Segments of our new Yom Kippur wimpels
This summer, Cheryl, the kids and I visited the Czech Memorial Scrolls Museum at Westminster Synagogue in London. The museum is a tribute to our Holocaust Scroll and the 1,563 other scrolls that were orphaned as a result of the decimation of the Jewish community during WWII. For those of you who don’t know, the tallest scroll behind me is our Holocaust Scroll. Written in Kolin, Czechoslovakia some 350 years ago, it’s been at the heart of our community since the 1980’s – brought to us from Westminster Synagogue by the Spanier/Kashi family.
Our visit to the museum was extremely moving – particularly viewing the handful of scrolls that remain in Westminster, most of them too damaged to be moved, but strong enough to tell their powerful story of survival: how they were rescued from what remained of Eastern Europe and sent to Westminster in 1964 where they found a safe haven and how they watched many of their sister scrolls, like ours, leave for new homes in faraway places.
Many of the scrolls arrived at Westminster wearing their mantels, the fabric covers not unlike the white mantles our Torahs wear today. And some arrived wrapped tightly in what is known as a wimpel – German for sash. In Yiddish a wimpel is a vimple or gartel – a belt. In Separdic communities it’s sometimes referred to as fascia. In Hebrew it’s called a mappah.
A wimpel consists of a long, narrow piece of fabric, often embroidered with biblical verses or other inscriptions including names and the details of special lifecycle events, that is wrapped tightly around a Torah Scroll. It was the way Jews kept their Torah scrolls secure as they were placed in the ark. If a Torah isn’t wrapped as it stands upright, it can easily unravel, become unbalanced and fall over.
In addition to highlighting the scrolls that remain at Westminster Synagogue, the Czech Memorial Scrolls Museum has an incredible display of many of the wimpels that arrived wrapped around the scrolls from Eastern Europe. While we don’t know which wimpel went with which Torah, the ornate designs and the names, dates and dedications on the various wimpels help tell the long, rich story of the people who used these Torahs – a story that was cut short by Hitler.
I’ve always appreciated that simply being in the presence of our Holocaust scroll reminds me of the importance of remembering the story of those who were taken from us by the Nazis. But, when I saw the wimpels at the museum this summer, I appreciated that there’s more to the story of our scroll. The wimpels document just how important each of the 1,564 scrolls were to their respective communities – just how loved and cherished they were, just how central they were to their people.
I take great pride in our longstanding custom here at Ramat Shalom to give each child who becomes a bar/bat mitzvah our Holocaust Torah and ask them to carry it around their community. As they do so, we explain to all those who fill our sanctuary, the story of our scroll and the people who adored her in Eastern Europe. It’s always an emotional moment, one that touches the hearts of all in attendance, one that folks certainly carry with them as they leave the service. And for the bar/bat mitzvah, they understand that they’re carrying more than a 350-year-old Torah scroll. They’re carrying the legacy of a community that was decimated by hate but redeemed by our determination to tell the story of this community and incorporate it into the life of our synagogue family. I’m grateful that our trip this summer helped me understand the story a little better and allowed this story to teach and inspire us as we begin the new year.
The wimpel was an important part of this story. It was common practice in Eastern European Jewish communities to prepare a wimpel when a little boy was born. The fabric used to create the little boy’s wimpel would often come from a piece of cloth which was used to swaddle the baby boy during his bris. The baby’s name, his date of birth and his father’s name were often embroidered onto the cloth along with other blessings and verses and incorporated into the wimpel. It would be brought to the synagogue at some point. Perhaps the first time the infant came into the sanctuary, it would be wrapped around one of the congregation’s Torah scrolls. It might very well have been used to bind the Torah that would be read as the boy became a Bar Mitzvah, and it was the custom to incorporate it into the chuppah as the boy, now a man, got married. There’s no reason that a wimpel couldn’t have been created and used for other special moments and some communities to this day still incorporate wimpels into their ritual life.
