Tetzaveh, blog post by Rabbi Karen Soria

How Do You Remember?

Just a few short weeks ago our Torah portions were the exciting narratives of our religious identity – the show-down between God, represented by Moses, and Pharaoh; our timely and miraculous escape across the ‘Sea of Reeds,’ as God parted the waters for us before bringing them back to drown our Egyptian pursuers; and our covenant with God at Mount Sinai.

And now we’re reading details for building the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the priestly garments and rituals. Easy to get turned off and ignore the ideas that the Torah is teaching now!

But think about it: we have just had incredible, mind-blowing experiences, truly ‘peak experiences’! And we want to remember them always, to give them form and substance. How do we do that?

How do we do that? Look around your home: what are the things that mean the most to you? Perhaps pictures, or souvenirs from travel; perhaps gifts from loved ones or family heirlooms. Each one has a story to tell; each is important because of what we recall when we see it. 

The Tabernacle, with all its details and pageantry, was our ancestors’ effort to remind those who had just escaped from slavery of their experiences, to remember the sense of those peak moments so they would never forget those feelingsand what those events meant

Perhaps we would have chosen a different way to remember. But our ancestors built a place that would remind them of their journey from slavery to freedom, from Pharaoh’s oppression to God’s covenant.  If and when you get bogged down in the details of the Tabernacle over the next number of weeks, put it in perspective: this is our effort at communal memory. This is our attempt to hold onto a feeling, a sense, a sound, a voice – our experiences of becoming the Jewish people.

Tu BiShvat – blog post by Rabbi Karen Soria

It is difficult to believe that in Israel the ground is thawing and the tree sap is rising. While (so far) this winter has not been as cold or snowy as last, our season is a long way from spring. And yet, every year, we tie ourselves again to the calendar in Israel with Tu BiShvat, the New Year for trees.
Preparing the Seder for the festival, I thought a great deal about similarities and differences with the Pesach Seder. The number four is an easy parallel, with four cups of the fruit of the vine at each, but the four children was the image that intrigued me.
Do you know only four kinds of children? I know many kinds – and each of them incorporates many kinds of traits. I know no children that are only ‘wise, wicked, simple, or silent.’ Every one I know combines those traits, depending on situation and circumstances (plus many others). And so, I put a selection of more than one child’s voice in our Temple Shalom Seder.
Of course, we are all called “b’nai Israel – the Children of Israel” throughout our Scripture, TaNaKh, because we all are, in some ways, always children. Are not we all wise in some things, and so ignorant in others that we are silent? Do we not all have that urge on occasion (some more frequently than others) to be the troublemaker, the one who either asks the impossible questions or the one who likes to ‘stir the pot’ and get a rise out of someone? Aren’t we all ‘simple’ about some things, wanting only a succinct or even cursory answer, or altogether leaving the issue in the “too hard box”? By putting several additional voices in our TuBiShvat Seder, I wanted to emphasize that there are, and we each have, many voices.
Along with the new growth of trees in Israel and the promise of spring, may this time of waiting hopefully for it to arrive in our more wintery climes be a time when we listen to our innermost voice, treasure it, and ready ourselves for it bursting forth with new buds and blossoms!

Connecting to her ancestors

Winnipeg woman writes Torah scroll for local congregation

Irma Penn (right) holds bag that will contain the Torah scroll she is working on. With her is Ruth Livingston, past-president of Temple Shalom.


Irma Penn (right) holds bag that will contain the Torah scroll she is working on. With her is Ruth Livingston, past-president of Temple Shalom.

As she hand-lettered their stories from the Torah, Winnipeg scribe Irma Penn felt the guidance of those who had gone years before.

“You’re actually connected to all this, your ancestors — Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Rebekah,” the Tuxedo resident says of her experience in copying the sacred Jewish text.

Irma Penn writes on Torah scroll as Ruth Livingston places her hand on Penn's hand.

Enlarge Image

Irma Penn writes on Torah scroll as Ruth Livingston places her hand on Penn’s hand. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

“It’s like holding their hands and they’re telling you what to do.”

What Penn was also doing was following the long tradition of copying the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, and breaking a new path at the same time.

Trained in Israel as a soferet, or female scribe, Penn is the first Canadian woman to write a Torah scroll for a Canadian synagogue, and the first member of Winnipeg’s Temple Shalom to write one for the congregation.

Penn previously lettered the book of Esther for Temple Shalom, and completed a commission of the Hebrew and English Holocaust scroll for Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in Winnipeg.

She was the only Canadian among the six female scribes participating in the Women’s Torah Project, the first ever Torah scribed by an international group of women. It was completed in 2010.

Penn copied the Book of Deuteronomy for that Torah commissioned by the Kadima Reconstructionist Community in Seattle.

“The Torah is the pinnacle of the scribe’s work,” says Penn, who has memorized the long list of laws and rules that prescribe the copying of Jewish sacred texts, right down to the shape of the Hebrew letters.

“You can’t go any higher.”

That experience fed the desire to write a Torah on her own and so she cautiously broached the idea in December 2009 to Rabbi Karen Soria and Ruth Livingston of Temple Shalom.

