Twice in a Lifetimeby Brie Stimson June 29, 2017
On a warm spring morning near the end of May, music and laughter can be heard coming from Rabbi Yonatan Halevy’s house on top of a picturesque hill overlooking University City. Rabbi Yoni’s congregation Kehillat Shaar HaShamayim is celebrating their second anniversary and the dedication of their new Torah scroll – their second in as many years.
Shalom Halevy, the rabbi’s father (who wrote the last words on the Torah scroll) brings the Torah outside and sets it under the chuppah, explaining that the dedication is symbolic of “a marriage between HaShem and the Jewish people,” the rabbi tells me. “It’s a handmade Torah that was brought to us from Jerusalem. It was actually written by the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel,” Rabbi Yoni says while we sit near the scroll in its temporary ark in his home. “It finally arrived in San Diego and it’s a big celebration.”
After the Torah is set underneath the chuppah there is music and singing and people touching its ornate silver casing. Everyone in the circle stands the same distance from the Torah, because, as Rabbi Yoni puts it, everyone is the same distance from the truth. After the children are given candy, the rabbi’s wife grabs me.
“Come on!” she says, and we all start dancing hand-in-hand in a circle: old and young, family, friends and a surprised reporter, laughing, clapping and attempting to follow her choreography.
A family in the community who had heard about the congregation gave the synagogue their first Torah, three days after they opened in 2015.
The second Torah, the one being celebrated, was donated by the rabbi’s parents.
“They wanted to donate a Torah for a long time and now was the right time for them to do it,” Rabbi Yoni explains. He says a synagogue getting two Torah scrolls in two years is rare. One synagogue he knew of didn’t receive a Torah scroll for 30 years. “We see it as G-d blessing us,” he says.
“It’s a very complicated issue to obtain one,” Judy Halevy, Rabbi Yoni’s mother, explains. “We specifically wanted one written for us. It’s inscribed.”
The rabbi says the synagogue and its success would have never happened without his wife, Devorah, who just finished her Master’s in social work and is getting a Ph.D. in social welfare. “She is – unlike [in] other communities where the rabbi leads and the rabbi’s wife stands in the background –” he beams, “she’s a leader.”
He says when he goes out of town for a month she teaches his classes. “She’s really our big support system over here … She’s a big deal. I’m just a rabbi.”
Her vibrance and generosity of spirit are abundantly clear.
“It’s become a tradition on our anniversary we dedicate the Torah, which is kind of like saying every anniversary I get a Bentley,” Devorah jokes.
She says Kehillat Shaar HaShamayim is nondenominational, “but what binds us together is the pursuit of truth through learning Torah.”
Devorah says she balks at religious groups that say they have the answer. “Come on!” she exclaims, though this time without pulling me on the dance floor. “You won’t find one group with absolute truth,” she philosophizes. “It means sitting with people who are Catholic, Muslim. We always say whether we like it or not we’re much more similar to our cousins that are Muslims, that are Christians. We share a lot. Whether it’s our culture, our foods, our songs … Uniting doesn’t mean we lost our identity … When we penetrate a little deeper we hurt the same, we love the same, we’re anxious the same and ultimately we’re here to make the planet a better place.”
After more singing and dancing and lots of food, the Torah is taken just a few miles from the rabbi’s house to the small but cherished synagogue.
“The old scroll will come down the stairs to greet its new sister and they’ll dance up together as a unification,” the rabbi explains. The new scroll is then placed in a similarly new handmade ark that was built and donated by a member of the congregation.