or Moses in Egypt or something!”

After talking to the Hebrew school teacher, her class decided to make Vayakhel their project for the year and to build a model of the Tabernacle. Suddenly, this became an exciting parasha! Actually, as we now come closer to completing the building of our new Amsterdam synagogue and community centre, we feel the same excitement as the Israelites in the desert must have felt during this and the next parasha. It is surprising how excited you can be about what kind of hooks the curtains will hang on and what the taps in the bathroom will look like. Come and visit us in Amsterdam after the summer, and we will show you around and tell you stories about all what all the congregants did and contributed, and we will be as proud as Moses was once his work was finished, as we read in this text.

Back to our pretty girl. During the model-building period, while in a Jewish bookshop, she and her father read an advertisement about a Sefer Torah that was for sale. “Let’s buy it,” said her father. “In the heart of the Tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies, there was the Ark with the Stone Tablets with the 10 Commandments. In the synagogue, that is the Holy Ark with the Sefer Torah. So, while you and your class are building the model of the Tabernacle, let us do some real building. We will buy this Sefer Torah and give it to a new congregation that needs one, to donate the heart of the synagogue to them.”

So they did, but then, how do you find such a congregation? Presumably, it would be one somewhere in the Former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe where Jewish life was being re-established. After some searching, they found their way to the World Union for Progressive Judaism and its register of congregations waiting for a Sefer Torah donation.

But how do you choose one? Our little girl knew at once what she wanted: The International Jewish Center in Brussels, Belgium. And so it happened that on January 14th 2005, in a packed building, where the first Bar Mitsvah of the congregation was celebrated, our donor and her father also brought in the new Sefer Torah in a very elated atmosphere and presented it to the congregation. The combination of all these elements projected a strong feeling of this people Israel joining together over the continents, and building a Jewish future together as a community with the Torah at its centre. It was a special occasion.

But then you ask: why did the girl know at once that she wanted to give it to a Belgian congregation? Well, let me share the secret: She just loved Belgian chocolates! And believe me, she thoroughly enjoyed her visits to several Belgian chocolate factories in the following days. And let me also tell you that each year, when we read parashat Vayakhel, that parasha is not in the least boring, and it brings on very sweet memories of a lovely girl, and a lovely congregation – and the pivotal role the World Union can play.

To learn more about the World Union’s torah donation program, click


, or contact

Shira Kestenbaum

at the World Union’s Jerusalem office.

For previous issues of

Torah from Around the World


Rabbi David Lilienthal is the Dean of the

Levisson Institute

for rabbinical studies in Amsterdam. Rabbi Lilienthal is also the Rabbi Emeritus of the Liberal Jewish Congregation of Amsterdam, having served the congregation as Senior Rabbi from 1971-2004.

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