Simchat Torah is the festival when communities bestow a very special honour. As the cycle of Torah reading begins and ends, the people called up are referred to as the Chatan Torah and the Chatan Bereshit — the “bridegrooms of the law”.
Two of the oldest chatanim to be honoured this year are Philip Sonenfeld, 90 and Moshe Nurtman, 93, who both live at Jewish Care’s Clore Manor in Hendon.
Philip regards being chosen as Chatan Torah as the second big honour of his life. “I’ve had one honour in my life already — I shook hands with the King in 1938 at Toynbee Hall. I was in the Wolf Cubs and I gave the King a book of photographs.” He says, of his forthcoming role as chatan, “I’m proud of myself and I am looking forward to it.”
Religion has always played a major part in Moshe’s life. “I was brought up in Poland and I used to go to shul every day,” he says. Moshe was one of “The Boys”, the group of 732 Jewish children who survived the concentration camps and were sent to England in 1945. He and Philip are now friends, playing kalooki regularly. “We make a good team,” laughs Philip.
For Rabbi Menachem Junik, who oversees services at the care home, choosing Philip and Moshe to be chatanim was not difficult. “There are many people in the home who are worthwhile, but we thought that Philip has been here for nearly two years and his wife used to be here. He is beloved, very sensitive, and it was very special to see them both together. He supported her, day in and day out throughout her last years, so Chatan Torah is his honour.
“Bereshit means new beginning and Moshe is a survivor — he’s been through so much and he picks himself up, and he gives us that feeling, that zest, look forward, be positive. So Bereshit, which is about starting the Torah again, represents that sort of individual.”
Some people do not have to wait until they are in their twilight years for the honour. In 2001, Paul Rissen was chosen as a Youth Chatan for the youth service at Edgware & District Reform Synagogue.
“I was nominated because of my work as a Youth Leader at EDRS,” he recalls. “I’d been volunteering at the youth clubs for three years, and had also been one of the madrachim at the Kaytana summer camp. Many of the friends I made whilst doing my youth work, from 1999-2002, are still my friends today.
“I remember feeling very honoured but also a little nervous. It had been five years since my barmitzvah, and I knew that it was an honour to have been nominated. To stand up in front of the whole congregation on a major festival was rather awe-inspiring.
“It certainly made me appreciate the hard work and organisation that goes into running the services, and that even if religious life isn’t central to your own life, the philosophy behind much of it, the teachings to live a good life, are important and should be respected. I wouldn’t say it made me any more religious as such, but I certainly feel that coming back to stand on the bimah as an adult helped reinforce my respect and admiration for those who help keep communities alive.”
Joint Chatan Bereshit this year at Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue are Peter Bello and his wife Debbie. It will be the culmination of a period of celebration for the couple, who have just marked their 30th wedding anniversary and Peter’s 60th birthday. “I’m happy to receive the honour — it’s not something I was expecting,” says Peter. They will share the occasion with another couple and another woman.
Peter and Debbie have been members of the shul for 23 years and have played an active role in their community. “I have been a member of the synagogue board for four years, responsible for building development and lettings,” says Peter. “The first project was the transformation of a little-used hall into a Montessori school which provides a regular income for the community. The latest project, managed together with my wife and a team of volunteers, was the refurbishment of the synagogue toilets!”
He is relying on the latest technology to help him prepare for being called up in shul. “I asked Rabbi Aaron [Goldstein] to record the Bereshit portion I will be reading. I have been rehearsing the portion on my iPhone set to shuffle in a circular loop with headphones in the gym, whilst working out on the cross-trainer.”
Debbie, who is from Hong Kong and converted to Judaism from Anglicanism, is a member of the Holocaust Memorial Day Committee at NPLS and also a trustee of the Leo Baeck School in Haifa. “I think we’ve made a bit of a difference,” she says.
Peter hopes that others will be inspired to volunteer their services. “Clearly, helping the community can be performed spiritually but also in, literally, a concrete way.
“Judaism is like blood flowing in our veins for both of us. That heritage and history is very much something that is important to us.”
When Arnie Kosiner was chosen to be Chatan Bereshit, things did not go according to plan. It was a case of better late than never, as he had been scheduled to take on the role at Kingsbury Synagogue in 1977. A few days before the big event however, his wife was rushed into hospital when his fourth child, a son, made his entrance into the world six weeks earlier than expected. Shul services and joyous dancing were replaced by anxious hours by an incubator, and Arnie had to wait another year before he could finally accept the privilege.
“It was lovely, a big celebration and an honour,” he recalls. “We had virtually the whole Kingsbury community in and out of our house and we hosted a sit-down supper in the shul hall. In those days Simchat Torah in Kingsbury was unbelievably outstanding. We used to go on until three in the afternoon, sometimes there was dancing in the streets and a fair bit of alcohol was imbibed. We had the most wonderful ruach [spirit].”
He also gave musician Moshe Tamir, now a regular on the orthodox simchah scene, his first big break, by inviting him to provide the entertainment at the supper. “We paid him £50, a lot of money at the time!”
Heavily involved in the shul, it is easy to see why Arnie was chosen to be Chatan Bereshit. “I was a member of the board, assistant secretary of the building fund committee and took children’s services.” He thinks what sealed the deal was the fact that in 1975 and 1977, he had captained the two winning teams in the popular US Inter-Synagogue Quiz.
He looks back on being Chatan Bereshit with a lot of happiness, even though the initial celebrations had to be postponed by a year. And how did that premature baby fare? He has just celebrated his fortieth birthday and is now vice chairman of Edgware Adath Yisroel Synagogue.