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.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

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.”

brenda@suderman.com

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.

WHAT’S REALLY IN THE FOOD WE EAT?

WHAT”S REALLY IN THE FOOD WE EAT? (Click Here to see the original article published in the Winnipeg Jewish Review)

TEMPLE SHALOM LOOKS AT THE JEWISH IMPERITIVE TO BE CONSCIOUS CONSUMERS: ORGANIC? LOCAL? ECO-KASHRUT ?

by Jonathon Fine, December 12 , 2010

On November 20th, as a Board Member of Temple Shalom Synagogue, I arranged the screening of the Acadmey Award nominated documentary , “Food Inc” following a Havdallah Service.

The film “Food Inc” reveals surprising—and often shocking truths—about what we eat, how it’s produced, and where we might makes changes in the future. The film portrays some of the dangers associated with massive factory produced food and tells much about the true source of our conventional food  The film also shows how we have become disconnected from the producers of our food.

This specific event allowed the participants to explore what Judaism has to say about ethical treatment of animals in food preparation. We also explored the topic of Echo Kashrut. As Jews we are aware of general Kashrut rules but I wanted to delve deeper and look at what people’s thoughts were on how “Kosher” ties in with food security and environmental sustainability.

The event, which I helped organize, targeted young adults between ages 25-45 as they are the future of our Jewish community. Previously, I have helped organize some events for J-PEG, a branch organization of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg that designs programming for  this age range.   This was the first time our synagogue targeted individuals in this age range and we saw many new faces to the synagogue at this event.   People who attended included members of the Organic Food Council of Manitoba as well as organizers of the Jewish Federation’s program Echo Shift. (a call to arms for environmentally friendly approaches in the Jewish Community)  Members of the synagogue as well as non –members from tthe general community ( both Jewish and non-Jewish)  participated in this event.

After the film was screened, all of the participants were involved in a lively discussion. Rabbi Soria gave us a brief overview of the history of kashrut and framed it within a reform Judaism perspective. People were curious what Judaism had to say about eating organic and local foods. Since the film was set in the United States, people wanted to know how it applied to the situation here in Canada.
The discussion involved a candid and open sharing of opinions. Some people pointed out that traditional kosher preparation of foods may not always be good for the animals or the earth. It quickly became apparent that there were a large range of opinions on what Echo-Kashrut meant for each individual. For some, Echo-Kashrut meant values (involving ethics) of the treatment of the animals and those processing the food. For some Echo-Kashrut represented taking care of the earth; for others it meant following some of the traditional dietary laws of not eating certain animals and combinations of foods.
Some people expressed their feelings of helplessness when going up against large corporations to ensure food security. Others thought that little changes could add up and that as conscious consumers we had a lot of power by making our voices heard by purchasing what we thought was the best for the planet.
There are actions that individuals can take to be more conscious consumers.
People can make choices in the selection of what they eat and where they purchased their food.. You can vote with your dollars. Don’t forget to read food labels to see what you are eating. Ask at your supermarket where the food you buy comes from and make requests for local and/or organic foods. You may also consider contacting your MP to make your voice heard.
At the event, we discussed shopping at local markets and making choices to buy food that has not travelled long distances to minimize the impact on the earth and depletion of the nutrient value of the food. For those that expressed concern about the high cost of organic food some suggested purchasing  only some  organic food types that are much less contaminated then  non organic foods (such as certain fruits and vegetables).
At Temple Shalom we are looking at doing regular multifaceted events such as movie screenings, discussions and dinners.  My hope is that we can incorporate themes that include environmental issues that could be applicable to Jewish concerns.   We may also look at partnering with J-Peg, which is part the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, to do a communal Shabbat dinner with this younger segment of our community.  My goal would be to minimize the impact of this dinner on the environment and serve as much local and organic food as is possible. I would also like to involve the younger segment of our community in more synagogue events at Temple Shalom..

What Do You Think? Ma Khosh’vim?

What Do You Think? Ma Khosh’vim?

December 20th, 2010 · 4 Comments · Jewish Living

I hate scary movies. I don’t go to them.Psycho may be a masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby may be a classic, but I’ve never seen them and never will. Drag me to a horror movie, and I’ll have my eyes closed the entire time with my hands over my ears.

