Agudas Achim and Tiferet Israel Gather for Unique Geniza Experience
Congregation Agudas Achim and Congregation Tiferet Israel members honor retired holy books and objects as the items are buried. Credit: Ken Nordhauser.
By Kelly Hall
On May 28, members of Congregation Agudas Achim and Congregation Tiferet Israel gathered at Austin Memorial Park on 2800 Hancock Drive for a geniza burial, fulfilling the important mitzvah of depositing retired holy books and other sacred objects into the ground with honor and respect.
A meaningful ceremony was led by Rabbi Neil Blumofe and Harvey Raben of CAA in the congregation's section at Austin Memorial Park. Religious school students, congregants and friends placed the many boxes of books and materials into a grave opened for this purpose.
CAA leaders set out with the hope that participating in this Jewish tradition would have a lasting impact, particularly on its students. Looking around at the faces of the participants, that seemed to be the case. Most agreed that burying the holy texts felt much more like a funeral than they expected.
Students and their parents picked up prayer books and haggadot they had never seen before. They were excited by the sight of copyright dates older than they imagined. Some even decided to bring a few books home with them. As the group prayed and laid the books to rest, the gravity of the ritual was apparent on each person’s face.
The word geniza comes from the Hebrew word for "hiding” and refers to an area in a synagogue or cemetery designated for the storage of worn-out Hebrew-language books and papers on religious topics, as well as some ritual items, prior to proper cemetery burial.
In Jewish tradition, the four-letter name of G-d is treated with utmost reverence, such that documents that contain it are seen as containing a piece of G-d’s essence. Since they contain G-d’s essence, when they become damaged or worn out, they must be buried in a cemetery, rather than recycled or put in the garbage. Until enough material is collected to warrant opening up a grave, the materials are collected in a geniza.
Historically, Jewish communities set aside a room in each synagogue exclusively for this purpose, and called that space the geniza. Anything from a worn-out prayer book to a contract written in Hebrew would be put in the geniza when it was no longer useful, and often ritual objects, such as a tallit or tefillin, were added as well.
Today, most synagogues have a closet or a box where they collect used papers and ritual objects. Contents of genizot are periodically gathered solemnly and then buried in a Jewish cemetery as a sign of reverence and respect. The last time CAA performed this ritual was 2007, and many in attendance at this event had never witnessed it before.
Tiferet Israel, meanwhile, had also accumulated a collection of books containing G-d’s name. Since the only way to dispose of them was to bury them, and Agudas had been planning this event, the two congregations merged their genizot and buried it all in the plot designated as CAA's permanent geniza.
Rabbi Neil Blumofe of CAA said, “Helping and having the support of the Tiferet Israel community was an important piece of [the event].”
It was such an important event for both communities. There is something uniquely moving about engaging with ceremonies that have existed for hundreds of years. All year long, CAA offers various opportunities to connect with Jewish traditions in meaningful ways — to participate in Jewish experiences, both commonplace and rare, ancient and modern. Whatever one's background and whatever one's interests, there is something for everyone.
The community is blessed in Austin to have Jewish congregations that support each other and join together on occasions of celebration, bereavement and holy work.
Joel Tendler, a member of Congregation Tiferet Israel and Congregation Agudas Achim said, “It was a good example of inter-congregational cooperation on this campus, and I look forward to more opportunities to come together to further enhance Jewish life for all of us.”
Both congregations are found on the Dell Jewish Community Campus at 7300 Hart Lane, Austin, TX 78731. ■