This story, reported by Jarrad Saffren, originally appeared on March 7 in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Subscribe here,
God may have inspired the Torah, but the creator did not actually write the book. That was a human being. Stephanie Breitsman, 32, probably would have understood this if she had paused to consider it. But she never gave it a second thought.
The rabbi in training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote just felt “anxious around Torah,” she said. Like the people at synagogue who are afraid to volunteer to lift the Torah during services, she was worried she would drop it and offend God … or something like that.
That was until Breitsman met a fellow RRC student who had a job as a sofer, or as a scribe who writes and corrects Torah scrolls. The conversation made the West Philadelphia resident realize that she wanted “a relationship with the physical Torah.” She spent the summer of 2022 learning the sofer craft from Rabbi Izzy Pludwinski in Jerusalem. Then, when the rabbinical student got back, she started having online meetings with the first-ever female sofer, Rabbi Jen Taylor Friedman, who lives in England.
Finally, in late February at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Breitsman corrected a Torah scroll for the first time. It had a spelling mistake. Synagogue leaders recognized it during a parshat reading in late January. They reached out to a network of scribes and one of them, Rabbi Bec Richman of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, contacted Breitsman. The rabbinical student had to change one Hebrew letter, zayin, to another, nun.
It may have been the thrill of her life.
“Torah scrolls are precious. It feels like communal care. Caring for the heart of a community,” she said. “We carry these ritual objects with us. They maintain that connection with our ancestors, with that longstanding tradition.”
Breitsman will graduate from the RRC in 2024. She said that she would like to work as a scribe and as the spiritual leader of a community. Right now, as she begins her scribal career, she is also the religious adviser for the Hillel chapter at Bryn Mawr College.
“I feel invested in Philadelphia and the Jewish community here. In an ideal world, I’d love to be a working scribe in Philadelphia and to be serving a community. Whether it be a Hillel or a congregation,” the student added.
Breitsman did not grow up in a Jewish household. Her family was not religious. But during her freshman year at Ursinus College in Collegeville, she showed up one day for a campus garden tour. Breitsman was the only student on the tour. Her guide happened to be the president of the school’s Hillel chapter. That night, the freshman went to the Hillel house for Shabbat dinner, and then, as she put it, “I never looked back.”
Between 20 and 30 students welcomed each other in, sat around the table, sang, ate and discussed the importance of “setting the work of the week down,” Breitsman said. It felt like home. And that was not a feeling she was accustomed to as a freshman living in a dorm. The future rabbi did not convert during her college years. But she spent the next four years at Hillel. It was both her social home and her most important activity. She lived in the house as a senior and served as co-president, organizing Shabbat dinners like the one she attended three years earlier.
The future rabbi graduated with a degree in Middle Eastern studies. After college, she earned a master’s degree in the same subject from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Then she spent more than three years at Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish organization that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But as she did that work, she felt more drawn to the individual conversations she was having with people who cared about the same issue. They discussed what was happening from the perspective of Jewish ethics. Breitsman realized that she “felt more useful” in those conversations than in job tasks like drafting fundraising materials. She was also starting to go to synagogue, at Sixth & I in D.C., regularly. After converting there with Rabbi Shira Stutman, the millennial decided to go to rabbinical school.
I have more to offer on a personal level than on a larger political level,” she said.
Part of her rabbinical mission will be to “demystify what the Torah is,” Breitsman added. She wants to lead programs that teach Jews that the scroll is not just the word of God, but also “the work of our own hands.”
“Physically manifesting and bringing into the world this spiritual tradition of Judaism,” she concluded.