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: dhall@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

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

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