by R. Shalom Hurwitz
Simchas Torah stands out as one of the most cherished festivals in the Jewish calendar. As a child growing up in a very secular Jewish society, there were not that many opportunities for a youth such as myself, untrained in all the sublime beauty inherent in sitting down on a chair staring blankly into a book that I could barely read let alone understand.
Simchas Torah was different. This was the day that I actually wanted to go to the synagogue. I still remember with tremendous sentimental joy the fun we had when we attended synagogue, received chocolate and danced with flags while the elderly (anyone over 20) would amuse themselves with Sifrei Torah.
It was with these sentiments in mind that the idea occurred to me to provide the members of our wonderful community an experience of Simchas Torah – an experience which I hope would fill the young ones as well as the elderly (anyone over 13) with similar memories of a positive Jewish experience.
Initially – I was apprehensive. Why should I, a rabbi, and a rabbi who happens to be in love with Simchas Torah, its customs its message and alas, I confess, particularly the dancing and festivity, be reluctant to celebrate Simcahs Torah with his community? Furthermore the question begs, why indeed was it necessary to innovate this practice of Simchas Torah, is it not natural that a synagogue has “hakafois” and dances with the Torah as is customary?
To answer, one needs to know the particular history of our community. When I first came to the synagogue, it was a Yom Kippur, and I was to pray at the prayer podium. I brought with me a Cohen (for priestly blessings) and an assistant Rabbi to help out. There was a Chabad student from England visiting Hungary who came to the synagogue as Chazan/cantor for the morning (shachris) prayers.
With the four of us, the synagogue was able to pray on Yom Kippur, a day when all the synagogues of our large planet are filled to capacity – yet this small shul needed four guest rabbis and bochurim to just survive a minyan scare!
In such a shul, making hakafois for Simchas Torah was only the stuff of illusion and fancy. Indeed, just for the shul to survive and function as a Saturday morning prayer group, required a miracle of biblical proportion.
However over time and dedication by an incredibly committed congregation, we have succeeded in converting our shul into a Saturday morning minyan (not just prayer group). A room has been added (one that belonged to the shul but was in ruins) and events have started happening in the Shul.
We made a Purim seudah/festive meal, and people came. We then made a melaveh malkah with a Chassidic Rebbe and again people came. Again we were pleasantly surprised by a large turnout on the first night of Rosh Hashana, where there was barely place to stand let alone sit. Wow! What a difference from that Yom kippur of 5 years ago.
By the time sukkot came, It was no longer strange nor weird to see more than a half dozen people in the shul. In fact large crowds turning up to our events are now the expectation.
However, with regards to Simchas Torah, I had my fears. Doubts and concerns entered my mind in typical neurotic fashion. Would people come? True people had been coming to our events, but coming for Rosh Hashona or Yom Kippur does not guarantee a turnout for Simchas Torah. What would be if they do show up – but decide that Simchas Torah is a theatre where they are the audience and I the actor and worse yet, a show which they believe to be a comedy?
My fears turned out to be in vain; people showed up. They did not come to merely see a show, whether a comedy or a horror, but they came to dance – to rejoice with the Torah in celebration of a strengthened pride in their Jewishness – although it is also possible that they believed me to be a comedy.
The atmosphere was electric, and songs were sung with gusto. The hakafois and concurrent dancing which lasted for an hour and a half climaxed with a proud congregation taking to the streets armed with holy Torah’s in their hands.
This final act in the Simchas Torah of Teleki ter saga turned out to be highly symbolic. Present among the congregants were Miklos and Rahel ,the daughter and son in law of the late Rabbi Raj Tomas who was a former Rabbi of the Shul.
In 1956 while Raj Tomas was in the shul, was the last time that the congregants took to the streets in celebration on Simchas Torah, since then as the crowds changed as did demographics, the synagogue went into decline.
The fact that on this years Simchas Torah 54 years later, this tradition was revived portends to a new reality of the shul. A reality in which we are no longer merely struggling for survival, rather the current goal is for a return to its prior state in all its pre-1956 glory.