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Using the Torah to Heal

What happens when the first evening of Shavuot coincides with an all -night community fund raiser in support of cancer research?

You combine both events, using the Torah as a focal point of healing.

I faced a dilemma earlier this month after I became aware that organizers of the community’s annual Relay for Life cancer run had scheduled their annual fund raising event on June 10, the first night of Shavuot. It was a difficult choice for some of our congregants, particularly those who are cancer survivors, or those either supporting or remembering family and friends.

The all night community event, which is supported by about four hundred participants, involves students circling the track at North Shore High School in Glen Head, while earning donations for each lap completed. The first night of Shavuot is traditionally a time when congregants gather to study Jewish texts until dawn, in honor of receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. I made the decision, along with our synagogue’s ritual committee, to store a Torah at a nearby home over Shabbat, and bring it to the event that evening, housing it under a tent which served as a center for Torah study. Many of those who would not have otherwise attended our synagogue for Shavuot dropped into the tent and participated in study.

We also gave blessings to those affected by cancer – both Jews and non-Jews. Those who participated were profoundly moved. In recent years, Congregation Tifereth Israel has experimented with bringing the Torah out of the ark, using it as a healing tool. Torahs in need of repair are brought to hospitals, or to private homes. “It is inspiring to see an elderly person suffering from an illness, or perhaps a mother undergoing a difficult pregnancy light up as the Torah enters their room,” notes CTI Cantor Gustavo Gitlin.

Cantor Gitlin recalled the story last year of a terminally ill patient who had been given a few days to live. When he found out the Torah was coming to his house, Cantor Gitlin found him sitting in a suit waiting for its arrival. The congregant passed away weeks and not days later.

The combination of Shavuot and Relay for Life proved extremely successful. The overall event raised more than $65,000 for cancer research, while more than thirty congregants, family and friends participated in Shavuot study and a healing service. We see great potential for expanding the use of the Torah to promote healing and inspiration outside of the synagogue. There are challenges surrounding the correct transportation and storage of the Torah outside of the ark, but these can easily be navigated.

The Shavuot – Relay for Life joint effort was particularly moving for cancer survivors, many of whom had never seen the Torah up close, or considered it as a source of comfort and healing. “Holding the Torah was an honor that I never expected,” noted cancer survivor and congregant Joan Essex. “It was so special having so many members of our congregation participate in this intimate community experience which included the most important symbol of Judaism.”

CTI plans to include the Torah as part of next year’s Relay for Life event, even though it will not fall on Shavuot.

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