One the one hand, I understand synagogues which have "residency" requirements. My home shul does, requiring families to be members for at least three years prior to the big event, and the child needs to be enrolled in religious school (or a local Jewish day school). When an unaffiliated family asks the rabbi of a local shul to borrow (or even rent) a Torah scroll for a day, that's a Torah scroll that won't be read at the shul on that Shabbat. My shul has just two scrolls, and sometimes, depending on the reading that week, we will take out and read from each of them in turn. Even for a synagogue that has several scrolls, loaning or renting a Torah is a risky thing. A handwritten, Kosher Torah scroll costs tens of thousands of dollars to purchase, a few thousand more to maintain over the decades of use, and its loss would not be easy for a synagogue community to absorb.
On the other hand, I believe that no one should be denied the experience of reading from a Torah scroll for the first time. Because that first time can lead to more times, to more involvement in Jewish communal life, to more curiosity and a devotion to learning. So I've taken a different approach.
What if the scroll is printed on heavy paper, rather than handwritten by a professional scribe on animal parchment?
Putting aside the reasons a synagogue chooses to use a Kosher scroll -- keeping Jewish scribes employed (yes, that's actually a thing), keeping things real, whatever -- what if instead of honoring the scroll for being a kosher scroll, we instead honor the story itself? Then the mode of transmission doesn't seem quite so important, and therefore needn't be so restricted.
Now, I love the mystery of ritual as much as anyone else. I think that, given the choice between reading aloud from a Torah scroll or from a bound book, I'd rather read from the scroll. But as an Off-The-Grid specialist, I don't have access to a kosher scroll, either (and in fact, some rabbis are not super-thrilled with my dedication to opening more doors for the unaffiliated, but that's another blog post).
This summer, the family of a student offered to purchase a non-kosher scroll, printed on heavy paper and glued to wooden poles so that their child would have a scroll to read from -- and then, in exchange for a few of the lessons, to give me the scroll to keep for use with future students.
I was deeply moved by this offer and accepted it humbly.
Then, I set about making a proper ark for my scroll. Because even a non-kosher scroll deserves to have a place of honor. The story is still kosher, right?
So here's what I came up with. it's made from assorted license plates, an abandoned wooden planter box, hinges and other hardware that came from my shed or from a local house parts recycler, and some paint that was left over from my time at the bike shop. It took some figuring out, and some modifying when I realized too late that the box wouldn't quite fit the scroll (I too one end apart, rebuilt it and added a "roof" made from a license plate). But in the end, it makes a fine, and a wonderfully whimsical, "SO Portland" home for my little Torah scroll. I couldn't have asked for it to turn out any better. And I am grateful to the family whose bright idea inspired me to make it.