A local Jewish temple now happily can claim a Torah of its own, thanks to a generous donation from a fellow Tampa Bay area synagogue.
Land O’ Lakes-based Congregation Beth Chavarim (“House of Friends”) last month was gifted with an authentic Torah, the Hebrew version of the first five books of the Bible, from Gulfport’s Congregation Beth Shalom, which recently closed after being in operation since 1958.
Beth Chavarim launched in 2018 by Alan Stern and his wife, Nayda, operating the place of worship from their Land O’ Lakes home.
Since then, the upstart temple had been using a Torah from the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, based in Jackson, Mississippi.
Thus, to finally have its own dedicated Torah is significant for the place of worship.
“You can’t believe how I excited I was when it was handed it to me,” said Stern, who holds the title of president of Beth Chavarim. “I can’t put it into words how excited I was that a congregation 3 years old has its own Torah.”
The Torah that the temple received is donned with a silver breastplate, and elegant red and gold mantle, weighing between 25 pounds to 30 pounds.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Stern proudly said. “It’s going to be the foundation for our growth, which makes it exciting for me.”
Stern explained Torahs are handwritten by a scribe on special parchment paper, then sewn together and placed on rollers — a process which takes about a year to complete.
He is unsure exactly how old the Torah is, but noted Beth Shalom officials instructed him to “take good care of it.”
The handing down of a Torah from one congregation to another brings on added significance, Stern said.
“What makes it special is it’s just continuing the Jewish tradition of learning, and I say that because this congregation (Beth Shalom) was founded in 1958,” he said. “It’s keeping the Jewish traditional life, you might say, from generation to generation.”
When word spread of Beth Shalom closing its doors late last year due to the aging out of its senior membership, Stern inquired about obtaining one of the synagogue’s four Torahs.
Beth Shalom representatives eventually obliged, after multiple discussions, consultations and visits.
In addition to the Torah, the Land O’ Lakes shul received a slew of other items from the closing Beth Shalom, including a collection of Jewish High Holiday and weekday prayer books; Chumash, which provides the interpretation of the Torah; and an eternal light sanctuary lamp, which is supposed to burn at all times next to where the Torah is stored, symbolizing God’s eternal presence.
Beth Chavarim is an unaffiliated temple and welcomes people of all ages, including families with young children.
Stern himself grew up in a Reform Jewish household, while his wife was raised more Conservative/Orthodox.
They lived in Buffalo, New York, for more than 30 years, until moving to Florida in 2004.
Unable to find a synagogue in the Tampa area that offered what they were seeking, the Sterns decided to offer services of their own.
The temple has been holding online Zoom services twice a month, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Its last in-person service and meal held prior to the virus outbreak drew about 35 people, Stern said.
Meantime, there appears to be growing interest in the family friendly temple, receiving inquiries from New Yorkers and others with plans to relocate to Tampa Bay, Stern said.
With a Torah in tow and a solid membership base, the next step for Beth Chavarim is securing a standalone building to hold services in or around Pasco County. “We will,” Stern said, “when we get a little bit bigger.”
Published March 03, 2021