“It’s a speechless kind of thing,” Soria recalls of her reaction when Penn offered to write the scroll for the small Reform Jewish congregation that meets in a former Baptist church on Grant Avenue.

“I guess neither of us thought it was possible,” says Livingston, past-president of Temple Shalom, which already owns three other Torah scrolls.

But Penn persisted, and six months after she proposed the idea, she formed the first letters of the Torah on parchment using a turkey quill dipped in black iron gall ink. All materials for the project were imported from Israel.

She lettered the Torah in a font called STaM, reserved for sacred texts, laying out the words in each column in a format followed for centuries. Each letter and word must be exact, with no room for errors, and the only room for creativity is in the spacing between letters and words.

“It was hard on my hands, on my body and my mind. You can’t doze off, you have to work with intention,” she says of the work that occupied her seven hours a day, six days a week for more than a year.

“You have to read each word, say each letter before you write it. You stay focused and you improve your reading.”

Penn’s experience of being immersed in the sacred text spilled over to Rabbi Soria and members of Temple Shalom, who proofread the scribe’s work and later stitched together the 62 sheets of parchment.

“Irma wasn’t simply studying it, she was physically involved,” says Soria, a rabbi for 30 years.

“It’s that link to the past, being mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally involved, living that whole thing.”

“We have a commandment to engage with Torah and this was the ultimate engagement,” adds Livingston.

Penn completed all but the final column of what is now known as the Penn Torah by Nov. 11, 2011. According to tradition, she has only outlined the last column of words, so members and friends of Temple Shalom can participate in the experience of writing the Torah.

“Irma scribes it but you have your hand on hers,” explains Livingston.

“Everybody who does it, it’s a good deed. If you do one letter, it’s as if you are writing the Torah yourself.”

In exchange for a donation to cover the five-figure cost of the scroll, members and friends of Temple Shalom are invited to write a letter at noon, Sunday, Apr. 15 and Sunday, Apr. 22. The congregation will dedicate the scroll Sunday, May 27 at 11 a.m. at Temple Shalom, 1077 Grant Ave.

Scribing another Torah may be a possibility for Penn, a 60-something former archivist, schoolteacher and artist, whose highrise apartment is permanently set up as a studio. For now, she’s pleased that her work on the Penn Torah will live on for decades and perhaps centuries.

“I think this project will make many more people talk about the Torah and be involved with it.”


Number of letters in the Torah: 304,805

Number of the biblical commandments fulfilled by writing a Torah: 613

Size of scroll: 41 centimetres tall

Length of Torah scroll: 50 metres

Amount of time to complete: 18 months

Number of women in Canada to scribe a Torah: one

For more information, or to see photos and video of the Penn Torah, visit: http://www.templeshalomwinnipeg.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 J13

The Penn Torah

The Penn Torah Scroll

The Penn Torah – photos copyright 2012 by Erwin Huebner:  Click here for more

Not every young artist dreams of becoming a Torah scribe, but Irma Penn did.  After 40 years, Irma has fulfilled her lifelong ambition to become a Soferet and has created the first Torah scribed by a Canadian woman.  It will be dedicated at a special ceremony to be held at Temple Shalom in Winnipeg on Shavuot, 5772, (May 27th, 2012.)

Irma is a valued member of Temple Shalom.  Irma Penn, studied to be a soferet STaM, learning the practices of writing script for sacred texts in the Mea Shearim district of Jerusalem in Israel.  She has written several Megillot Esther, (the story of Purim,) as well as the Holocaust Scroll in both Hebrew and English which was read for the first time last year at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue.  She is currently working on writing the strips for a set of tefillen.

Irma was selected to participate with five other women, scribes from around the world, in writing the first Torah scroll every created by women, for a congregation in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.  She is an artist, a former archivist with the Jewish Heritage Centre in Winnipeg, a poet, calligrapher, teacher and genealogist.

The Winnipeg Jewish community has a unique opportunity this winter to participate in the completion of a Torah, by the mitzvah of helping Irma to write the letters on the final page of the scrolls which are now being woven together.  It is said that to help write one letter is as if you had written the whole Torah.  You can be part of this amazing project.

You can make donations celebrating members of your family, a simcha, the memory of loved ones, an anniversary, b’mitzvah or other life cycle event. You can make donations on your own or with a group.  Look for more information and our video, on our website: http://www.templeshalomwinnipeg.ca

For further information please email penntorah@gmail.com .

Click here to download Information Package for Members

Click here to Download Information Package for Non-Members

The Canadian Jewish News – Rabbis at home in the Canadian Forces

The Canadian Jewish News,

By RON CSILLAG, Special to The CJN.

Of the various slogans the Canadian Forces have used to attract new recruits, one seems most apt for Canada’s two Jewish military chaplains: there’s no life like it.

Each day, Rabbi Lazer Danzinger of Toronto and Ottawa-based Rabbi Karen Soria cater to the spiritual and emotional needs of Canada’s men and women in uniform.

Philosophically, the two are poles apart: Rabbi Danzinger is a Chabadnik and Rabbi Soria is from the Reform tradition. But they agree that they have encountered some of their most interesting and satisfying work serving in the Forces.

