At first glance, it looked like any other community day in the park. Kids dabbled on arts-and-crafts projects while the adults mingled, enjoying refreshments on a nearby table as a band played in the background.
But a few details hinted that this Sept. 10 festival was unlike any other the city of Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada had ever seen—namely, the tent just off to the side, where a bearded gentleman sat with a quill in hand and a large Torah scroll open on a table before him.
The pomp and circumstance went hand in hand to mark the completion and dedication of a brand-new Torah scroll for the two-year-old Chabad-Lubavitch of the Okanagan, co-directed by Rabbi Shmuly and Fraidy Hecht.
“People were just flabbergasted, and so excited to have a Sefer Torah,” said Rabbi Hecht. “People in the community came over to me in tears telling me how happy they are living in this small town, and who would have ever thought we’d get to write our own Sefer Torah?”
Hecht noted that the date was chosen to recognize the yahrtzeit, the anniversary of the passing of Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, mother of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
Community member Stephen Cipes acknowledged the “great deal of support, merriment and gaiety” at the celebration. “It was very meaningful.”
Of some 117,000 residents in Kelowna, Hecht estimates that maybe 1,000 are Jewish. And while Kelowna is the largest city in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, how did this relatively quiet area—a full 4½-hour drive northeast of Vancouver—end up with its own Torah?
‘A Nice Coincidence’
According to Hecht, the story goes back several months ago to the Jewish festival of Shavuot.
For that holiday—held this year in mid-May and which commemorates G‑d’s giving of the Torah at Sinai—Hecht needed to borrow a Torah scroll from a synagogue in Vancouver, since Chabad Kelowna didn’t have one of its own. Having secured one, he then sent out invitations to the community to attend a lively holiday service.
Cipes, originally from New York, and his adult sons were among those who took the rabbi up on the invite. “It was a wonderful time we had,” recalled Cipes, adding that two of his sons were even honored with an aliyah, being called up to the Torah as it was read aloud.
After services, Cipes and his son Ezra went to talk to the rabbi. That’s when Stephen Cipes announced that he wanted to buy a Torah.
“I was just inspired, and I stood up and made the gesture spontaneously,” said Cipes. “I really didn’t even know we didn’t have a Torah,” he said, because one was present during the service. As for the timing—making a pledge to buy a scroll on the day Jews celebrate G‑d’s giving of the Torah—Cipes noted that it was a “nice coincidence.”
Hecht recalled telling Cipes after his announcement “how amazing it was that on the day of Shavuot when the Jewish people received the first Torah, how honored we are that on that day we received our first Torah.”
Given that it can cost between $20,000 and $60,000 to purchase a new Torah scroll, it is often not something most Chabad houses can do when they are first getting off the ground. (The cost is due to the meticulous work and significant time it takes for the sofer, the scribe, to compose the scroll.)
During the next few months, Hecht located a Torah scroll being written in Israel and arranged for Cipes to purchase it with a planned completion marked for the High Holidays.
The Torah they got, said Cipes, “is a piece of art. It is one of the most beautiful Torahs anyone’s ever seen … .”
And in that beautiful scroll, Cipes and other community members had a hand in physically helping to complete the final letters on that early September day in the park.
“Everyone got to do a letter from their Hebrew name, which was exciting,” said Hecht, noting that this Torah is believed to be the first ever written for Jews living in the Okanagan Valley.
Among those who wrote in the scroll was Chabad supporter Lesley Spiegel, who stood in for her husband, Timothy, who was on a plane at the time. Reflecting on that moment, Spiegel said, “Honestly, it happened so quickly that I had difficulty collecting my thoughts and trying to understand the scribe at the same time. When I thought about the whole experience later, I was very emotional. I have never seen a Torah up close!”