In a little more than a week, members of Ohr Kodesh Congregation will place a cover over one of their Torah scrolls. The cover, showing the night sky and 11 gold stars, honors the 11 Jews murdered in the 2018 Tree of Life shooting in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.
The scroll cover was commissioned by the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly, and since last June it has visited nine synagogues in the United States and Canada.
Ohr Kodesh, a Conservative synagogue in Chevy Chase, will be the 10th. It was picked to host the scroll after Cantor Hinda Labovitz donated money to assist in the scroll’s commission. Those who helped fund the cover’s creation were invited to bring it to their synagogue and design programming around it.
“Rabbi Jeffrey Myers [of Tree of Life] is our colleague and our friend,” Labovitz said. “The Torah cover was returned to Tree of Life just in time for the High Holidays and has been traveling across the country since.”
The cover returned to Pittsburgh for the first anniversary of the shooting and then was sent out again to be used and discussed at other synagogues.
At Ohr Kodesh, the chance to host the scroll on Jan. 24-26 is a privilege, said Labovitz. The synagogue will also have a discussion on community safety and children from the religious school will design “messages of hope and unity” to give to the children of the Tree of Life Synagogue, Labovitz said.
“When I turned on my computer, on Oct. 27 , the first thing I saw was a picture of my colleague, which had this kind of aura for me. If it can happen to somebody I know, it can happen to me. I think bringing the Torah cover to Ohr Kodesh gives us the chance to acknowledge our own trauma and also understand we need to be part of [the affected] community on an ongoing basis,” she said.
The scroll cover was created by Connecticut artist Jeanette Kuvin Oren, who had made several Torah scroll covers for the Tree of Life community in 2007. She worked along with Chicago-based Cantor Stephen Stoehr, of Congregation Beth Shalom, to create the cover.
Stoehr was born in raised in Squirrel Hill and his parents were married at the Tree of Life synagogue, so the area means a lot to him.
“I called [Myers] to ask if they needed anything. People from all over were sending gifts unsolicited and it was almost costing them money to house the gifts. So, I planned on [giving] something that would take a couple of months to prepare,” he said. After he discovered Kuvin Oren and her previous work for the synagogue, he commissioned her to make the cover.
He asked her to include black and gold, the colors of several Pittsburgh sports teams, and to incorporate the number 11, to represent the victims. The cover is themed around Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new month.
According to TC Jewfolk, a Twin Cities-based Jewish newspaper, Kuvin Oren said while the use of black fabric is unusual for a Torah cover, it works with the stained glass windows of the synagogue. The color fabrics are silk that she hand-dyed herself. She then quilted the cover.The scroll cover also includes a Hebrew phrase meaning, “May goodness fill our hearts,” which is recited during Rosh Chodesh, Stoehr said.
There is also an inscription on the inside of the cover that reads, in part: “Though we may live beyond/ ‘The Neighborhood’/ our hearts are with yinz in the East./ In memory of your cherished Tree of Life, Dor Chadash and New Light family members, now stars whose guiding light shall never dwindle.”
It cost around $4,000 to produce the cover.
The cover will return to the Washington area in March, when it will be used by Congregation Har Shalom, in Potomac. Stoehr said he hopes to have the cover returned to the Tree of Life by Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah, which begins this year on May 28 at sundown.
“We specified that it cannot just be used a showpiece,” Stoehr said. “The synagogue must dress one of the Torahs in it and let it be kissed and touched. The important thing is for people to touch it and hold it. Hopefully the beauty of the message of the cover will be Torah teaching in itself.”