Updated Thursday, October 10th; the Daily Deac is grateful to Richard Brenner for helping provide names of the participants.
On Friday evening of Family Weekend, I had the good fortune to attend the dedication of a sacred Torah that had been given to Wake Forest by Ann, Felice, and Richard Brenner. The university had not previously (to my knowledge) had its own Torah, though we have had for many years a Jewish student organization, Hillel, as well as faculty and staff who are Jewish and who have helped host Seder meals and other events on campus.
I had never been to a Torah dedication before, so it was both moving and educational for me to witness. The ceremony was held in Carswell Hall in the former law library, and it was a ceremony filled with music, song, prayers, responsive readings and more. The speakers were Rabbi Mark Strauss-Cohn from Temple Emanuel n Winston-Salem, and Dr. Andrew Ettin, professor emeritus of English and also a rabbi. University Chaplain Tim Aluman, Vice President for University Advancement Mark Petersen, and President Nathan O. Hatch also spoke, along with Richard Brenner. I knew Dr. Ettin from my college days, though I had not taken his classes, and he has one of the most melodious, rich voices ever. It was great to hear him speak, along with all the others. (I gave my program to someone else, so I can’t list all the speakers properly).
Rabbi Strauss-Cohn told an incredibly poignant story – and apologies now that my memory might get some of the details wrong – about two synagogues in Israel centuries ago. One was a synagogue of relative wealth and a dedicated rabbi who did a lot of preparation for services, and they had a beautiful Torah, yet his temple was empty week after week. On the other side of town, there was a very poor congregation – so poor that they could not afford to have someone write all the words on their Torah; it was just an empty scroll. But there was an elderly man who had learned the Torah in his youth and had memorized it, so during services they opened the empty scroll and the temple elder would read (from memory) as if he was reading from the Torah. It was a lively congregation, full of people and song and joy.
One day the rabbi from the wealthy congregation opened his Torah scroll and saw the letters flying off of it. The letters made their way across town to the poor temple and landed on the formerly empty Torah scroll. The letters I guess went where the congregation most needed them. Rabbi Strauss-Cohn told the group that at his temple, they have a curtain that covers the ark where the torahs are kept which has all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and he says we must always ask ourselves, are our Hebrew letters flying ON to our Torah, or OFF? It was such a moving story.
Following the dedication service proper, our gathered group proceeded to Collins Hall with the sacred Torah, led by a Klezmer band, the Saini Mountain Ramblers, and under a chuppah. There we entered the Hillel lounge, and the rabbi and others continued the service with more singing and prayers and reflections, as well as the affixing of a mezuzah to the entryway of Hillel. At the conclusion of the ceremony, there was food and drink and a lot of smiles and goodwill.
This was a terrific event for Wake Forest, and many thanks are owed to the Brenner family for making it possible. What a wonderful thing to have held this dedication during Family Weekend, so parents and students of the Jewish faith could celebrate it together as a family. Also, I will note that some members of our Muslim student organization attended as well, to show their support for Hillel. We talk a lot on campus about community and dialogue and understanding of different viewpoints, and this was a remarkable example of showing kindness and mutual respect between two different faith traditions.
Here are some wonderful shots of the ceremony from our University Photographer, Ken Bennett.