CHAMPAIGN — Crammed into an overflowing living room in the Chabad Center for Jewish Life on Sunday, dozens of faithful onlookers suddenly fell into silent anticipation.
Rabbi Gad Sebag has been inking pages of parchment for about a year. There are 304,805 letters on a Torah scroll, each with its own unique curves and ornate accents. Tradition dictates how each letter is written, right down to the spacing and the all-natural ink itself.
Sebag has written nearly the whole thing with painstaking care. Now he's seated at the head of the crowd — in a house where there's only enough room for everyone else to stand — with the parchment unrolled in front of him. He's almost done, and a mistake here would be devastating.
For the last hundred letters or so, celebrants lined up to assist. They are all from different segments of the Jewish community — some from Champaign and Urbana and some students. Others have traveled farther distances from central Illinois. Some have come from the East Coast.
Sebag directs an Urbana resident to grab the feathered end of his quill while he keeps his hand on the sharp, inked edge. Steve Scher grasps the feather daintily between index finger and thumb.
Seated next to Sebag's right hand, Scher looks over the scribe's shoulder as he slowly deposits the ink on the parchment with Scher's hand in tow. He's writing an "ayin," a Hebrew letter that looks similar to an English "y," but with ornamental dollops of ink on top, like flames on candles.
Like the other helpers, Scher gets one letter and a photograph to remember the moment: "To be part of the creation of a new Torah, it's not an opportunity you get every day," he said.
Scher recognizes the other participants from the area and acknowledges how the event has brought the community together. Everyone who has come is given the opportunity to help ink one letter.
Sebag, on the other hand, has inked millions of letters in 22 years. During the year he's been working on this scroll, he has replicated the story of the Jewish people from the creation of the world. He has been there while they were enslaved in Egypt, through the plagues and their escape. He has written through their wandering of the desert and when Moses was given the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai. Now he has taken them nearly to the border of the "Promised Land" of Israel.
The Torah is central to the Jewish faith, and Sebag's nearing completion of a new scroll is cause for great celebration. To the Jewish community in Champaign-Urbana, said Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, it sends a message during a time of strife and concern. When it's completed, the new scroll itself will last 200 years or more.
"There is a strong future, and the future is only growing," Tiechtel said.
Organizers are preparing a chuppah outside the Chabad center. It's a celebratory awning typically used in Jewish weddings, but its presence here is to symbolize a renewal of vows with the Torah. A block away, police have closed Green Street in preparation for a procession. The 145-year-old campus has never had its own scroll before.
Two women wipe away tears in anticipation.
Next in line to assist Sebag are family members of Bonnie Dayan, to whom the scroll is being dedicated. She graduated from the University of Illinois in 1978, and when her sons were preparing to attend her alma mater, she gave Tiechtel a call.
She left a voicemail asking Tiechtel what Jewish life was like at the university. He saved the three-minute message on his machine for a year before it was accidentally deleted. It reminded him of what it means to be a rabbi.
She died in 2007 of breast cancer, and now her sons and other family members are helping write the sacred scroll that will preserve her memory for centuries.
Sebag works slowly, letter by letter, while the crowd nearly holds its breath. He writes through the last sentence, then the last word, until he comes to the last letter: "lamed," a snaking character with a hook on the end. He thinks about what he is about to do: "Bringing Godliness into the physical world."
Dayan's parents hold the end of the quill, and her children watch close. One last dab of ink, and Sebag is finished.
"Mazel tov!" the crowd yells as they erupt into delighted song.
Sebag doesn't look up. The ink is still wet, and a smudge would ruin the moment. He leans in to examine his work, with his nose inches away from the sacred document. He adjusts his glasses to make sure it's perfect.
To him, the completion of a full year's work is "like giving birth to a baby," and the joy never gets old. He looks up at the singing crowd, and just one corner of his mouth forces itself upward as he cracks the slightest of smiles.