In fact, Rabbi Danzinger, 54, has loved the experience so much that last summer he switched from the reserves and joined the regular forces for a six-year hitch.

Posted to Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden outside Barrie, Rabbi Danzinger is the Forces’ first full-time Jewish chaplain since World War II.

“Things are fantastic, so much so that I decided to transfer,” he told The CJN. “I’ve been very warmly received.”

(In 2007, Rabbi Chaim Mendelsohn of Ottawa became the Forces’ first Jewish chaplain since the end of World War II. A reservist captain, he was attached to 28 Field Ambulance in Ottawa. However, the Forces say Rabbi Mendelsohn has been “released” from duty and did not elaborate.)

To re-qualify for the regular force, Rabbi Danzinger, also a captain, underwent a rigorous seven-week course in drills, marching, fieldcraft and use of a gas mask – but no firearms training.

The Geneva Conventions, he points out, define chaplains as non-combatants and prohibit them from carrying or firing a weapon. “But we are trained in how to put a gun on safety.”

Born and raised in Toronto, Rabbi Danzinger attended Associated Hebrew Schools and the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto before graduating from Ner Israel Yeshiva.

After 20 years in the computer business and service as a hospital and prison chaplain, he joined the Forces in 2008 originally attached to Army Reserves’ 25 (Toronto) Service Battalion.

“As a child of Holocaust survivors, I am especially appreciative of the rights and freedoms that Canada gives its citizens,” he said of his decision to join up. “To be able to live as a Jew freely without fear is something to be grateful for. So in gratitude, I want to give something back to this great country.”

At CFB Borden, he’s one of eight chaplains, including an imam. “I get along very well with him,” Rabbi Danzinger says. He’s assigned to base technical services, with about 1,000 personnel.

He’s encountered “not very many” Jews. “There are a few.” (The Forces do not reveal members’ religions).

The two rabbis are tasked with ministering to the spiritual needs of all Forces members, regardless of faith, including facilitating worship. But sometimes, Rabbi Danzinger is pleasantly surprised when a Forces member reveals he or she is Jewish. “They say, ‘I’m so happy to see you here.’ It makes them proud.”

The father of seven, two of them married, drives home to Toronto every Shabbat. There is no minyan on the base.

He would welcome a foreign posting, even to a war zone. “It would be a complete privilege to be deployed.”

Rabbi Danzinger pointed out that while Christian chaplains have access to supplies such as vestments, Bibles and the like, Jewish ones scramble for kippot and prayer books. But the Forces are slowly rectifying that. “They’re playing a little catch-up,” he said, “but they’re doing it.”

Rabbi Soria, a captain in her late 50s, also tallies some firsts. She’s the first female Jewish chaplain in the Canadian Forces; she was Australia’s first female rabbi, and she was the first female rabbi to serve with the United States Marines during a four-year tour in Okinawa. She spent 11 years as a U.S. Navy chaplain.

Chicago-born, she came to Canada in 2003 and joined the Reserves last year, assigned to 3 Canadian Forces Flying Training School in Portage La Prairie, Man. Last summer, she transferred to 33 Combat Engineer Regiment in Ottawa.

Comparing Canada to the United States, “I really do find a better fit with the Canadian Forces, and the reason is a philosophical one and a sense of the mission,” she told The CJN. “The Canadian Forces, in my experience, really sees itself as a peacekeeping [force], and that can include peace-making. The U.S. forces, in my experience, see themselves much more as war-fighting.”

She addressed that theme more pointedly a few years ago in an interview with Jewish Woman magazine: “I don’t believe either the military or the [U.S.] leadership has focused on the differences between making war and building peace. That’s come into sharp focus in Iraq.” She parted company with the U.S. military because of its “lack of treatment of human beings with dignity and respect no matter what their background, role and personal lives.”

Typical duties for both chaplains involve not only spiritual matters but counselling, whether over strained marriages, relationship or money issues, substance abuse or just the stress of armed service. Sometimes, it’s just lending a sympathetic ear, or as Rabbi Soria says, about “life stuff.”

Neither has encountered antisemitism in the Forces.

“When you put on a uniform, people know you’re part of a family,” said Rabbi Danzinger. “That’s a great ice-breaker.”

Said Rabbi Soria: “Being a rabbi is a non-issue. I have been welcomed with enthusiasm and interest.”

And it’s a part-time job: she “parades with” her unit one evening a week (meaning the unit meets and trains at that time; sometimes there is an actual parade) and goes in another evening a week for administrative work and to talk with other officers. She’s one of 27 female chaplains in the Forces.

Since 2008, the mother of four has been the spiritual leader of Temple Shalom in Winnipeg, where she travels every three or four weeks. As well, she teaches at Temple Israel in Ottawa and at Ottawa Modern Jewish School.

One sure sign of the acceptance, indeed of the success, of Jews in the Canadian Forces is seen in the small things.

Rabbi Danzinger boasts that the Forces chaplain general has welcomed the rabbi’s proposal for a kippah that conforms to CADPAT (CAnadian Disruptive PATtern) standards.

In other words, a camouflage kippah.

“It would be a tremendous morale boost,” he says.