Ramat Shalom’s 21st-century Torah binder (the blue and purple stripes are not part of the binder)
But, in most communities, the wimpel has fallen by the wayside, replaced by our very impersonal, but very practical 21st-century Torah binder. It lacks the size, beauty and personal touches of the classic wimpel – but it serves the same purpose. Our simple binder wraps our Holocaust Torah. It’s exactly the same as our other four binders, a small strip of fabric that has velcro stitched onto it to hold it and the Torah together. It works well. But it tells no story. While some of our families have dedicated the mantles that cover the scrolls, no one has dedicated one of these binders. Why should they? They’re nothing to get excited about. They’re commercially made, inexpensive, impersonal tools that none of us really feels any connection to. In fact, I’m guessing that had I not spoken about them this morning, none of us would have given any thought to these binders. And yet, for many of us, our grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents – just two, three, four generations ago – which is a very short period of time in Jewish history – they knew about the binder. They called it a vimple if they were Ashkenazi– or a fascia if they were Sephardi. Our grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents may have had a wimpel made for them somewhere along the way for some special occasion. For the generations that came before us, the wimpel was a big deal. And it should be! Think about it – no matter what we call it, no matter what it looks like, no other ritual object is as close to the Torah, as intimate with Torah – as the wimpel. And so, while our binder is not that special looking, its close proximity to the Torah is why I brought it with me to Westminster Synagogue this summer. I couldn’t bring the Holocaust Torah with me. But I could bring the binder that wraps around her. And so, thanks to this binder, a little bit of our scroll got to reconnect with the place where she found a safe haven after living the horrors of Nazi Europe.
We all know things change. The Judaism we practice today, while holding on to essential pieces that have been passed on from generation to generation, isn’t the Judaism that many of our grandparents and great-grandparents practiced. Judaism evolves. This is an essential part of the Reconstructionist philosophy that led to the creation of Ramat Shalom in 1976 – 42 years ago. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism taught us that Judaism has survived for as long as she has – longer than many civilizations that have existed over the course of human history – because we’ve evolved. We don’t practice the same Judaism that was practiced by Abraham and Sarah who we read about this morning in the Torah. And that, Rabbi Kaplan taught us, is a good thing. It’s why we survived. Even the most Orthodox of synagogue services taking place right now on Rosh HaShanah, they’re products of Jewish evolution. And while some might deny this assertion – the fact is, Abraham and Sarah did not attend Rosh HaShanah services – because the prayers and rituals of this holy day are products of an ever-evolving Jewish civilization. And this is what makes our tradition so amazing.
The evolution of the ornate wimpel into the simple binder pales in comparison to many of the other ways we’ve evolved as a people – ways that have brought about much needed change – like the evolution of Judaism from a people that relied on priests to sacrifice animals for us to a people that can use the words in our Machzor, our High Holiday prayerbook, to communicate directly with God and seek a stronger connection to the divine on our own.
Oftentimes, the evolution of Judaism has created tremendous challenges. Think about the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. How important this moment was! And how many wars have we fought and continue to fight because of it? But we Jews, in the face of change, we have always kept moving forward, wrestling with the challenges of today in order to create a better tomorrow.
Giving up the wimpel, it certainly isn’t responsible for the survival of Judaism. And it certainly can’t be blamed for many of the challenges Jews face today. It’s just a piece of fabric. But, as I looked at the wimpels at Westminster Synagogue this summer, I realized that we’ve indeed lost something important by giving up the wimpel.
Judaism, specifically American Judaism, is at a crossroads. All American religious communities are changing radically. Churches and synagogues are merging and closing because people aren’t coming. The Spiritual But Not Religious trend continues to grow and institutionalized religion plays little to no role in the lives of those who define this trend. In the Jewish world the business model that’s been the lifeblood of synagogues in America for decades – the payment of dues – isn’t working any more. Even your gym – they’ve given up on yearly memberships because more and more folks – particularly the younger generations, they’re refusing to pay annual dues to belong…especially to a formal religious institution. It’s not that folks won’t pay something. But what they will pay, well, the Jewish community is still trying to figure this out.
