The mountain sofer preserving history one Torah scroll at a time
When Marc and Rhonda Strauss asked Rabbi Joel Newman if they could donate a Torah to B’nai Vail, their congregation in Vail, Colorado, his initial reaction was pragmatic: “We don’t really need one.”
In that moment, Rabbi Newman was thinking that the congregation was already well supplied with unique Torahs, one that had been saved from the Holocaust and one that had come from Russia.
Over time, though, the Strauss family’s proposal started to intrigue him.
“I said to them, we will do this if we find something really different, really special,” he says. “I started looking with a dealer of antiquities in Jerusalem that I had known for a long time.”
The dealer found a Torah that was 150-200 years old, with no rollers, damaged parchment, and letters that were fading or gone. Because of the damage, it was not kosher (and could not be used for worship). It was, Rabbi Newman says, just a scroll that had been sitting on a shelf gathering dust for decades. He knew that restoring it would take time, patience, and global connections, because this was a rare, Yemenite Torah, written not on the traditional calf or cowskin, but on deerskin, in Maimonides script typical of Spanish and African Jews.
Quite by chance, the Strauss family had come to exactly the right person for the job. Rabbi Newman is a sofer, a Jewish scribe, one of very few in the United States. He was ordained a scribe in Israel in 1974, and he later perfected his skills in London by restoring hundreds of Czech Scrolls saved from the Holocaust. But with the Strauss family’s gift, he would face a unique challenge, starting with the need to find additional kosher deerskin.
Restoring the Yemenite Torah
Rabbi Newman breathed a sigh of relief when the Yemenite Torah arrived, and he saw that it was not missing any sheets (verses from the five Books of Moses). Still, the Torah had holes and tears that would have to be repaired with kosher deer parchment that closely matched the original made from deer native to Yemen.
“Yemenite deer are not like the deer we see in the mountains of Colorado,” he says. “They had to slaughter at least 50 deer to make this one Torah.”
His search for parchment took him to England where deer are raised for kosher venison. Parchment from a cow is very stiff. Rabbi Newman describes deer parchment as feeling like a “Native American moccasin—very unusual and difficult to write on.” The Torah is golden brown, so the new parchment used for patching holes had to be dyed to match.
The glue Rabbi Newman needed came from melting the hoof of a kosher animal. He bought ink from a scribe in New York. There would not have been any geese running around Yemen when the Torah was created, so writing with a goose quill was out of the question. Instead, he found reeds that he cut down to match the size of the letters. Laboriously, over a period of 13 months, he reviewed and repaired 304,805 letters and 70 sheets of parchment in the ancient Torah, making sure no two letters touched, no two words touched. His fingers traced the path of history, following a sofer who came centuries before him.
“I was not writing in my hand,” he says. “I was writing in the hand of the scribe from 150 years ago, filling in faded ink and still writing in his style. It is like art restoration. If you are restoring the Sistine Chapel, you do not paint what you want, you paint what Michelangelo would have painted.”
Finally, Rabbi Newman replaced the roller and, at the request of the Strauss family, added a bronze plaque that reads “L’dor V’dor.”
“In Judaism, we always say, ‘From generation to generation,’ and that’s exactly what this is doing,” Rhonda Strauss told the Vail Daily. “This will be here long after we are gone and one day, hopefully, our great-great-grandchildren will say, ‘Wow, that was my great-great-grandparents’ Torah and pass on the feeling of Jewish tradition.”
At a Shabbat service at the end of July 2022, the Torah was used for the first time in a century, as members of the Strauss family read from it before 500 worshippers attending the dedication ceremony held at the top of Vail Mountain.
The sofer’s journey
How does someone become a sofer with Rabbi Newman’s special expertise—globally connected enough to find an ancient Torah, wise enough to see its value even in disrepair, and patient enough to restore it?
For Rabbi Newman, it started in the summer of 1973 when he arrived in Jerusalem to study at the Hebrew University and the Jewish Theological Seminary (Neve Schechter) which he was doing concurrently with his degree in history from Columbia University. When the Yom Kippur War broke out in Israel, he was studying at the Hebrew University. All classes were canceled as the instructors and professors were all called up to defend the State. While working at the Angel Bakery at night, he studied Talmud with rabbis from Mossad HaRav Kook. After class one day, Rabbi Newman approached one of the rabbis and asked if he could study to become a sofer.
It was not a completely implausible goal. Rabbi Newman had minored in art at Columbia. He had no interest in learning Hebrew calligraphy. Instead, he wanted to join the “guild” and be ordained a scribe.
The rabbi at Mossad HaRav Kook agreed to take on 10 Rabbinical students who expressed interest in studying to be a scribe, and, as the war went on, the group learned the art sofrut. How do you cut goose feathers into quills of different sizes? How do you write from right to left, pulling the quill, so that your fingers do not touch the ink you just wrote and smear it? How do you write letters with less than the space of a hair between them? Those were just some of the challenges. Of the 10 Rabbinical students who started the training, Rabbi Newman was the only one to finish and be ordained a sofer.
“It took hundreds of hours of practice,” he says. “I had a strong desire to learn.”
In 1977, Rabbi Newman moved to London, England, for four years to attend the Leo Baeck College (a Rabbinical School that had moved from Berlin to London after WWII) and complete his rabbinic training. His reputation as a scribe preceded him, and he became the sofer to the Reform Jewish Religious Court of London. Rabbi Dr. Albert Friedlander also recruited him to be the scribe to Memorial Scrolls Trust Museum at the Westminster Synagogue.
Rabbi Newman still remembers the first time he went to the Westminster Synagogue and climbed to the third floor where 1,564 Torahs—some in horrible condition—were stored. The Torahs had been saved from deserted communities and destroyed synagogues throughout Czechoslovakia, Moravia, and Bohemia, collected in Prague, and finally purchased by a London art dealer who brought the collection to London.
“It was unbelievable,” he recalls. “Each scroll had a tag (created by the Nazis) saying exactly where it had come from. As you unrolled the scroll, sometimes you would find artifacts inside. Some Torahs had two or three wimples (cloth binders) relating its history. The rollers might have been inscribed with the names of who gave the Torah 200 years ago. It felt like I had entered a lost world.”
For the next four years while studying in London, Rabbi Newman would go to the synagogue and do repairs—cleaning, writing, sewing, and gluing. On average, he tried to finish two Torahs each week and send them to synagogues around the world on “permanent loan.”
“The history was breathtaking,” Newman says. “We were bringing back a world that was now gone.”
One of those Holocaust Torah scrolls ended up in the hands of Rabbi Newman at B’nai Vail.
“The one we have in Vail—there is nothing left of the village where it was found,” Newman says. “Everyone was taken from their homes and killed. The only evidence that that village ever existed is the B’nai Vail Torah.”
Rabbi Newman refers to his role in this endeavor as a “privilege.” He is a religious leader, an artist, a historian, and sometimes, he is a detective preserving history—one Torah scroll at a time.