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Elon Hillel borrows military Torah for Jewish celebration of Simchat Torah

by Camille DeMere,

Flexibility was a necessary virtue when Nancy Luberoff and the Elon University Hillel started planning for Simchat Torah, the Jewish celebration that marks the ending of the public reading of the Torah and the beginning of a new cycle. The holiday, which means "Joy of the Torah," is observed this week.

Elon doesn't have its own Torah scroll, which is a necessary part of the celebration. Kosher scrolls are handwritten by a special scribe on parchment in traditional Hebrew, a task which usually takes about a year to complete and makes the scrolls worth about $45,000.

Instead, Hillel has borrowed two facsimile Torahs from Judea Reform in Durham.

"I could borrow a kosher Torah, perhaps from a synagogue, but that's like asking someone to lend you their Mercedes," said Nancy Luberoff, Hillel campus director. "It's a huge, huge responsibility to borrow, and it's not common for synagogues to lend them out. It's not out of greed but just out of respect."

At least one of the scrolls was produced and used in World War II, when the United States government made non-kosher Torahs printed on paper with copied writing for Jewish chaplains to carry into war.

"If a kosher Torah is destroyed it's a tragedy of unbelievable proportions," Luberoff said. "When one of these would be destroyed, it was not as significant an event."

Sophomore Millie Rosen is a member of Hillel and said the idea of a facsimile Torah was a new one to her, but she could see the benefits.

"I had no idea that they made non-kosher Torahs," Rosen said. "It's special to have a smaller version of what you would actually have in the synagogue. I could see how it would be good for morale."

The facsimiles were donated to Judea Reform by families who wanted to see them used by a congregation, and the synagogue often lends them out to those in need.

Rabbi Friedman has served Judea Reform for more than 30 years and said he has lent the Torah scrolls to smaller congregations, like one based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that only meet on high holidays.

"It isn't like using a regular Torah," Friedman said. "But in certain situations, it is an acceptable compromise."

Friedman said he hopes Elon will one day be able to justify the expense of purchasing its own kosher Torah, but in the meantime, he's happy to let Elon use the military Torah.

The Reform tradition of Judaism in the United States celebrates Simchat Torah from sundown Wednesday to sundown Thursday. The Conservative tradition celebrates the holiday from sundown Thursday night to sundown Friday night.

Luberoff said that the majority of the university's Jewish students subscribe to the Reform tradition, but that there are a good number of Conservative Jews. The Elon Spring 2010 Registrar's Report said there are 170 Jewish students enrolled at Elon.

"We as a Hillel decided that we would celebrate Simchat Torah at the end of the holiday, as a part of our Shabbat celebration on family weekend," she said. "This is not typical or traditional, but it is not wrong."

The celebration, which Luberoff estimates will attract about 100 students and parents will take place at 6 p.m., Friday, Oct. 1 in McKinnon Hall.

"The spirit of Judaism is taking these ancient words and keeping them alive," Luberoff said. "We're always finding meaning in them and that's what we're doing."