Great programs like Birthright, which sends college age students to Israel for free, and PJ Library, which sends young families Jewish books for free, are sending a powerful message to young Jews who are our next generation of Jewish leaders that money is not required in order to connect to Judaism. But synagogues and other Jewish institutions that have relied on membership and dues for decades – they can’t just give their services away for free. So, all of us are trying to figure out how to move forward.
Money aside, the services that the Jewish community offers – High Holiday services, social programs, Hebrew School, Adult Education, Early Childhood, rabbinic and cantorial support, to name a few – the products we offer and we want people to “buy” – they’re not in as high of a demand as they’ve been in years past. Many of us in the Jewish professional and leadership world are working on offering revamped or new products. Many of us are working on finding new ways to fund what we do. It’s all a work in progress that’s going on across the country. Some are saying that the Jewish community is in crisis – a crisis of huge proportions. I see it differently. It’s another opportunity for us to do what we do best – evolve. This evolution doesn’t happen over night. It requires trial and error. It takes patience and creativity. And it takes courage to try new ideas. And we’ll do it. No one in the Jewish community has figured it out yet…but we will in time.
But today I don’t want to talk about the way we as a community need to embrace the change going on within American Judaism. Usually, I’m outspoken about the need for us to be boldly innovative and embrace change. But today I want to preach the opposite message. Today, I want us to reclaim what is already ours. To go back in time and embrace the ritual that many of us weren’t even aware of until I began speaking. Today, as we begin a new year, I want us to reclaim the wimpel. Because, while giving up the wimpel hasn’t really hurt us, owning it once again, will make us stronger as a community.
You see, at the heart of who we are, who we’ve been and who we will be – is our Jewish story – contained in these scrolls – the Torah. Too many Jews today have become disconnected from the story. For many, the story has become irrelevant and these scrolls have become relics of a bygone era.
Ramat Shalom did something pretty revolutionary when it built this building 20 years ago. First, it created this low bimah. Inspired by Reconstructionist Judaism that stresses the equality of all, this low bimah was intentional, what’s up here is accessible to everybody. The Torah doesn’t belong to me or Cantor Debbie. It doesn’t belong to the board. It’s not beyond your reach. It is right here. A few inches off the ground so that the bar/bat mitzvah child’s face is visible to those sitting in the back of the sanctuary. And the glass ark – something that’s really unique – only reinforces this idea. Our Torah scrolls are never hidden. Before 9/11 – which we remember tomorrow – and the installation of our security fence – if you wanted to see our Torahs at 2:00am – you could walk to the sanctuary door and there they were – unobstructed. The security fence makes this impossible today, but the glass ark was our attempt to remind everyone who enters our sanctuary that the Torah and her people need to be one – connected always. Think about the Holocaust Scroll – once her people were taken, she was never taken out of the ark, never carried, read from or celebrated. She became an object. Not a story. Until she was rescued and made her way to Ramat Shalom. Here, she got a people again. And we got a gift. And our synagogue’s architecture enforces the powerful bond between her and us.
But, throughout the Jewish community, this bond is weak. And so, synagogues are merging and closing and some of their Torahs are once again becoming orphans. I just read an article highlighting how Evangelical Christian groups are purchasing our Torahs or receiving them as donations and using them to serve as reminders of what was, not what is. A reminder of life before Christianity. Seventy-six years ago, Hitler turned our Holocaust Torah into an orphan as he attempted to make us something that was. It’s difficult to fathom that today, in 2018, many Torahs are again becoming orphans or winding up in non-Jewish communities, not because of hate directed at us. But because of our own indifference. It’s chilling. And it is a wake-up call that it’s time for us to change the way we do Jewish.
