The rabbi told the crowd to think of the Torah scrolls as royalty. As such, they should be in the forefront, like a king and queen.
And so it was that on Sunday, the sacred Jewish texts led a 1.7-mile procession through the streets of Madison, the holy objects held prominently but securely by members of Beth Israel Center, a Madison synagogue.
It was a journey steeped in significance.
The two Torah scrolls, each weighing several dozen pounds, were making a return trip to the synagogue, 1406 Mound St., after being housed temporarily at a Downtown office building. They had been moved there in March when the synagogue closed for a $5.5 million renovation project.
Sunday’s procession, in which dozens of people took turns carrying the scrolls along city sidewalks on a 30-degree day, marked the practical completion of the renovation project and the return of the building to a sacred site.
But the emotional meaning went much deeper.
“We’re a small minority in America and in Madison,” said Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon, leader of Beth Israel Center. “The people here are proud. They are proud to share their heritage and to publicly demonstrate the specialness of this moment by walking the streets with the Torah.”
The Torah consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It is the primary document of Judaism, containing within it all of the biblical laws of the faith.
Each of the two scrolls carried to the synagogue on Sunday contained a complete Torah, the words having been copied by specialized scribes onto parchment decades ago.
Torah scrolls are treated with great care and respect by Jewish congregations. Prior to the Torah being read at a worship service, it is carried through the sanctuary, and congregants often touch its cover and then kiss their hands.
Sunday’s outdoor event mirrored these more common processions, just on a grander scale.
For many participants, Sunday’s procession also recalled the story, told in Exodus, of Moses leading the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
“This is a modern-day version of our biblical tradition,” said Michael Heifetz of Madison, who took part with his wife, children and mother. “In some ways, nothing has changed. We are moving from one place of worship to another.”
About 60 people began the procession at 126 S. Hamilton St., near the Dane County Courthouse. They were bundled tight against the cold, leading to jokes about the Hebrews having had it a little warmer in the desert. Traffic parted willingly for the throng, not unlike the Red Sea.
Synagogue member Karen Shevet Dinah was the only exception to the Torah-first rule. She stayed several paces ahead of the crowd, pulling a Radio Flyer wagon and spreading rock salt on icy spots.
Aside from wanting to keep everyone physically upright, synagogue officials needed to keep the scrolls safe from peril. Dropping a Torah is considered disrespectful, and tradition holds that all of those present during such an occurrence must collectively fast for 40 days.
“So there’s a little bit of pressure involved,” synagogue member Harry Katch said as the procession began.
No one fell, and the scrolls never touched the ground.
By the time the procession reached the corner of Brooks and Mound streets, less than half a mile from the synagogue, its size had swelled to more than 100 people.
A group from First Congregational United Church of Christ, including the Rev. Eldonna Hazen, had joined in. The Protestant congregation had hosted the Jewish congregation during High Holy Days, launching an interfaith friendship.
The intersection of the two streets holds special reverence for the congregation.
Beth Israel Center was a melding of two Jewish congregations with deep roots in the community, Agudas Achim and Adas Jeshurun. Agudas Achim was located near the intersection, and in 1950, a candlelit procession brought the Torah from Agudas Achim to the new synagogue.
Many of Sunday’s participants remember hearing of the earlier procession from parents and grandparents.
Lisa Hoffman of Deerfield, Illinois, grew up in Madison and returned Sunday for the Torah procession. Her parents were among the founding members of Beth Israel Center.
“I’m very emotional, a little teary,” she said after completing the march. “This place will always be a part of me.”