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Nun says repair of Hebrew scroll helped deepen Jewish-Catholic ties

Mordechai Pinchas, a Jewish scribe, hands over a megillah, or Hebrew scroll, to Mother Xavier McMonagle of the Tyburn Nuns (CNS)

A British Jewish scribe has restored an ancient Hebrew scroll for an order of London-based nuns in a project hailed as an advance in “ever-deepening” Jewish-Catholic relations.

Mordechai Pinchas, a “sofer stam,” or scribe, returned the restored megillah — a scroll of the Old Testament Book of Esther — to the Tyburn Nuns in a March 6 ceremony at their convent in London.

Mother Xavier McMonagle, mother general, told the audience of invited guests that the three-centuries-old parchment had brought them together because it was “a biblical artifact symbolizing ever-deepening Jewish-Catholic relations.”

“It all shows something more than academic theological exercise,” she said. “We get to know each other as real people.

“You can tell there is something deeper going on. We are here because we all believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” she continued. “It is going further. We haven’t seen where it’s going yet, because that’s to be revealed later.”

The megillah was written in Venice, Italy, in the late 18th century and was donated to the nuns by Jordan and Lorraine Cherrick, Jewish friends who live in St. Louis.

Because it was in need of “considerable restoration” — many of the Hebrew words in the 15 columns had either faded or were completely illegible — the nuns sought Jewish expertise to fix it.

The megillah is one of the most important scrolls in Judaism. It tells of how Queen Esther and her uncle, Mordechai, saved the Jews from total extermination at the hands of the wicked Haman, royal adviser to King Ahasuerus of Persia, who cast purim (lots) to decide on which date he would annihilate them all. The fasting, prayer and courageous intervention of Esther saved the Jews, and Haman perished instead on the same gallows he had built for them.

Today it is a requirement of the Jewish people that they all should hear the megillah read from a kosher scroll before they feast at Purim, which this year begins March 15.

Mother McMonagle told the audience that “Esther has remained very powerful in Catholic Christian religion, devotion and spirituality as a symbol, an image and a model of powerful intercession with God to change the course of human events from bad to good. Anybody from the Jewish race should be proud of that.”

The story of Esther, she added, is “a reminder of the horror of genocide in our own historical times — the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda and others. The need for Esther’s example is ever present in our minds, whether we are Christians or Jews. Esther is a memorial, a living point of confidence that God can change things for the better, and he can do it even by working miracles.”

Mordechai, whose English name is Marc Michaels, told the audience that the restoration was an “interfaith scribal adventure.” He said it “was not a job that I would normally have expected to have done” but that it was a “real honor” to undertake.

“I never thought I would go to a convent quite so much in my life, but it really was very, very special,” he said.

He added that he first he had to offer to buy the scroll from the nuns, because Jewish law dictates that such sacred items should not be in the possession of gentiles.

Once the nuns refused to sell it, he could begin restoration work, which involved the use of traditional materials, such as animal fiber thread for stitching and tools, such as quills and reeds, to make it kosher.

Mordechai said he filled holes in the megillah by dying materials with tea and pasting them into the scroll.

The Tyburn Nuns are a Benedictine order formally called the Adorers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Montmartre. They are commonly called the Tyburn Nuns because their motherhouse stands next to the site of the Tyburn gallows, upon which 105 canonized or beatified Catholic martyrs of the Reformation era were executed.