A chance meeting in a New York taxi earlier this year partly led to a Torah celebration at Birmingham’s Beis Ariel Chabad Center on Dec. 2.
Rabbi Yossi Posner was visiting New York, hailing a cab when he heard a voice behind him call out, asking if he was heading to Brooklyn.
While sharing the cab, the two played Jewish geography. The man from France, upon learning that Posner was from Birmingham, asked if he knew the Sebbag family, which of course he does.
“I’m writing a Torah for his family,” the Frenchman said, adding that it was currently on hold.
Martine Sebbag said her younger brother, Yul, approached the rest of the family several years ago with the idea of donating a Torah to his congregation in Paris. The process was started, but it takes about a year to write a scroll, and soon Yul moved to Israel. With the added expense of the move, and other factors, the project was put on the back burner, Sebbag said.
Upon returning from New York, Posner urged her to re-start the process, since the Chabad center was in need of an additional Torah. The only one they had was the Birmingham community Torah, dedicated in honor of the late Jo Ann Morrison.
“It was an honor to do it,” Sebbag said. “How extraordinary that two men from different parts of the world would find themselves in a taxi in New York City talking about the Sebbag family.”
The Torah was dedicated in memory of their father, Meyer, who died four decades ago at the age of 53. It was shortly after Yul’s Bar Mitzvah, Sebbag said.
She said her family is a family of rabbis, including both of her grandfathers. They wrote several books and were very well known in Morocco. After Israel declared independence, the family left Morocco for Israel, where they lived for about a decade until Meyer Sebbag fell ill and went to Paris. They did not know it at the time, but he had a brain tumor.
Sebbag has been in Birmingham for three decades, and recalled her father teaching the nine children about their heritage. “Friday night was not a question, we had to be home.”
He could also trace the family lineage back to the Spanish Inquisition.
The Dec. 2 ceremony began with the writing of the scroll’s final letters. Many in the community also took part in sponsoring letters or words in the scroll.
The completed scroll was lifted by Frank Laloush, a member of the family, then the crown was placed by the oldest and youngest grandsons. Everyone went outside under threatening — but rain-free — skies and danced the Torah under the chuppah.
After a few minutes, Donald Hess carried the Birmingham Torah to symbolically greet the new Torah. Hal Abroms held a third Torah.
As the procession stopped in front of the building, a circle of men surrounded the canopy and danced, while nearby a circle of women danced.
The Torahs were then brought inside and everyone was given the chance to kiss the new scroll before it was placed in the ark. A buffet dinner then followed.
The Chabad Center of Metairie pulled out all the stops in welcoming its new Torah scroll on Dec. 2. A parade of nearly 200 men, women and children accompanied the Torah scroll underneath a chuppah on a musical trek starting from the Gerson Katz Chabad Center onto nearby streets.
With Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s deputies stopping traffic, participants celebrated the first new Torah scroll to arrive in greater New Orleans in almost two decades. The scroll was commissioned to honor the memories of Yitzchak and Zelda Nemes, the parents of Rabbi Yossie Nemes, the director of the Metairie Chabad Center.
Approximately 80 percent of the cost of the new Torah was borne by members of the Nemes family. The remainder was raised by community members who sponsored the event by purchasing letters in the scroll at a set price per letter. Nemes revealed the cost of the purchase, including the crown, as $35,000.
Festivities began in mid-afternoon with the completion of the Sefer Torah as sofer (scribe) Rabbi Yosef Schechter finished writing in the final letters of the scroll. Once the scroll was completed, a blow dryer was brought in to speed up the drying process and, after careful checking, the Torah scroll was raised high and dressed with a special blue mantle, a silver crown and a yad (hand) by which it will be read.
Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, one of 30 members of the Nemes family who traveled to Metairie to witness the special event, served as the Hagbah. Chabad Lubavitch of Louisiana’s Rabbi Zelig Rivkin placed a specially commissioned silver crown atop the Sefer Torah.
Special prayers were recited before the procession got underway. A truck drew an open trailer on which a keyboardist accompanied pre-recorded songs through an elaborate speaker system to the delight of the waiting crowd following the Torah scroll.
The scroll was carried underneath the chuppah by Nemes family members and selected Jewish community leaders in a half-hour long procession of joyous dancing and singing. Just prior to the reception of the new Torah scroll at the center, the older scrolls were carried out to symbolically “welcome their new companion.”
All audience members were then encouraged to kiss the Torah scroll just before it was placed onto the bimah for additional prayers.
Following the traditional Hakafot, where celebrants chanted Hebrew prayers and danced with the Torah, a full Chinese meal flown in from New York was served to the waiting crowd.
“It was very, very meaningful and very inspirational for our family and we were so happy to share it with a couple hundred other people,” said Nemes. “Opening it up to the community made it even more meaningful to us.”