By Susan Cohen
What was a youthful friendship and a shared dream came to fruition this past month when the Artists Quarter Minyan in the holy city of Tzfas, led by Rabbi Zalman and Chana Traxler, celebrated the homecoming of its first Sefer Torah.
Zalman grew up in Houston, the son of Rabbi Moshe and Shoshana Traxler, longtime Chabad Shluchim in Texas. One of Zalman’s classmates in elementary school there was Basya Grinshtein. Over the years, they remained in communication.
When Basya married Israeli Tomer Benshushan, the bond was strengthened. Tomer had long wanted to dedicate a Torah in memory of his father, and had promised it would be placed wherever the Traxlers established a shul.
The Traxlers did that with the Artists Quarter Minyan (AQM) in the vibrant Old City neighborhood of Tzfas. It took them 4 years to find a permanent home. Minyanim were held in a half dozen locations before the acquisition of the former Shaarei Bina building over a year ago.
A burgeoning congregation quickly outgrew the space, and with a generous donation from another Houstonite, the Dr. Shmuel Yosef Weiss Center for Jewish Life opened in the magnificent building known as Bayit Tet Vav on Shavuos 2021.
It became the hub of spiritual and social life for the growing local English-speaking community and its production of successful community-wide events and chesed projects grew.
The AQM had a permanent home, but the Sifrei Torah were borrowed. Tomer and Basya had already commissioned the scroll from a sofer friend in South Africa, but Covid made its’ delivery extremely difficult. Congregant Miriam Gibor, who managed a visit to her family, hand-carried the scroll home to Tzfas.
It took almost two years from the commission of the Torah until its arrival. Covid and travel restrictions delayed the dedication until this past month.
The celebration began at Machon Alte, the women’s learning center founded by Shluchim Rabbi Yosef and Rochel Leah Rosenfeld. The Traxlers, Benshushans and Dr. Weiss were joined by Rabbi Mordechai Bistritzky, Rov of the Chabad community in Tzfas and a host of esteemed individuals. They led the way for an emotional stream of shul members and guests eager to have a hand in the momentous occasion.
The large, exuberant crowd was jubilant and emotional, and it was particularly poignant for Rabbi Traxler. As the procession passed Kikar Sade, he was overcome by the memory of five years earlier, when he spent his days putting on tefillin with visitors on the same spot.
The day-long festivities, which culminated in a lavish, music and dance-filled seudah, was cause for reflection on what the AQM means not only to the congregation, but to Tzfas as a whole. The Traxlers are known for their generous hospitality, and the beautifully decorated space, lovingly created by AQM friend Tirtza Meirav reflected their intent to always share the abundance with everyone.
For Chana Traxler, whose parents Rabbi Meir Chai and Rivka Benhiyoun were here from Chicago, it was like giving birth twice in a month. The Traxlers welcomed a son two weeks earlier.
The festivities were enthusiastically enjoyed by shul members and a host of prestigious guests, including Rabbanit Tova Eliyahu, distinguished rabbis and the extended Benshushan family.
Donated by the Benshushan family and lovingly dedicated in memory of Moshe Meir Ben Maimon and Jeanette Benshushan, tomorrow marks the first Shabbat with AQM’s own Torah. It will be the scene of yet another simcha- the ufroof of Shlomo Lebowitz.
“We have a unique community,” says Mrs. Traxler. “We daven together every Shabbos and share our day-to-day life. This kehilla basks in the light of Hashem, and this Sefer Torah is our trophy.”