Rachel Salston, 24, of Los Angeles — a 'soferet,' one of America's few female scribes — repairs a damaged Torah used by the Jewish Academy of Orlando in Maitland, Fla. (Red Huber / MCT)
The Torah used at the Jewish Academy of Orlando is marked with water spots, smudges, discolorations, rips and the normal wear and tear that comes from regular use.
“It’s not just a book. It’s a sacred text,” said Alan Rusonik, head of the academy in suburban Maitland, Florida. “To have a Torah in disrepair just doesn’t seem right.”
That’s why Rusonik summoned Rachel Salston, a 24-year-old rabbinical student from Los Angeles.
Salston is one of an estimated 50 female Jewish scribes in the world. Her teacher, Jen Taylor Friedman, was the first woman to write a complete Torah scroll in 2007. When the first global conference of female scribes was held in May, Salston said, she was one of nine who attended.
Females scribes, or soferets, are a rare breed because they must be conservative Jews who follow the strict laws of Judaism, but also belong to an egalitarian congregation that believes in the equality of women and men. And they must have the interest, patience and talent for painstaking, meticulous work.
Salston has all three.
“I’ve always been a traditional Jew. I believe in and follow Jewish law. But I’m also studying to be a rabbi,” Salston said.
The repair of a Torah, whose letters are a centimeter high, combines her faith with calligraphy and chemistry. The ink is such that it can change color with a touch of a finger, while the holy letters themselves take an artist’s touch.
“It’s science, art and religion,” she said.
The tools of her trade are a quill made of a turkey feather, pure black kosher ink, bookbinders glue, scraps of parchment made of cow’s hide, thread constructed from cow’s tendons and a surgeon’s scalpel.
The scalpel is the exception to the rule against using metal tools to repair a Torah scroll. Metal is prohibited because it is used to make knives, the instruments of death, Salston said. But scalpels are instruments for healing.
That is how she looks at her work: healing the many small wounds on the Torah, even as the scalpel’s blade adds tiny scars to her own hands.
There were two tears to the academy’s Torah she needed to repair. One was about two inches long on the margin of the scroll. The other was about three inches long and tore into the text of the holy book. She fixed fix both with a hand-made sticker of cowhide parchment and glue.
The work took two hours, broken down into small segments of time.
“It requires such intense control I can’t work straight through. I need to take breaks,” she said.
The school’s Torah was torn last May, but Rusonik postponed the repair until the beginning of the school year so the academy’s 148 students could learn something about the creation and restoration of the holy text. First myth dispelled: The black ink does not come from squids.
Rusonik also arranged for Salston to examine other Torahs from different Orlando-area synagogues before returning to Los Angeles. Each synagogue has at least one Torah, which is handwritten, stored in a cabinet called an ark and used during worship services and holidays.
A section is read every Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, until the entire scripture containing 304,805 letters is read by the end of the year.
The Torah, believed to have been written by Moses, provides the rules, customs and narrative of the religion.
“The Torah is the center of our institution. It’s the center of our values, center of our history, center of our community,” Rusonik said.
In the repair of the Torahs, some of which are hundreds of years old, Salston feels connected to the scribes who placed their inked quills to the parchment so long ago. She is doing the same work with the same tools, mending and repairing and restoring sacred texts to keep them alive and useful for future generations.
“I’m in a way a part of the story of this scroll. I’m a part of the group of people who are keeping this Torah in use,” Salston said. “I’m perpetuating the chain of Jewish tradition.”
She does this while creating a new tradition — the female scribe.