Last June, when Karen Kahn Weinberg drove from her Atlanta home to her hometown in Pine Bluff, Ark., to attend a Shabbat and de-sanctification service at Congregation Anshe Emeth, a 149-year-old Reform Temple that was closing its doors, she had no idea that the trip would take her to Guatemala City less than a year later.
But at a February Shabbat service at Adat Israel in Guatemala City, about three dozen congregants and visitors heard Weinberg read from the same Torah that she read during a Yom Kippur service at Anshe Emeth in 2011 — a Torah now being donated to the Guatemalan congregation.
It also was the yahrzeit of Weinberg’s father. Her mother had died three days before the closing service of Congregation Anshe Emeth, where her family had been members for generations.
At that de-sanctification service, Weinberg learned that one of the synagogue’s two Torahs would be donated to Megiddo — part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta’s sister region in Israel — while the other would go to the young congregation in Guatemala City.
“Immediately I told Rabbi Gene Levy that I’m going to Guatemala,” Weinberg said. “And Gene said, ‘If you’re going, I’m going.’ ”
Rabbi Levy, who is retired in Little Rock and had served Anshe Emeth for three years on a part-time basis, commissioned a wooden container for the Torah for its transport from Arkansas to Guatemala. He bought Transportation Security Administration-approved locks in case security needed to open the box.
When he was insuring the Torah, he was asked its age. “I said, ‘Moses brought it from Sinai,’ ” Rabbi Levy said with a laugh at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where he was waiting for another flight just weeks after traveling to Guatemala. “We wrote ‘fragile’ all over the box, and it was shipped with oversized luggage. We went through Atlanta, and there were no problems at customs.”
On a Friday night in Guatemala, the Torah was unpacked from the wooden box, swathed in a new red cover and placed in the congregation-made ark by Toronto-based Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, a volunteer rabbi at Adat Israel, and Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, a Rio-based representative from the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which helped arrange the donation.
The next day, reading from a Hebrew/English/Spanish siddur, about 30 people participated in Shabbat services.
“I gave a history of the Pine Bluff congregation,” Rabbi Levy said, “and then I called on Karen to read the first Torah portion.”
“I said a few words in Spanish while the daughter of Adat Israel’s president, Jeannette Orantes, translated in English,” Weinberg said. “I said, ‘This warm and welcoming community is helping me to heal after saying goodbye a year ago tonight to my father, and three months later my mother joined him, and three days after that my hometown synagogue had their de-sanctification service.’ ”
She added, “My lifelong dream was to chant Torah in a Spanish-language country.”
When Weinberg was a teenager, she spent a summer abroad in Spain with her older sister.
“I totally connected with the language and culture, even though I’d only had one year of Spanish before that,” she said. She majored in Spanish at Tulane University’s Newcomb College in New Orleans and spent a semester at the University of Madrid.
“I was so blown away by the congregants at Adat Israel,” said Weinberg, the president of B’nai B’rith’s Achim/Gate City Lodge in Atlanta. “The people are so passionate about Judaism.”
Rabbi Goldstein said Weinberg added a lot to the Shabbat service. “She brought the continuity of Pine Bluff and the spirit of someone who had read it. Here was a person who had a relationship with the Torah,” she said. “Having everyone there from all over, coming from so far and being so into it, really touched my congregation. It was special for everyone — poetry in motion.”
Rabbi Goldstein, who became Canada’s first female rabbi in 1983, was introduced to Adat Israel nearly a decade ago through a friend who had adopted a child from the Central American country. She traveled to Guatemala and attended services in the congregation’s house, which had been provided to Adat Israel.
“The whole community came to meet us. There were 24 beautiful people, passionate about being Jewish,” Rabbi Goldstein said. Some were converts. Others were Jews married to non-Jews. Some believed they were descendants of Jews exiled during the Spanish Inquisition.
“Some had Sephardic last names. Some had stories about their grandmother lighting candles on Friday nights. They fell in love with me, and I with them,” Rabbi Goldstein said.
Ever since, she has served as Adat Israel’s volunteer rabbi, traveling to Guatemala at least once a year and Skyping and emailing with the congregants year-round.
“Having its own Torah makes the congregation feel more real,” she said. “It reflects legitimacy and stability. Karen’s participation gave it historical context, and Rabbi Levy’s participation brought the American Jewish community to us. Rabbi Edelheit made it clear that our congregation is part of an international family. We are not alone. We are part of the Reform Jewish family.”
The feeling of being a part of a worldwide movement “was palatable and powerful,” Rabbi Goldstein added.
And the legitimacy came not just from abroad, she said. “We invited the Orthodox rabbi (from Guatemala City), and although he did not attend, he wrote and congratulated us.”