Ruth Ebenstein
Writer, Peace/Health activist, Public Speaker, Historian, Mom/Stepmom
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It was a morning protest and we needed a Torah scroll for the Shacharit prayers

Written for the healing of a signatory of Israel's Declaration of Independence who had championed crossing ideological divides, what could be better?
This Sefer Torah was written for Minister Moshe Haim Shapiro, a celebrated signatory of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, former Knesset member and government minister who led the Religious Zionist movement from 1924 for decades and championed crossing political and ideological divides.
This Sefer Torah was written for then-minister Moshe Haim Shapiro, a celebrated signatory of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, former Knesset member and government minister who led the Religious Zionist movement from 1924 for decades and championed crossing political and ideological divides. (Moshe Shapiro, his grandson)

If a Torah scroll could speak, what would it say?

That thought crossed my mind as I sang Psalm 118 from Hallel, a prayer of thanksgiving, at an early morning prayer-and-protest on Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of the Hebrew month of Av, near Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer’s house in southern Jerusalem.

“From the straits I called G-d:  G-d answered me with a vast expanse.”

Full disclosure: I’d initially come to protest, not to pray. I’d raced out of bed and donned my habitual demonstration attire: white “I heart Bagatz (Israel’s Supreme Court)” t-shirt and matching red shorts, Israeli flag in tow. I didn’t know that the “Religious Zionist Democrats – Supporting Wide Consensus” Jerusalem protest faction had organized a concurrent traditional prayer service, Torah scroll and all. Had I known, I’d have worn a modest skirt and brought my siddur.

Instinctively, the combination made sense. It felt right to mingle Shacharit prayer with cries and chants calling to halt the alleged judicial overhaul that seeks to change the balance of power between the legislative and judicial branches of government and will greatly undermine Israeli democracy. Demonstrators belted out their wish: “DE-MO-KRATIYAH” (Democracy). Praying protestors called out verses from liturgy that resonated with the times. It was spontaneous, not perfectly crafted. Authentic. Towards the end, the two groups sang together, the protest drummer drumming:

עוֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם (בעשי”ת הַשָּׁלוֹם) בִּמְרוֹמָיו הוּא יַעֲשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם עָלֵֽינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל
ואמרו אמן

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He in His mercy create peace for us, and for all of the people of Israel, and we say Amen.

An organic blend of entreaties that characterizes our neighborhood. My friend, a protest regular like me, recited the Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of her father, a lawyer who labored for justice, welling up as she savored the moment to honor his memory in this makeshift community of folks who share his (and her) values and vision for a Jewish and democratic Israel.

Rosh Chodesh Av continued a woeful period that began with the Three Weeks and commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples called the Nine Days, capital N, capital D. A period of mandated mourning in which we remember what baseless hatred brought upon us, culminating with the fast on the 9th of Av.

On the start of every Jewish month, it is customary at Shacharit to read from a Torah scroll. Ilan Kaminetsky, a labor lawyer and seventh-generation Jerusalemite who heads Jerusalem’s “Religious Zionist Democrats – Supporting Wide Consensus,” texted his fellow protestors the night before: “Who’s got a Torah scroll to loan?”

I do, responded Moshe Shapiro, an architect specializing in preservation.

And in the morning, on a folding table erected across from the local basketball court, Shapiro placed his family’s Torah scroll that could not have been be more poignant: crested from 1958, it was gifted to his namesake grandfather, Moshe Haim Shapiro, a celebrated signatory of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, former Knesset member and government minister who led the Religious Zionist movement from 1924 for decades and championed crossing political and ideological divides.

Then-minister Shapiro was a tall and magisterial man with great presence, energy and prowess in bridge-building. Short on small talk, he was big on real conversation and healing factionalism. He had dovish views in the Religious Zionist camp, rooted in his humanistic outlook. He voiced moderate positions on how to treat Arabs who fled after the War of Independence. But his weltanschauung (world view) was to create alliances — and avoid civil war.

Despite his moderate views, Shapiro played a significant role in establishing a broad coalition prior to the Six Day War, persuading Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to bring his political enemy, Gen. Moshe Dayan, and the right-wing Gahal leaders, led by Menachem Begin, into the government. These efforts led to the establishment of a national unity government, and marked the first time Begin joined the government.

This Sefer Torah was written by a sofer stam who worked for then-minister Moshe Shapiro at the Ministry of Welfare and Religions. Note the inscribing of Moshe Shapiro’s name. (Moshe Shapiro, his grandson)

A slice of Zionist history, right here on the table. A perfect Torah scroll in which to read, a talisman and vessel of hope for our prayers, our protest. To help us recollect our fragments and be whole.

