BY DAVID OLSON Press Enterprise
Photos: BHE Photos
Almost all of the new Torah at Chabad Jewish Center in Temecula was handwritten with a quill by a specially trained scribe in Jerusalem.
But the inspiration for the text is the synagogue’s director, Rabbi Yitzchok Hurwitz. When Hurwitz was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease a year ago, he told his wife, Dina, that his biggest regret was not having a Torah specially commissioned for the center.
Hurwitz can no longer speak, but he was beaming Sunday as his hand covered a Los Angeles rabbi’s wrist while the rabbi wrote the final letter of the cowhide-parchment Torah. The holy book was dedicated in Hurwitz’s honor.
“It’s a dream come true,” Hurwitz wrote in response to a question as traditional Hassidic Jewish music played in the background. “For 15 years I have been wanting to bring a Torah to the community.”
The completion of a Torah traditionally is accompanied by a ceremony and celebration. But Sunday’s was laden with special meaning.
No one knows what Hurwitz’s future will be. Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, attacks cells that control the muscles. Most people with ALS die within three to five years of the onset of symptoms.
David Newman, 57, one of hundreds of people who donated the $40,000 for the Torah, said the holy book is part of Hurwitz’s legacy.
“Because he was the genesis of this Torah, it will continue to have his spirit,” said Newman, of Murrieta.
About 30 rabbis — including an old friend of Hurwitz’s who traveled from Beijing for the event — were among the 200 or so people who crowded under a white tent in a parking lot near the synagogue for the celebration.
Hurwitz’s disease makes it difficult for him to stand. At times on Sunday, he was shaky. But Hurwitz stood again and again as people walked onto the stage to hug him, kiss him on the cheek or pose for a photo.
“This is giving him energy,” his wife said of the celebration.
The Torah sat on a table spread out between wooden poles as Rabbi Yosef Teitelbaum wrote the last 75 of the 304,805 letters of the holy book, dipping the quill into an inkwell before applying it to the parchment.
The Torah — the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy — is the holiest text in Judaism and the foundation of Jewish laws and teachings. It is read during all Jewish prayer services.
A Torah can take two years or more to complete, said Rabbi Sholom Katz, who moved from Brooklyn to Temecula in September to help Hurwitz oversee the center as ALS took its toll on Hurwitz’s body.
“We rushed it to finish it” so it would be ready by Hurwitz’s birthday, which is Tuesday, Katz said.
It was on Hurwitz’s birthday in 2013 that he was diagnosed with ALS. After he told his wife how he wished that a Torah would be commissioned for the center, a fundraising campaign began.
Money was donated not only from throughout Southern California, but also from Australia, Argentina and New York, Katz said.
“Even though they had never seen or met Rabbi Hurwitz, they read that this Torah was his dream,” he said. “It’s not just a community Torah. It’s a global Torah.”
Rabbi Sholom Ber Hurwitz, of Brooklyn, an uncle of Yitzchok Hurwitz, said he hoped that the completion of the Torah will help lead toward his nephew’s recovery.
“This is a big mitzvah,” a commandment from God, Hurwitz said of the writing of the Torah. “We are doing this for you, God. Please give us back his health.”
Hurwitz founded the Temecula Chabad in 1999. The new Torah replaces Torahs that other Chabad centers had loaned.
Bev Hoffman, 56, recalled how when she arrived in Temecula in 1984, there were very few Jews in the area. Hurwitz not only founded Chabad. He also created an annual menorah-lighting ceremony during Hanukkah that in November attracted 200 people of different faiths to the Temecula Duck Pond.
And it is because of him that Temecula Chabad now has its own Torah.
“This Torah proves that Jews are here to stay,” Hoffman said.