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Torah finds a home in New Canaan

Published 10:24 am, Wednesday, September 26, 2012
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Sunday afternoon marked a joyous celebration when members of New Canaan's Jewish community marked the dedication of the town's first Torah.

Families filled in the final letters of the enormous scroll, were led in prayer by local and regional rabbis, and sang and danced the Horah in celebration as the Torah was transported to its ark at the New Canaan Nature Center.

For the past two years, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Levi Mendelow and his wife, Michal Mendelow, have fostered the creation of a Jewish community in New Canaan, with the rabbi leading High Holiday services at the Nature Center and at an office on Main Street.

On Sunday, each family filled in a letter of the Torah. Torahs are the five books of Moses, and must be written by hand by a scribe, which can take up to a year and tens of thousands of dollars to complete. The scribe outlined the last few lines of the Torah so that community members could fill in the remaining letters to complete the Torah, which is one long scroll.

On hand at the ceremony was Rabbi Yisrael Deren, the top Chabad rabbi in the region, leading the movement in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts.

"Torah? I thought we were here because the Giants won!" Deren joked, before explaining the importance of the Torah for the community.

"The Torah here is exactly the same as Jewish people have held with them for the last 3,300 years," he said. "Today is a celebration because the Torah is the single representation of the Jewish community. Among Jews there are so many languages, peoples, and the Torah is the one common denominator. Nothing else begins to approach the centrality of the Torah."

Deren led the group of 60 or so assembled at the Nature Center in prayers in both Hebrew and English. The mixed results of success in recitation may have spoken to the mix of people in attendance, some in formal Hasidic wear, with beards and black suits, and others in more contemporary outfits of oxford shirts and khakis.

Following the prayers, the group carried the Torah to its ark, a special closet where Torah scrolls are kept. The parade to the ark involved several members of the community taking turns holding the Torah, as well as much singing and dancing. When the Torah reached the ark, Horah dances broke out, one for men, and one for women.

The Torah was paid for with funding from Aron Breslow, a former New Canaan resident. In 1979 Breslow wrote "Religion U.S.A.," a book about religious life in small towns, which was centered on New Canaan, and contained essays from many religious leaders in New Canaan. The proceeds from the sale of the book went into an account and had sat there for more than 30 years. When Breslow learned the Chabad movement started a community in New Canaan, he offered to use the money in the account to purchase a Torah, according to Mendelow.

The Torah is "to be written in memory of the parents of Mr. Breslow, Mr. Meyer (Mike) Breslow and Mrs. Pearle Kantsiper Breslow," according to the Chabad webpage, and was named the Breslow/Kantsiper Family New Canaan Community Torah.

Rabbi Mendelow said he moved to New Canaan from Stamford more than two years ago because he realized there was a need for a Jewish community. He said that more than 100 people have participated with the community in different ways so far. Mendelow said that Jewish community has been only well-received in New Canaan.

"We've only been warmly welcomed in the community by its residents, Jewish and non-Jewish," he said in an interview.

One of those is New Canaan resident Bernard Simpkin, who attended the dedication. He belongs to a Reform congregation in Stamford and said that he was happy that Mendelow had started doing services here. Simpkin said that New Canaan, though not known for its Jewish population, has not been an unfriendly place in the least.

"I don't know if they wave flags saying `Welcome, Jews,' but it's been welcoming enough," he said.

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement is a branch of Orthodox Hasidic Judaism that has expanded greatly in the past 50 years in America. The Chabad movement does not insist upon the same rules as the Orthodox Jews, although the leaders are very traditional, and focuses more on building Jewish communities of all different types of Jews rather than on the strictest rules. There are Chabad houses on many university campuses and there are 11 Chabad organizations in China.

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4413; @Woods_NCNews