For 10 or 12 hours a day, Rabbi Yochanan Salazar sits hunched over parchment in a basement social hall.
Salazar is a master sofer, or scribe, hired to repair the nearly 100-year-old Torah scrolls of Adath Yeshurun Synagogue of Aiken.
His tools are ordinary: Elmer’s glue, art erasers, surgical sponges, Kleenex.
The task at hand, however, is anything but.
“Repairing our Scriptures, it’s a big job,” said Doris Baumgarten, a longtime member of the congregation, which claims about 60 households as members. “This has been a long time coming.”
A Torah scroll should last hundreds – if not thousands – of years, but in the humid South, moisture takes its toll.
“Every year, we’re supposed to open them up and air them out,” Baumgarten said. “I’ve been here 35 years, and I don’t recall they’ve ever been done.”
With no full-time rabbi, Adath Yeshurun conducts Sabbath services just one Saturday a month. A student rabbi comes on the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. There was no one to teach the proper care of the scrolls until now, Baumgarten said.
On Sunday, Salazar demonstrated basic Torah maintenance to about 30 members of the congregation. How to roll and unroll the scrolls, sew tears and clean the parchment were once common knowledge in Jewish congregations, Salazar said.
“You go back 100 years, people knew this stuff,” he said. “Today, most of the congregations outside of Israel don’t really know how to take care of the Torahs. If we do our job, the next time I’m here, they won’t have to spend a couple thousand dollars repairing the Torah. It will have been cared for.”
Adath Yeshurun, which recently celebrated its 91st anniversary, saved for the restoration over time.
“This has been something in the back of my mind for years, to get these cleaned,” Baumgarten said. “So many contributions have come in over the years, contributions in honor of, contributions in memory of, that no fundraiser was needed.”
Baumgarten is glad to see the restoration finally happening.
“It is an honor to be able to do this,” she said. “The Torah is so central to who we are. It is the foundation of our faith and the Jewish law.”
The Torah contains the five books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The scrolls tell of events central to Jewish history, from the beginning of time and the election of Abraham to the deliverance of Jews from Egypt and the giving of the Ten Commandments.
This week, Salazar aims to bring two of the three Torah scrolls at Adath Yeshurun to kosher status. A kosher Torah must be perfect, with exactly 248 columns, 10,416 lines, and 304,805 letters, he said. The scrolls are produced only under strict guidelines, using quill pens and hides from kosher animals. The average handwritten Torah spans more than 100 feet and costs upwards of $30,000.
“Growing up, you weren’t allowed near the Torah,” Baumgarten said. “There’s been a lot of curiosity and interest to get up close. It’s been such an awe-inspiring experience. I’ve never been so close to a Torah before.”
On Monday, representatives from a few area churches were invited to view the scrolls and learn about the restoration process.
“The art of scribing, in Hebrew we call it sofrut, it’s a traditional craft. You don’t find it in schools. You apprentice. That’s the way it’s been done for 3,000 years,” said Salazar, the head of the Torah Restoration Department for Sofer On Site, a Miami-based business that specializes in new and previously owned Torah scrolls, restoration and appraisals.
Salazar, who was born in Ecuador and moved to the United States as a teenager, received his rabbinic ordination in 2004. Now, as a scribe, he travels throughout the U.S. and South America repairing Torah scrolls and educating communities on their care.
“I believe people should take ownership over this,” he said. “It is the most impressive inheritance we have. It is such an integral part of who we are.”
The scrolls in Aiken are at least 90 to 100 years old and were made in Poland. They appear to have been repaired once before, but there’s no record.
“It’s important for people to know these Torahs, especially the ones coming from Europe, are real historical treasures,” Salazar said. “A lot of these crafts and arts were stopped in their tracks after World War II. If we don’t preserve them, we’re losing a huge part of our heritage.”