To the Chasidic Jewish congregation at Chabad of Bakersfield, nothing is more important than the Torah, the five books of Moses. So nothing would mean more in celebrating the synagogue's 10th anniversary than the presentation of a new Torah scroll.
The scroll will be dedicated at 3 p.m. Nov. 18 at the Bakersfield Museum of Art. Accepting the scroll is the synagogue's emissary family, Rabbi Schmuli Schlanger, and his wife, Esther Malka Schlanger.
"We look at (the Torah) as a guidebook for our life," Esther Schlanger said. "It's more than just age-old stories of our people; it's a blueprint."
"It's what binds Jews together," Schlanger said.
While the Torah, also known as the Pentateuch, consists of five "books" --Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy -- the Torah itself is always handwritten on a scroll of animal-hide parchment.
"The Torah is something that was given to Moses by God," Schlanger said. "The Torah has never changed for 3,500 years -- Moses wrote it down in a scroll."
"The (parchment) hide represents the animal, which is of the world," added Schmuli Schlanger. "The Torah lifts the spiritual on the physical world."
The Schlangers explained that the new scroll comes to the synagogue unfinished, and will be completed by a scribe, who will handwrite the final words at the dedication ceremony. The Schlangers explained that the texts of the Torah are divided into 53 portions, with one portion read each week of the year.
Chabad-Lubovitch is a philosophical and mystical organization and movement, a part of Chasidic Judaism. Chasidic Judaism, a form of Orthodox Judaism, was started by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (Yisrael the Good Healer) in response to the divisions within the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in the 18th century.
Already living as aliens in whatever country they inhabited, Jews were frequently subjected to brutal pogroms, violent campaigns in which they were beaten, dispossessed and killed. Devastated and demoralized by these pogroms, many Jews were unable to receive a full education in Jewish scripture and law -- the Torah and the Talmud -- leading to further division between the educated and the "unlettered."
Baal Shem Tov was one of several rabbis and other leaders who sought to heal the rift between these two groups, emphasizing purity of intention over mere achievement-teaching that simple, heartfelt prayers and acts of kindness were as holy as the most advanced Torah study.
The Chabad movement began in the Russian town of Lubovitch, where it was based until the early 20th century. The word "Chabad" is an acronym of the Hebrew words "chochmah" (wisdom), "binah" (comprehension) and "da'at" (knowledge). Starting with another rabbi, Shneur Zalman, who also lived in the 18th century, seven rabbis have been associated with the Chabad-Lubovitch movement, which is described as a holistic approach to life -- vigorous study of the Torah, translating that intellectual development into emotional fervor, and, ultimately, complete dedication to God through faithful observance of the Torah and its commandments, putting the Torah at the center of Jewish life.
In 1940, the last of these rabbis, Rabbi Menachim Mendel Schneerson, escaped Europe to the United States, moving the Chabad-Lubovitch movement to its current headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. There, the Chabad movement reached out to refugee Jews coming to the United States, and grew into one of the most powerful movements within modern Judaism.
The Chabad movement reaches out to all Jews, regardless of whether they observe their faith, with the mission of drawing them closer to Jewish traditions. The Schlangers serve as the emissary family for the Bakersfield Chabad.
"One of our goals here is to give men, women and children a positive Jewish experience," Esther Schlanger said.
Schlanger estimated about 1,000 to 1,500 Jewish families in Bakersfield, with many more who are unaffiliated with any Jewish congregation.
"We try to reach out to those because they're not connected in any physical or organized way," she said.
Rabbi Schlanger said this responsibility to all Jews is also tied up with acts of charity to support locally as well as around the world. Schlanger said the work he and his wife do presents no struggle, but sometimes it's a struggle to find the resources.
"You can't measure good deeds, but we do struggle to find the money," he said.
"It's all moral support," Schlanger said. "All the funding comes from the local community; all money that comes in goes right back out to the local community."
Schlanger said these good deeds are a constant responsibility, quoting the Rabbi Schneerson.
"'If there's money in the account, there's a question of whether we're doing enough,'" Schlanger said.