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Lohmann: Keeping their son's name alive leads to a special honor 18 years after his death

 

 
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    • Leukemia cut short the life of Yossi Chaim Paley, who died at age 12 in March 2001, a few weeks shy of his 13th birthday when he would have celebrated his bar mitzvah, a major milestone in the life of a Jewish boy.

      Now, 18 years after his death, through the tireless devotion of his parents and the generosity of many others, Yossi’s memory lives on in a big way.

       

      On Friday, a joyous celebration was held in Yossi’s honor revolving around the dedication of a Sefer Torah — an elaborate, handwritten scroll of the Jewish Bible that is read in synagogues on the Sabbath and holidays.

      A religious scribe, with the help of Yossi’s father, Michael, put the finishing touches on the scroll during a festive gathering at Keneseth Beth Israel synagogue.

      But that was only a warm-up for what came next: More than 100 family and friends carried the scroll in a raucous procession of music and dancing along Patterson Avenue for a half-mile — as police blocked the westbound lanes — from the synagogue to Yeshiva of Virginia, a Jewish boys high school where the lending library bears Yossi’s name and where the Torah scroll will be housed.

      “This is the highest you can do to memorialize someone ... to dedicate a Torah like this,” said Leah Paley, Yossi’s mother. “It’s the Super Bowl of dedication things.”

      In keeping with her nature — “I’m flamboyant and extravagant,” she says — Leah Paley would not go about something like this in an understated way. But when an enduring mission of yours is to make sure the firstborn of your seven children is not forgotten, a little hoopla is not a bad thing. She remembers climbing into bed with Yossi as he lay ill and tried, as she wrote, “to give him enough kisses to last a lifetime.” She can no longer hug and kiss him, but she can shower his memory with affection and attention.

      I first became acquainted with the Paleys in 1998, less than a year after Yossi had been diagnosed. Michael and Leah Paley had found support and information from parents of children with cancer around the country on an electronic forum, at a time when the internet was a still relatively new tool for the masses.

      Later, Leah launched her own blog — when blogs were just becoming popular — to keep family and friends and what turned out to be thousands of others informed about Yossi’s journey: the little victories, the frustrations and setbacks, and ultimately the unimaginable heartbreak.

      “It just took off,” she told me in 2001. “People started talking to people who started talking to people.”

      She discovered the power of the internet and the understanding and warmth that far-flung community created. Years later, she would put the power and reach of extended community to use, raising money to finance the Torah scroll. It’s a labor-intensive and time-consuming undertaking that generally runs well into the tens of thousands of dollars. In this case, it cost $50,000.

      She got the idea for commissioning a Torah scroll while attending a bar mitzvah.

      “I watched the bar mitzvah boy hugging the Sefer Torah,” she wrote on her blog. “I watched this young man hug that Sefer Torah with such love in his eyes, and I said to myself, ‘I NEED A SEFER TORAH FOR YOSSI.’”

      In making her pitch to potential donors, she wrote, “Every time the Torah is used, it will be a special merit for his soul.”

      She raised the money, which she concedes was something of a miracle, but the layers of goodness in this story run even deeper.

      Yossi’s best friend, Yonatan Cantor, has been like her “right hand,” she said, through all of the preparations for Friday’s event. Having Cantor along the way has been “a huge comfort because I’ve been able to see how much he still loves my son,” Leah said.

      In addition, the religious scribe hired to write the Torah scroll was Adam Lessin, a former Richmonder who also was a childhood friend of Yossi and who now lives in Israel. I called Lessin earlier this week to find out more about his role in this.

      “It’s really had special meaning,” said Lessin, who was a year ahead of Yossi at Rudlin Torah Academy. “It’s a very full-circle kind of feeling with vivid memories of being at his funeral ... and now going back to the same [synagogue] and completing this Torah scroll in his memory. It’s really an incredible feeling that most religious scribes don’t get such an opportunity.”

      The work of a scribe is amazingly intense. Scribes such as Lessin are trained and ordained to write Torah scrolls. Each of the 300,000-plus letters in the Torah have to be painstakingly written with a quill pen — in Lessin’s case, one fashioned from a turkey feather — onto parchment. Any mistake in the text would render the entire Torah scroll invalid according to Jewish law, Lessin said.

      That’s a lot of pressure for someone hunched over a desk for five or six hours a day. Typically, a Torah scroll takes about a year of mentally and physically taxing work to complete.

      “Yeah, unfortunately, I think a lot of people ... look at being a scribe as a hobby, not realizing you sit there and pore over the work for months and months,” Lessin said. “Trust me, it is not a hobby. It’s very difficult.”

      The result is a work of art, sewn together and attached to wooden dowels, just as you might expect a scroll would be.

      Lessin, now 32, married and the father of five, arrived in Richmond on Wednesday to participate in Friday’s festivities.

      “It’s really one of the greatest honors and privilege that any Jewish male can have in terms of an occupation,” Lessin said of his work. And to be able to work on a scroll that memorializes a childhood friend? “A particularly special opportunity.”

       
       

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Tue, October 27 2020 9 Cheshvan 5781