MINSK, Belarus (Jan. 25)
Minsk native Rita Ginsburg says she knew about mezuzahs long before she visited Israel three years ago. But it was only after her trip that she decided to put one up at her apartment. “In Israel, there are mezuzahs everywhere, even on the shops’ doorways, symbolizing God’s presence in a place,” she says.
In Belarus, however, where Judaism wasn’t legal under Soviet rule, few households even today have mezuzahs.
When Ginsburg asked Rabbi Grisha Abramovich, the leader of Minsk’s Reform community, where she could get one, he told he she wouldn’t be able to in Belarus.
“Well, why don’t you show me one, maybe I could write it myself?” Ginsburg recalls suggesting to him.
Today, Ginsburg is part of a group of five local women who write the Torah portion on the tiny parchment housed inside the mezuzah case. This group is, Abramovich believes, the only all-female mezuzah-writing group in Eastern Europe.
“In this country, there is not a single Jewish shop where you could buy a mezuzah. You can find such shops in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, but not in Minsk,” he says.
Mezuzahs may not be sold in stores, but they are available through Chabad in Belarus, says Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Chabad-sponsored Federation of Jewish Communities. “If someone calls our office in any city where we have a rabbi, they will get a mezuzah,” he says.
The Reform project started with a book on soferim, or Torah scribes, that Abramovich and his wife, Ira, brought back from Israel a couple of years ago.
“At first, we just joked that we would start writing mezuzahs, but then one day we got kosher feathers, ink, and parchment, and I sat down to write,” Ira Abramovich says.
It took her more than six hours to write her first ones.
After she had practiced for several months, the couple held a mezuzah-writing seminar and invited a professional sofer from Israel to teach the skill to a wider group of people. Both men and women were invited to the seminar, but only five women committed to the project.
Although traditionally women do not write mezuzahs, Abramovich says the project reflects the Reform movement’s idea of gender equality.
“To be honest, I am a little concerned that Orthodox Jews won’t buy our mezuzahs,” he says.
Currently the group produces about 25 mezuzahs a month, most of which are acquired by the Jerusalem-based World Union of Reform Judaism. The women receive an honorarium for their work, and the mezuzahs are sold to raise money for Reform activities in the former Soviet Union. Abramovich says it will take some time before the women get up to speed and are able to produce the items more quickly, and before a distribution process for Belarus is established.
“We would have to consider both Jewish and Belarusian laws in order to start making our mezuzahs available to a wider public,” he explains.
And even though there is no huge demand for mezuzahs from local Jews yet, Abramovich hopes that as more people learn about the project, they will want mezuzahs for their own homes. A logical clientele would be the 3,000 members of Minsk’s Reform community, as well as the 7,000 others who attend the group’s activities.
Ginsburg says the technical aspect of writing mezuzahs is not easy. “Once you write on parchment, you can’t make a mistake, and the rules on how to write are very strict,” she says.
For instance, the same letters should look identical wherever they appear, and the distance between the letters and the lines are strictly determined.
Still, she says the learning process went surprisingly smoothly, and after several months of practicing on regular paper, she was ready to switch to parchment. A retired economist who had never written in Hebrew before, Ginsburg says writing mezuzahs has become the only thing she does for herself amid her daily routine of taking care of the house and children.
“I get so excited when I sit down to write that I can’t get up from the table before I finish,” she says. “I feel like God is hovering above me all the time.”