The morning after the shocking attack at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, many synagogues have cancelled their planned Sunday events out of security concerns; others like Temple Sholom decide to go forward. Members greet attendees for the Jewish Book Festival’s first event with a combined apology and reassurance that they’re keeping the front doors locked, which is not typical at all here. People stream in, exchange kisses and head past Temple Sholom’s other challenge this week: a pipe had burst and flooded the social hall only days earlier, and large fans still line the doorway. But tables are set up, the bagel breakfast is on, everyone’s schmoozing, and when it’s time to hear the author, the sanctuary is packed. That is typical.
Temple Sholom of Ontario is typical of many smaller congregations in Southern California—tightknit, a mix of young families and older couples, an active and observant community with a self-reliant spirit.
“We have very few ‘ghost’ members,” says Rabbi Zari Sussman, who came to Temple Sholom a year and a half ago. “If you look at the membership list, I’ve seen almost everybody, I know almost everybody, and mostly everybody knows each other.”
That attitude extends to their Torah collection, which they recently had inspected and repaired.
“When I arrived,” says Rabbi Sussman, “one of the first things I did was inspect the Torahs. One of them was already flagged as missing a word, so it had to be repaired. Then I opened another scroll and it also had a letter missing.”
Temple Sholom was founded in 1956. “We were all young couples,” says Florence Silverton. They started in a house in town and within a few years raised the money to build a freestanding synagogue not far away. The congregation grew and thrived with Ontario itself. According to Barbara Schwartz, who arrived in 1966 and keeps some of Temple Sholom’s yearbooks, Jewish roots in the area go back to at least 1905, when the Matlins began farming in Ontario. Others arrived in the 1920s and ‘30s, and may have been helped by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which placed thousands of Jewish immigrants on farms across the US.
After World War II, more Jews arrived in Ontario. “Back then,” Silverton says, “Ontario was all orange groves and chicken farms.” Some, like the Kelbers, another founding family, were still farming. Others like the Silvertons, came east from Los Angeles, either to get out of the crowded metropolis or, as Silverton and her husband did, for new industries. One of the prolific early Torah readers, Elie Chemtob, was born in Damascus and arrived in 1960, and some of the arriving congregants had escaped the Holocaust.
That mix of cultures, which now includes numerous Spanish-speaking families, is reflected in the congregation’s Torah collection. At the east wall of the sanctuary, the congregation’s imposing aron kodesh, an oval column of dark wood with curved doors, contains five Torah scrolls and a Megillat Esther. The newest, a Mizrahi-style wooden tik covered in cloth-of-silver brocade, was bought in Israel by member David Halstead, who presented it to the congregation in 1992. The other four are much older, but how much older and where they came from, nobody knows for sure.
Only a handful of the congregation’s original members remain, and few current members here—as in most congregations—knew much beyond the basics of handling a Torah scroll. The synagogue partnered with Temple Beth Israel in Pomona and hired a sofer from Sofer on Site to come out and inspect all the Torahs. The sofer made necessary repairs and conducted joint classes on how to care for them properly. He also gave them some possible leads on the origins of their scrolls.
Few people get to see as many Torah scrolls or study the regional and historical differences in calligraphy and parchment preparation as closely as a sofer. Manuscript historians in other fields have more clues to go on because the materials, language, text and illustration styles can vary so widely. Torah scrolls adhere to one language, one text, no pictures, and strict rules about everything from spelling errors and letter spacing to how many thumbwidths each column should be and which side of the animal skin can be written on. Nevertheless, older Torahs from the era before rapid travel and global communication between Jewish communities show regional variations.
“There was some white crackly stuff I’d never seen on the top and the bottom coming off at the top and bottom edges of one of our scrolls,” Rabbi Sussman says. The parchment had been coated before lettering, the sofer told them. “He said that indicated the scroll was 100 to 150 years old and came from somewhere in Eastern Europe, where my family is from.”
Another scroll with ornamental letter crowns like peacock fans was probably Sephardic, based on the decoration and the lettering style, adds Michael McGaha, Temple Sholom’s gabbai.
But there were puzzles as well. The smallest Torah scroll, which was fully restored, had some inconsistencies, says Rabbi Sussman. Not only is the parchment noticeably narrower, with smaller letters than most Torah scrolls, only part of it has columns that start with the letter vav.
At the time, no one asked whether someone in the congregation might know more about its origins, but McGaha, who brought his young family to Temple Sholom in 1972, did remember the elderly couple who donated it.
“Shmuel and Busia Leeb were Holocaust survivors who had been in a concentration camp. I remember hearing that he saved two or maybe three damaged Torahs, and after the war he had them pieced together by a sofer in Europe to make a single Torah.”
“When the sofer was cleaning it, we were kind of confused, wondering why the scribe did some things half-and-half, but now that Michael’s said that, it makes sense,” Rabbi Sussman responds.
McGaha also attended the sofer’s class. “He was very interesting. The cleaning in particular surprised me a lot. He first took a folded Kleenex and rubbed really hard to get the dirt off. I would have been scared to do that. Then he used a special kind of eraser that doesn’t damage the letters.”
Rabbi Sussman says that although the older scrolls are fragile and require careful handling, the congregation uses them regularly, especially the one with the cracked coating that they wipe clean as the sofer showed them. “I have a will to use this one because I want the Eastern European community to live on.”
The sofer told the class that Torahs need to air out regularly to avoid mildew, and the congregation added holes to the top of the ark for circulation. He also showed the class how to make minor repairs, like restitching and patching small tears, and told them where to order kosher supplies. “Sharon [Borenstein, the Sisterhood president] has been doing that; she’s a good seamstress and wanted to take it on,” says McGaha.
The ability to do minor maintenance themselves is important especially for a small congregation like Temple Sholom, says Rabbi Sussman. “For a tiny congregation, they really put a lot of investment into their Torahs, but it’s expensive. The sofer repaired the letters, but we have to repair for small rips.”
That fits the overall practice of the congregation, who volunteer to clean the synagogue and do their own repairs, other than this week’s pipe burst, she says. “It’s still in great shape because they take care of it. It’s a powerhouse synagogue for its size—like the Jewish people, they’re small but mighty.”
DEBORAH NOBLE IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.