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More MS news articles for January 2004

At local synagogue, tailor-made tradition

Member builds table that adapts to reader of Torah

January 13, 2004
Victor Greto
The News Journal

Laurie Cowan loves reading the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures.

When she chanted the words in their original tongue in front of the women's prayer group at the Adas Kodesch Shel Emeth synagogue in Wilmington on Saturday morning, it was the culmination of days of preparation.

"I practice every night," Cowan, 52, said. "I go through the readings three times every night, and then I'm ready the next month. That's what it takes for me."

It also takes a special Shulchan, or table. Cowan, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis seven years ago, uses a wheelchair. She cannot stand to the table's 40-inch height. But this is no ordinary Shulchan.

The Women's Tefillah (prayer) Group, founded in 1982, began to meet and read monthly in 1995. Some of its 30 members now read on the second Saturday of most months.

The oak table, recently built for the synagogue and the group by Oz Seaton, a member and native of Israel, has a foot pump that lowers the table to 28 inches. So, for the past two months, Cowan has had the ability to sing the song of Torah.

"We had been conducting the monthly service using a rectangular folding table, which was uncomfortable, too low, and didn't afford the proper respect for the Torah and the reader," said Eileen Cohen, who donated the $1,200 table to the synagogue in memory of her uncle. "I wanted to have a beautiful, formal table to read Torah."

The Shulchan's top is 48 by 40 inches to hold the large scrolls that are ceremoniously unfurled for reading. The top is covered by a thin white cloth. The body of the table tapers down to the base, which was built around the pump, the same as the pumps used in barber chairs.

Seaton said it took him a month to figure out how to build a handicapped-accessible Shulchan. He had never heard of one before. He knew the pump could not be electric, because synagogue members are not permitted to use electricity on the Sabbath.

Seaton thought of and then discarded ideas using a hand crank or jack-type device.

Then he thought of the mechanics of a salon chair. "They lift up a lot of weight every day on the chair, so I figured I can take those chair mechanics and put it inside the unit and design the whole unit around that mechanism."

He delivered the table a month after he solved the problem. The light yellow oak of the table is the same as that of the oak "ark," which holds the Torah scrolls, that Seaton built earlier for the synagogue.

Seaton said he wanted to design a more "feminine" Shulchan. The main sanctuary's Shulchan is much larger and squared. "It's more elegant and less boxy," he said of his creation.

The table is located in a room near the synagogue's main sanctuary. Because the synagogue is Traditional/Orthodox, women conduct their readings separately from the main service on Saturday morning, said Vivian Goldberg, who coordinates the women's group's activities.

"In traditional Judaism, women are not permitted to read Torah during the main service," Goldberg said. The women conduct their own Sabbath service. That includes seven readings and blessings, or about a third of the total readings performed for the day. Afterward, they join the main service, where they may sit separately from the men to the side of the Bimah, or altar, or sit with them in front.

Cohen said she is learning to read Hebrew, but is still unable to do it well enough to read from the scrolls. "It's quite a skill, and for most women who develop this skill, it's a very emotional experience, being in awe of all that it represents," she said.

Cowan said she will soon travel to a Philadelphia synagogue to read from the first part of Exodus. "They said they will have two strong people to hold the Torah up while I'm trying to read it," she said. And unless they carry her, she said, "They have steps going up to where the Torah is, so I would have to pull myself to standing, and worry about hanging on for dear life trying to read."

This past Saturday, however, there were no such concerns.

Then, Cowan chanted in Hebrew a passage toward the end of Genesis that describes the burials of some of the patriarchs and their wives: "There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife," she sang, gazing at the parchment scroll's meticulous ink strokes. "There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah. ... And when Jacob had finished commanding his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people."

And she did it the only way she could, sitting down.

Copyright © 2004, The News Journal