Last month, a nearly century-old Sephardic Torah that has been used for five generations of b’nai mitzvah in one family was passed between two such celebrations. At one ceremony, three generations took turns chanting from it. One chanted from it for her own bat mitzvah 30 years earlier.
The “Mizrahi Torah,” which was transported to Atlanta from Jacksonville, Fla., for the requested b’nai mitzvah, takes its moniker from the surname of the couple that bought it. Salim and Estrea Mizrahi, originally from Syria and Turkey, respectively, donated the scroll to the Jacksonville Jewish Center in 1923. They bought it from a Sephardic synagogue in New York City, according to family history. As the story goes, Salim bought two train tickets from N.Y. to Jacksonville so the Torah would have its own seat next to him.
Many of the family members have their own recollections of their connection with the family Torah.
Traci Flome read from it at her bat mitzvah in 1989 at Congregation Etz Chaim and again at her son Noah’s bar mitzvah Feb. 15 at Congregation B’nai Torah. The next week, Feb. 22, it was used at her cousin’s bat mitzvah at Ahavath Achim Synagogue.
“We have this symbol of Judaism that my great-great grandparents I never met” gave to the family, Flome said. “I feel like it connects us with those who are no longer here.
She admits, as a bat mitzvah, she may have agreed to read from this ancient Torah because it was so special to her mother’s family. But now as a mother herself, she has a different perspective. “It was special to my mom, but ultimately it became special for me. It gave so much more meaning” to her son’s recent bar mitzvah experience, she said.
In his d’var Torah, Noah said, “I believe that we can and should honor our parents and grandparents on a daily basis. One way I am honoring my great-great-grandparents today is by reading from the Mizrahi Torah. … There is something so special about the fact that so many members of my family have all read from this Torah, including my mom at her bat mitzvah. Growing up in Turkey and Syria could not have been easy for my great-great-grandparents and I do not take for granted the Jewish life that I am able to live.”
A week after his bar mitzvah, cousin Laila Harber read from the Torah at AA. “I loved the Torah because it was beautiful and different from any other Torah I’ve ever seen. And it was part of my family.”
Her father Rick Harber wanted his children to read from the family Torah after having seen so many other family members read from it over the years. When Flome and Harber compared dates, they realized their simchas were a week apart and the wheels started turning.
“It’s not every day you get to see a near 100-year-old Sephardic Torah, let alone read from it. Now add the ‘family’ dimension and you have something very rare and special, not only for Laila, but also for her younger sister Sofia. She, too, will read from this Torah in 2025. It’s meaningful that something like this has been in the family so long. And thanks to Salim and Estrea’s understanding of heritage and legacy, multiple generations have read from this magnificent Torah.”
Harber realizes most Atlanta Jews have not seen a Sephardic Torah. “It is something majestic to behold.”
The Torah is different from what the Ashkenazi synagogues are accustomed to seeing and using. For starters, it stands up instead of laying flat on the shulchan (reading table).
Even though Flome read from it as a bat mitzvah and saw it being brought into B’nai Torah for Noah’s bar mitzvah, when the ark opened, she and attendees were audibly stirred by the contrast between traditional Ashkenazi velvet-covered Torah scrolls with wooden handles and this velvet and silver metal-encased scroll. “It overcame me.”
Her mother Linda Weinroth, a founding member of Etz Chaim and longtime b’nai mitzvah tutor, recalls the scroll being used for her children’s b’nai mitzvah in 1986 and 1989 at the Conservative Marietta synagogue.
She described the Torah as ornate and elaborate, purple velvet encrusted in silver. “When the ark at Etz Chaim was opened more than three decades ago, it was gorgeous, such an awe-inspiring moment for those in attendance,” said Weinroth, who is also a former education director of Etz Chaim. Like her daughter, Weinroth read from the Torah at Noah’s bar mitzvah.
Weinroth and her husband Michael drove to Jacksonville to get the Torah and brought it back to Atlanta for the bar mitzvah. It required special permission and legal documents to transport. The case was refurbished about 10 years ago.
Etz Chaim Rabbi Emeritus Shalom Lewis said he’s seen Sephardic cases before in Israel and elsewhere that are typically very beautify and ornate. He believes Torah scrolls from North Africa or the Middle East had to be sturdier than those from Europe to survive in the drier climate, so they were encased with metal and wood instead of the cloth mantle of European scrolls, sufficient to protect the parchment and lettering.
Reading from the Torah at their b’nai mitzvah, for Traci and her brother Adam, was “a powerful moment for them and for us as a congregation, sharing in the history and in the family pride,” said Lewis, who knew four generation of the family.
He was also was touched more recently at Noah’s bar mitzvah to be honored with an aliyah during the Torah service. He stood at Weinroth’s side as she read the Torah portion of the Ten Commandments. “It was deeply moving for me, but more so for the Weinroth and Flome family.
“It shows the strength of Judaism. It shows the strength of tradition and reflects the pride the family has for where they come from and where they are going – the next generation of committed Jewish children. The descendant’s great-great grandparents had a vision and a hope in bringing this Torah into their community. And, wherever their spirits now reside, they know the Torah is still being read by family and Jews devoted to their faith.”