But Saturday night November 20th, I voluntarily watched a movie that scared me more than any of Hollywood’s concoctions. Food Inc. was the feature presentation at Temple Shalom’s adult education that night. A fascinating discussion and background on the Jewish perspective of kashrut followed the showing. Later, both Saturday and Sunday nights I had nightmares about the farm-factory treatment of chickens and cows and a company that has “patented life.” And Monday I started my new life, post-horror movie: I bought only organic fruit, read every food label, and requested “free-roam” meat from the man at the meat counter. (My Loblaw’s doesn’t carry any, although it does have “free-from” meat – i.e., free from antibiotic loading, etc.) It was scary all right: all the chemicals, the small selection of organic fruits and veggies, and the smaller meat selection.

Food Inc. is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. And I’m glad I saw it. It is changing the way I shop and eat – and gives me a new perspective on the wisdom of Jewish food laws. The only problem with those Jewish food laws is that over the centuries they have been more and more narrowly defined, with the result that the foundation principles have been all but lost. But “kosher” isn’t determined by just the last few moments of an animal’s life and by keeping milk and meat separate. “Kosher” is about those larger issues. I say it’s time for Reform / Liberal / Progressive Jews to take back the language of Jewish food and restore its meaning of ‘fit, proper.’ It’s time to remind ourselves of the laws against mistreatment of animals, against the exploitation of labourers, about the connection between what we eat and our health, and about the sanctity of all life. That’s what kashrut is about – and we need to be talking about Reform ways to keep that kashrut.

And Food Inc. is one scary movie that I would see again; it’s that important.

What do you think? Ma khosh’vim?

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What do you think? Ma khosh’vim?

What right do we have to personal information about others? Where is the line between public and private? Who decides?

Let me tell you about the moment when I realized that the media had (nearly) sucked me into thinking I had an intimate relationship with someone. (To be honest, what I really realized was how I had always been sucked in before and why that was wrong.)

It was through a scene on a television show, whose star was a high school classmate of mine. You see, I graduated high school with David “The Hoff” Hasselhoff. We worked together on The Fantastiks. But we didn’t socialize; I couldn’t even say we were friends. Knowing what our relationship was and was not, when the television camera moved in for those close up shots of his character’s face, I was taken aback. And I thought, “I have no business seeing him this close. I’m not this close to him!”

Where is the line between public and private? The movie and television cameras tell us we have intimate relationships with people we have never met and will never know. The tabloids titillate us with details of celebrities’ and politicians’ lives and homes, where we are strangers and which we will never enter. Often we expect public figures to be ‘perfect’ (whatever that means), and when they don’t for whatever reason – divorce, badly behaved children, adultery, messy hair and unfashionable outfit, etc. – the media is quick to condemn them. If each of us were expected to maintain appearances constantly, most of us would fail miserably.

But what about being a “role-model”? Do those of us who may be (or are) seen as role-models have an obligation to tell details of our private life because of others who may be (or are) discriminated against?

That question has been seriously raised following the death of Debbie Friedman, singer, songwriter, feminist, and – apparently, per the 18th paragraph in her NY Times obituary – lesbian. Voices have been raised condemning her for her sexuality, and voices have been raised condemning her for being private about her sexuality. For the former, her music is now ‘different’ because written by a lesbian. For the latter, her life work is now diminished because she didn’t ‘come out’ as a lesbian.

Is Stephen Hawking’s understanding of the universe less brilliant because he divorced his first wife? Is Percy Grainger’s music less beautiful because of his pedophilic writings? Is Debbie Friedman’s music less spiritual and Jewish because she loved a woman? Or ~ on the other hand ~ is anyone whom we admire a less admirable whatever because we don’t know about part of his or her ** (fill in the blank). In short, does the worth of someone’s life work depend on the personal information we know about him or her?

Debbie Friedman said, “People are more uptight talking about God, more uptight about God language and God concepts, than they are about sex.” That was from a conversation with Jonathan Mark, as reported in The Jewish Week, Jan 13.

What right do we have to personal information about a person? What does it matter? Ma khosh’vim ~ what do you think?