Snapshot: Texas’ First Female-Written Torah

Congregation Agudas Achim’s dedication ceremony

For most Jewish congregations, a Torah – Hebrew for "instruction," the scroll containing Judaism's central stories, laws, and poetry – is expected to last 200-300 years, so it's fairly uncommon to write another within a shorter span of 20 years as Northwest Austin's Congregation Agudas Achim elected to do. As only slightly more than a decade has passed since women were allowed to begin holding leadership positions at many synagogues, it was an even less ordinary choice to hire a soferet (female scribe) to tackle the task; British-bred, Montreal-based Jen Taylor Friedman's completion of CAA's new scroll marked the first female-written Torah in Texas.

"These days in Austin, the very first question you ask when you meet someone is 'Where are you from?,' and the answers show that [this city] is very different from 20 years ago, so the opportunity to [write a new Torah] in a regalvanized community is really important," reflects Senior Rabbi Neil Blumofe. "This magnifies the egalitarian values we currently practice and gives people a chance to re-engage with their sense of ownership as a member of the community."

Entirely handwritten with ink and quill pen on hand-stitched cow skin parchment, the scroll took about 18 months to finish with the help of more than 600 participants, some from other congregations and a few non-Jewish – hence the project's name: 10,000 Faces of Torah. Below: documentation by "Snapshot" of the new Torah's completion and Sunday's dedication ceremony.

Jen Taylor Friedman (middle left) shows her first-ever Texan student Katherine Bower (l) how to attach the scroll pages to the atzei chaim (a Hebrew term for Torah rollers meaning "trees of life") using cow tendon thread: "Writing scrolls is amazing but teaching other people is the thing I find super powerful," says Friedman. "A lot of it is mentorship and teaching self-confidence. It's not just about making things, it's about making people."

Friedman guides a participant in letter writing: "One passage is about a day's work ... about five hours, and there are 245 of these [across 62 pages]," she says. "If you took one end and gave it to the Statue of Liberty, the other end would be about down by her feet, so that's about a year's work."

Members of the Gremont family, who funded the new Torah, write the final letters alongside Friedman during Sunday's ceremony: "In order to remember something, you need to have an emotional connection and [writing a letter in the Torah] is a very emotional process," says Lindsey Gremont, wife to Evan and mother to Ella (pictured). "The whole role of women in Judaism is to impact generations to come, so we should [write a new Torah] every generation so that children can be involved and remember their roots. Even if you're not Jewish, I think many people still look to [ancient texts] for wisdom — for parenting, how to be happy ... it's all based on the same things."

Dallas-raised singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb performs for CAA's children before the dedication ceremony (she also sat on a panel of Jewish women later that evening): "She represents the egalitarian piece of this new Torah and our congregation," explains CAA publicist and member Karen Frost. "Austin is a music town, she's raising her children Jewish, and this occasion is all about community – it all fits in."

Rabbi Blumofe carries the new Torah forward for its first reading during the dedication ceremony: "The Torah's not just a showpiece, not like the Falcon Heavy, orbiting the sun with a Tesla for millions of years," he posits. "That's great, but that's not what a Torah's supposed to be – it's supposed to be engaged with, spilled upon, used, seen. It's part of the family."

CAA congregants participate in the raising of the new Torah at the end of Sunday's ceremony: "Over 600 people have come to write in the Torah, many of them from outside our own community, and to have seen their connection to Torah and recognize it as a timeless tradition. ... I think is a really beautiful thing for Jews and non-Jews," says Blumofe. "To demystify our worlds together, all of us, is a privilege we should take advantage of at every opportunity."

Want to pitch an event, happening, idea, or person for “Snapshot”? Email the author/photog:

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Snapshot
Snapshot: Rodeo Austin
Snapshot: Rodeo Austin
It’s not all bucking broncs and fried food on a stick. Photographer David Brendan Hall goes under the rope to explore the inner workings of the rodeo.

David Brendan Hall, March 29, 2019

Snapshot – Inside Hopscotch: Light and Sound
Snapshot – Inside Hopscotch: Light and Sound
This is the immersive art experience that's all over your Instagram feed

David Brendan Hall, March 1, 2019


Torah, Congregation Agudas Achim, Neil Blumofe, Jen Taylor Friedman, Lisa Loeb, Katherine Bower, Karen Frost, Lindsey Gremont

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle