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Originally published October 14, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified October 15, 2010 at 7:38 AM

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Rare new Torah made by women debuts Saturday in Seattle

The first known Torah to be written by women is finally complete after almost eight years.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sabbath service

10 a.m. Saturday, Hillel UW, 4745 17th Ave N.E., Seattle

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The sterling silver needle darted into the parchment. The sinew made a raspy whisper as it was pulled through.

It was the sound of history being made.

Jewish women have never been allowed to create a Torah, or even buy the parchment from the designated factory in Israel. But the Seattle Kadima Reconstructionist has created the first known Torah to be collaboratively written by women from around the world.

Saturday for the first time, the women are to read from it in a sabbath service at Hillel UW.

Earlier in the week, the project was coming together as women arrived from Israel, Brazil, Canada and all across the United States. After nearly eight years, and close to $100,000 spent, women and a few men gathered to watch as the 62 panels of parchment were stitched together.

"As a kid you see the Torah and it's a kind of on-high thing," said Wendy Graff, who headed the project. "This has made it much more real."

While over the past few decades women in Reform synagogues have become rabbis and cantors, the prohibition against women becoming scribes is the last barrier. Being a scribe is one of the most important tasks of the religion because it's the only approved way of replicating the Torah — the Jewish scriptures and other sacred writings.

The Kadima, which is less formal than a synagogue and has services led by lay leaders instead of rabbis, had no Torah of its own and for years borrowed one. When the members decided to commission a scribe to create one, they also thought of rocking Judaic tradition by hiring women. Since there weren't any female scribes, it meant underwriting the training for two women to go to Israel and be taught by a rabbi. He agreed to teach them privately with the understanding that his name not be revealed.

When word first got out about the project, Graff received international hate mail. But slowly, the idea caught on and other women began finding ways to be trained and later contacted Graff offering to help.

Five female scribes wrote the 62 panels of Hebrew for the Women's Torah Project. Among them was Rachel Reichhardt from São Paulo, Brazil. "I grew up as an Orthodox," she said. As a woman, "I couldn't even be close to the Torah."

Yet, she learned Hebrew, taught it and knew that one day she wanted to "work with the letters."

She went to rabbinical seminary in Buenos Aires, where she was required to study Hebrew theory alone, not with the men. In Israel, she found training but no one would teach her to do the most sacred task of all: write the name of God.

There are many Judaic laws governing the creation of a Torah, and scribes can spend a lifetime studying the laws relating to the calligraphy. Needles must be silver or gold — metals used in warfare are not to touch the Torah. Scribes are to think only holy thoughts as they work.

Parchment must be bought at a designated factory in Israel, by a man. When Rabbi Hanna Klebansky went to the factory to buy the parchment, she had to say she was purchasing it for her husband. Once she had the panels, she sent them to Graff and the project began.

"Each letter receives the energy of my thoughts," Klebansky said, as she pulled sinew through the parchment. "In the process I changed myself by thinking holy thoughts."

Graff, too, says she felt transformed by the project, which began because she wanted her daughter, Mollie Price, to be able to write the Torah. Graff, 59, grew up at a time when she wasn't allowed to even read from it. But now she feels a special connection to it.

Those involved in the project wonder if men will read from it or consider it not kosher. And the women scribes wonder if they will ever be hired again to write a Torah.

Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, of the 120-year-old Bikur Cholim-Machzikay Hadath Congregation in Seward Park, said the Talmud, book of laws, prevents women from being scribes. "This isn't a matter of trends or anything else, this is ... not subject to change."

Klebansky said, "There are too few men willing to be heroes," and challenge tradition.

But Reform Rabbi Jacob Fine from Hillel, called the project "one of the monumental moments in the history of modern Judaism.

"It's unbelievable. It's very hard to fully appreciate the magnitude of something like this ... My daughter will have a different vision of what the Jewish community looks like and what's available to her as a Jewish woman."

The project drew artists to create everything from the mantle covering it to the copper crowns on the posts. It also was an attraction for Jewish women who simply wanted to watch it come together, some traveling from across the country.

"I feel very drawn to this project," said Ada Molinoff, 64, of Salem, Ore. "I think the courage behind this is already part of our larger culture, and in the future people will say, 'Why not?' "

A few lines at the end of the Torah were left blank to allow as many women as possible to become part of the final process. Linda Coppleson from West Orange, N.J., washed her hands, donned a prayer shawl and then dipped a quill into an ink pot. Suzanne Hellerstein, 59, from Seattle, rested her hand on Coppleson's wrist.

The crowd gathered around the table was silent as slowly a letter was filled in. When it was done, there were smiles, hugs, tears and cheers: "Mazel tov!"

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

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