B’nai Israel’s hand-stitched Torah covers are a communal creation

From left, the mantles depict Genesis, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Leviticus and Exodus. Photo by Justin Katz

Traditional Torah mantles — the tapestry that is ceremonially removed and replaced each time the Torah is read — usually employ the same imagery: stars of David, Hebrew lettering and crowns.

But when Amy Wish, a congregant at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, saw unique mantles while visiting a synagogue in Michigan, she began a campaign to obtain new mantles for B’nai Israel’s Torah scrolls.

That was 14 years ago.

The Conservative congregation unveiled its five new mantles during a Shabbat morning service in January. During the years in between, congregants handstitched images to create the new Torah covers.

“What is beautiful about [the project] is that it mirrors the communal effort that Moses got going to build his mishkan in the desert,” said Cantor Ilana Wolpert, referring to the Israelites’ portable sanctuary.

In the beginning, Rabbi Jonathan Schnitzer, who saw the project through to completion, had one stipulation: each of the five mantles must depict one of the five books of the Torah.

“My sense of the Torah is that it represents a spiritual journey of the Jewish people from the origins of the world to the moment when the community is poised to enter the Promised Land,” Schnitzer said last week. “We read and explore that journey in its entirety every year and the covers, in my mind, should ideally reflect that experience.”

So how can one image depict an entire book of the Torah? Enter Jeanette Kuvin Oren, a Woodbridge, Conn.-based artist specializing in Judaica. Oren created the designs and instructed the congregants on how to recreate them in fabric.
Oren said the mantle depicting Genesis is represented by a tree of life. Exodus shows the parting of the Red Sea.

Leviticus is depicted by a priestly gown and by Shabbat candles. Numbers is represented by the tent of meeting and pillar of fire and cloud, the way God was said to have led the Israelites through the desert. Deuteronomy shows the Promised Land.

jkatz@midatlanticmedia.com

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