We’re taught to build a fence around the Torah, to keep it safe and we must always do this. But, we’ve done more than build fences. We’ve built boundaries that keep people away. To overcome this, here at Ramat Shalom, we need to return to our own roots that are symbolized by the glass ark and low bimah. We need to teach that these scrolls belong to all of us. We need to make certain that the lessons contained in these scrolls are relatable to as many people as possible. And we need to get everyone involved in caring for and protecting these scrolls.
So, how do we do this?
Through my work with Rabbis Without Borders and other projects, I’m engaged in outreach initiatives geared towards those who are completely disconnected and/or disenfranchised from Judaism. But, that’s not you. You’re here today. One way or another you’re saying count me in. You have a connection – albeit for some a tenuous one. And I want to give all of you the opportunity to strengthen your connection. I want to let you get even closer to Torah, literally wrap yourselves around her and discover a simple, yet very powerful way to connect with Judaism. This is why I want to bring back the wimpel.
From its origins the wimpel was and remains a ritual object that physically represents the ties between personal and family rituals on the one hand and synagogue and communal life on the other. You have a baby, you make a wimpel and the Torah, the story of the community, is wrapped in your wimpel and your story becomes part of the community’s story. And your wimpel need not be used just once. It can wrap the Torah again – on your child’s birthday – or whenever you request it to be used. It can be incorporated into a chuppah. It can be used as a tallit. It can be used in a variety of ways to link moments and create memories while bringing it all back to the story, to Torah. The ritual uses of a wimpel are limited only by the creativity of those who create it.
Unfortunately, the wimpel hasn’t been a part of our community’s life here at Ramat Shalom…until today. Thanks to Beth Michell and Peggy Angelici, Ramat Shalom now has four brand new wimpels that will be located by the doors as you exit today. As you leave, or anytime over the next few days, I invite you to leave your mark on one of these wimpels – your signature, your name, a small symbol or drawing…something that represents you. Next Tuesday evening, Kol Nidre, these four wimpels, with your personal touches added to them, will wrap our Torahs and surround them throughout Yom Kippur. They will become part of who we are – our Yom Kippur wimpels – wrapping our scrolls on the holiest day of the year – this year and in the years to come. You leave your mark on one of our wimpels this week, when the generations yet to be come here on Yom Kippur, they’ll be able to find your mark wrapped around one of our Torahs. This is the power of the wimpel.
Today, I invite you to think bigger than the four Yom Kippur wimpels. As part of the Ramat Shalom family – when you have a special simcha – a moment that can be marked before these scrolls – a baby naming, confirmation, bar/bat mitzvah, conversion, wedding, anniversary, birthday, graduation, in honor or memory of someone, to celebrate your retirement, trip to Israel, you name it – create a wimple. All you have to do is call the office. We’ll tell you how to do it. We can even have one made for you – but you add the glitz and the glam and the personal stuff. You roll up your sleeves and actively create this ritual object that surrounds our Torah. You can start one this week and within no time, your wimpel will be surrounding one of our Torah scrolls.
Once you create your wimpel, we’ll wrap the Torah in it during your special occasion – and we’ll keep it here after that occasion as one of our ritual objects that tells part of our story – or you bring it home; frame it for your kid to hang in his dorm room; bring it with you to your grandchild’s bat mitzvah out of state. Use it as a way to connect others to our story. This is the power of the wimpel.
As each of us leaves our mark on one of the Yom Kippur wimpels, I’m asking us to take a step forward as a team, as a synagogue family – to literally and spiritually commit ourselves to owning these scrolls – to owning our story – to doing our part, wrapping ourselves fully around the heart and soul of who we are, who we were and who we will become. This commitment, this act of teamwork, this reclamation of the wimpel – will literally and spiritually build a loving, creative and much needed fence around the Torah, while helping to knock down boundaries and obstacles that any of us might have felt kept us from owning what is rightfully ours – our story. This is the power of the wimpel.
I’m excited to share it with you and hope you’ll share it with others.