Letter Perfect


A few years ago the leaders of the downtown synagogue Tamid were looking for a female scribe to both write their Torah scroll, and, deliver a statement about gender equality. They approached Jen Taylor Friedman, who, in 2007, became the first woman known to have written an entire sefer Torah. She suggested that Tamid contact Julie Seltzer, a soferet (Torah scribe) splitting her time between Israel and the Hudson Valley.

At the time, there were not many trained female scribes whom Friedman could recommend; in fact, when Seltzer finishes writing her Torah scroll for Tamid next year, she will become only the second woman known to have written a scroll entirely by herself.

And, Tamid points out, she will be the first woman to write a sefer Torah for a congregation in Manhattan.

Employing a soferet was “one way of making [the scroll’s creation] contemporary,” Seltzer said of Tamid’s eclectic spiritual mission.

“We are forming new traditions and pathways for celebrating Judaism in the 21st century,” Tamid’s crowdfunding pitch for the scroll on kickstarter.com states. “For more than 2,000 years, Torah writing has been restricted to men only.”

Seltzer, 41, who earlier wrote a Torah scroll for San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum and participated with a group of other female scribes in writing a sefer Torah for Seattle’s Kadima Reconstructionist Community, said her path to joining a profession traditionally dominated by Jewish men was not inevitable.

A native of Philadelphia, she first wanted to be a veterinarian. Then she considered a career in the theater. She lived in Israel for a few years, took classes at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, worked for a Hillel chapter in Wisconsin, taught at a day school near Washington and worked as a baker at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut.

One day, about a decade ago, she had an epiphany.

Walking down a street in Jerusalem’s Baku neighborhood, “I literally stopped in my tracks,” she said, and a “revelation” struck her. “I was going to learn sofrut [a scribe’s art].”

Seltzer, who lives and works in the Hudson Valley riverside town of Beacon, in a studio whose window lets in “a little bit of natural light,” said the act of creating a Torah scroll held a special meaning for her.

“As much as I had engaged in Torah study,” she said, and had chanted from the Torah during worship services and “argued esoterica from the Talmud,” she had “never given a second thought to who wrote Torah scrolls.”

She would become that person. She studied calligraphy, and received training in sofrut from Friedman.

Seltzer served as scribe-in-residence at the San Francisco museum, creating handwritten megillah, mezuzah and ketubah scrolls.

She began the writing of her current scroll, in the “classic Ashkenazic style,” with the Torah portion Tetzaveh, where the word Tamid [Hebrew for always or continually] appears frequently.

At her writing table four to five hours a day, she finds the scroll a constant presence in her life. Next year, she’ll give it to Tamid, for which she has periodically given demonstration lectures where members are encouraged to help fill in letters. Seltzer said she sees herself as a “surrogate — I’m committed to letting this become somebody else’s baby.”

During the demonstration sessions at Tamid, Seltzer spends 10-15 minutes with each person who is about to ink in a letter, then gives each person an individualized blessing, said Rabbi Darren Levine, the synagogue’s founder. “She facilitates the process of the writing of the letters. It’s more than putting ink on parchment.”

Seltzer, who is working on a book about her experiences that led up to her becoming a soferet is a member of Stam Scribes, a group of a dozen non-Orthodox scribes, most of whom are women.

The number of Seltzer’s female colleagues is slowly growing. Her commission at Tamid is a good sign, she said — a thriving congregation turning to a soferet. “I hope this is the beginning; I hope there will be more.”