In spring of 2001, Airman First Class Julie Marlene Chattler was flying high. She had just returned from a trip to Africa with her mother and was looking forward to advancing her career with the U.S. Air Force, where she was working in family services.
Then she came down with a mysterious illness, and within days, she was gone.
"It was devastating," said her aunt, Esther Feder, "She had a full military funeral with a 21-gun salute and everything, but it was so sudden, we were all in shock."
Feder, a member of the Jewish congregation Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook, wanted to do something meaningful to perpetuate her niece's memory.
"Someone told me that they had commissioned a Torah in memory of a family member who had no children, and I thought this would be such a beautiful way to keep my niece's memory alive," she said. "She had been active at the temple on her base, and Judaism was important to her. When the Torah would be read at services, it would be to her eternal credit."
A Torah scroll, which contains the Five Books of Moses, is the most sacred object in Judaism. An authentic handwritten parchment scroll can take up to a year to craft. It is then stored in the ark in the front of the synagogue and read only during services.
Feder approached Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, senior rabbi of Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook with her idea. Since his synagogue already had three Torah scrolls, the maximum that a congregation would ever need to use at once, they decided to do something special: Write a miniature, light Torah scroll.
With 248 columns of text written on parchment wrapped around wooden dowels, Torah scrolls can weigh as much as 50 pounds.
"We commissioned an extra small scroll. This way older people or people with handicaps would be able to carry it without difficulty or fear of dropping the sacred object," says Rabbi Meir Moscowitz, the congregation's director.
Feder, together with her husband David, who is a nonpracticing rabbi, and the rest of her family members, put together the money to have the Torah written by an expert scribe in Israel.
Scribe Yochanan Nathan said the scroll measures just 30 cm tall.
"It is light enough to carry in one hand," he said.
Nathan, who has written a number of scrolls and is the go-to person for Chicago-area congregations wishing to commission Israeli scribes to write Torahs on their behalf, said that this is the first time he had secured a Torah of such small proportions, "It is unusual in Chicago, and it will really be a boon for those who can't handle a regular full-size Torah," he said.
According to Moscowitz, the Torah will have its own unique hand-built portable ark, allowing it to be used for ad hoc services at retreats or other events. It will also be available to be used at congregants' homes during times of bereavement, known as shiva, when the synagogue services are held at home for seven days.
"I am really looking forward to this Simchat Torah," said Moscowitz, referring to the fall holiday when Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and danced around the sanctuary. "There are some older people who have not had the chance to hold a scroll in years, and this will be really special for them."
He also envisions the Torah being useful to people with special needs.
"Just a few weeks ago we celebrated a bar mitzvah of a boy with severe mental and physical disabilities," Moscowitz said. "He held a large Torah together with a friend. With this smaller, lighter Torah, someone like him will be able to carry it all alone, which is very significant.
"We hope that this special Torah will bring added meaning and joy to so many who would otherwise not be able to have access to a real Torah scroll," he said.
Nearly two years in the making, the Torah will be welcomed into the Northbrook congregation on Sunday, July 21.
Starting at 11 a.m., the welcoming ceremony will begin outdoors on the grounds of Stanley Field Junior High School, 3131 Techny Road, where the scribe will write the last few letters of the scroll. At the same time, there will be special programs for children who will craft their own ornate flags to wave as the scroll is paraded across the field to Lubavitch Chabad.
They will also have the opportunity to have their names written on parchment by the scribe using the same ancient Hebrew calligraphy as the scroll. After the Torah is paraded into the synagogue's new location at 2095 Landwehr Road, festive singing and dancing will be followed by a brunch.
For more information, call the synagogue office at (847) 564-8770 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The general public is invited to participate.