Later on, I discovered that that Torah symbolized healing in the most literal sense. This particular Torah scroll was written by a scribe, a sofer stam, who worked for Shapiro when he served as minister of Welfare and Religions in 1958. In 1957, he was severely injured in the Knesset when a disturbed man, Moshe Duek, threw a stolen Israel Defense Forces hand grenade at the cabinet table in the Knesset and it exploded. Then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion, foreign minister Golda Meir, and transport minister Moshe Carmel were lightly injured. Only minister Shapiro was severely injured. Chief rabbis Herzog and Nissim gave minister Shapiro the additional name Haim, “life,” while he was fighting for his. The Torah scroll was a gift to minister Shapiro, with the parchment paid for by his employees. And even more incredible: the perpetrator, Moshe Duek, wrote minister Shapiro a letter the day before Yom Kippur to apologize, and his apology was accepted.

The letter Moshe Dwek penned to minister Shapiro asking for his forgiveness. (Moshe Shapiro, minister Shapiro’s grandson).

Simplifying the current conflict to a rigid religious-secular divide conceals diversity of opinion within the various communities, explained Rebecca Bardach, a shared society activist who spoke at the protest. “For some coalition supporters, simplifying can be a tool to mobilize collective support; namely, if you’re religious, you should stand with us. Those who oppose the overhaul also shouldn’t see all religious people as overhaul supporters — because that’s also not true.” Bardach’s work in Bosnia has made her acutely aware of the risks when politicians mobilize people around divisive rhetoric. “We need a wide-ranging opposition in order to successfully oppose it.”

Significantly, the protests have fostered new and unexpected alliances. Six months of demonstrating with Israelis of all stripes has built a different kind of community, bringing Kaminetsky closer to other sectors of society. “Truth be told, I didn’t know many secular people before this protest movement came together. Joining forces in safeguarding democracy has opened new doors for me.” In the “Religious Zionist Democrats – Supporting Wide Consensus” group that Kaminetsky leads, he surmises that about half voted for the coalition and support some of the reforms. “But none supports it at the price of fostering hatred and division. When we say consensus, we mean it. I’ve also discovered that I have way more in common with these so-called ‘leftist anarchists’ than I initially suspected.”

Although longtime Baka resident Esther Abramowitz said she generally shies away from events that weave together politics and religion, this gathering simply filled her heart. “It was a beautiful organic tefillah (prayer) that felt right. I think that was most powerful Hallel I’ve ever experienced.”

A celebration of diversity, a sliver of light.

Moshe picked up his grandfather’s cherished Torah scroll to return it to the synagogue where it is kept. This treasured Torah where he read his bar mitzvah parsha, his children read theirs, was also used at many other family celebrations. He paused to share the personal. “In our family, we never took the establishment of the State of Israel for granted. And my grandfather drilled this axiom in our heads: we Jews, we Israelis, must do all in our power to avoid civil war. There is room here for difference.”

That approach is congruent with the Jewish faith tradition that honors the process of different opinions, said Bardach. “So much of Jewish tradition is about passing on the debate. We don’t pass on final decisions, triumphant.”

The protest-and-prayer concluded with blowing the shofar, a symbol of unity that captures the urgency of resolving the chasm. Moshe Shapiro was among those who blew.

Moshe Shapiro blowing the shofar at a previous demonstration. (courtesy, Moshe Shapiro)

So what would this venerated Torah scroll from 1958 say if it could talk?

My friend, Dasee Berkowitz, volunteered this perspective.

“I imagine it would tell us to take the long view. That it would say, you’ve fought like brothers and sisters and dealt with great division. Take the high road. Look up to the sky and beyond and ask for God’s help to gain perspective, strength, compassion and understanding. Remember that we’re all created in God’s image and in this covenant. We’re all people with truth that we’re trying to bring out. Let us see each other that way. Let us treat each other that way.”

A fuchsia sign held by a protestor straddled the area between prayer and demonstration offered a pathway.

“Let’s Build Hope,” it read in Hebrew and Arabic.

A message that the former MK Shapiro would have embraced. In this time of rebuilding after Tisha B’av, so should we.

About the Author
Ruth Ebenstein is an award-winning American-Israeli writer, historian, public speaker, and health/peace activist who loves to laugh a lot--and heartily. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered An Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. She is also the author of "All of this country is called Jerusalem": a curricular guide about the contemporary rescue operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and has written two teleplays for children, Follow that Goblin and Follow that Bunny. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Atlantic, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tablet,, Good Housekeeping, Triquarterly,, School Library Journal, USA Today, the Forward, Stars and Stripes, Education Week, Brain, Child, Fathom, and other publications. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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