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Mount Holyoke College


BY JANET TOBIN
PHOTOS BY GREG DAVIS

 
  Jewish adviser Efraim Eisen reads the new Torah using a yad (pointer). Yad means "hand" in Hebrew, and the pointer is usually in the shape of a hand with a pointing index finger. This one was recently donated to the College by Ellen Berman '87.
At the core of many of the world’s religions are sacred texts. Followers of Islam, for example, have the Qur’an; Baha’i, the Kitab-i-Aqdas; Christianity, the New Testament; Hinduism, the Vedas and Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita; Buddhism, the Tripitaka; and Judaism, the Torah. Mount Holyoke embraces all these religions and others through its Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. In the past twenty years, the College has built the Wa-Shin-An (translated “Peace Mind House”) Japanese meditation garden and teahouse on campus (1984); acquired an antique Muslim prayer rug (1997); created an interfaith sanctuary (1999); and acquired Hindu murtis, sacred statues (1999). In another milestone, Mount Holyoke has brought to campus the most vital element of Jewish worship, its most sacred scripture--a handwritten Torah scroll crafted by a religious scribe called a sofer.

With great naches (pride and joy) the College celebrated a simcha (a happy occasion) this fall, the arrival of the Torah. The scroll of Hebrew scriptures contains the Five Books of Moses that are the foundation of the Jewish religion. The Torah includes biblical narratives, law, poetry, ethics, and historical materials. President Joanne Creighton provided the funding for the Torah purchase through the Presidential Discretionary Fund for Diversity and Inclusion, endowed by Nancy Skinner Nordhoff ’54.

Created in Poland sometime during the 1930s, the Torah survived the Holocaust, a time when many Jewish religious objects were damaged or destroyed, and arrived in South Hadley via New York’s Lower East Side. Says Andrea Ayvazian, dean of religious life, “The Torah is a gift to all of us. Not only is it a sacred object for the Jewish community, but it will serve to teach the wider Mount Holyoke community about the traditions, practices, history, and culture of the Jewish people.”

 
Melissa Simon '04 (left) and Michelle Stern '04 with the College's new Torah.  

The Torah has already played a significant role. It was first read during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in September, and the following month, it was center stage as one of four Torahs at the Five College Simchat Torah celebration. A holiday that expresses Jews’ joy in sharing the wisdom of the Torah, Simchat Torah marks the annual ending and beginning of the Torah’s reading. At a consecration ceremony held in October, the Torah was welcomed to the College community with songs and special prayers. Says Lawrence Fine, Irene Kaplan Leiwant Professor of Jewish Studies, “In addition to exploring Judaism in an academic context through the College’s Jewish studies program, which offers courses on everything from Jewish mystical tradition to contemporary Judaism in America, Mount Holyoke students will now have more exposure to Jewish life outside the classroom through the Torah and initiatives being developed by a committee of students and administrators.” Most recently, that group has been working to implement a kosher dining program at the College.

Due to their efforts, a successful “kosher grab and go” lunch program was launched this semester. Over the summer, with the help of a major gift from a trustee donor, Wilder Hall will be renovated to become a full kosher/halal kitchen. The facility, which will be open to the entire College community, will begin serving kosher/halal meals this fall. Mount Holyoke has had a small kosher/halal kitchen since 1989, but its volunteer staff, limited operating schedule, and location have become inadequate to serve the growing population of Jewish and Muslim students who adhere to the dietary rules of their faiths.

“The quality of Jewish life has been taken to the next level as a result of the Torah purchase and the decision to expand kosher dining on campus,” says Mikaila Arthur ’01. “Without these things, very observant Jews could not come to Mount Holyoke. Now, all Jews will feel welcome and included by our community.”