By all accounts, Julie Chattler proved to be an extraordinary young woman.
But like some kids, those early years were hard. Her mother, Bonnie Chattler, described her as having been “a difficult child, about whom I really worried because she was so lazy.”
In June of 2000, to her mother’s deep surprise, Chattler enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and wound up turning over a new leaf. She aced her career development course (after reading 10,000 pages of independent study) and began racking up medals for meritorious service.
Within just a few months, 27-year-old Chattler was studying and working as a mental-health technician, in charge of the family advocacy center at Sheppard Air Force Base in northern Texas. She was quickly promoted to Airman First Class and was about to be made Senior Airman as soon as regulation allowed. Among other honorable medals and citations, she was selected out of 3,500 servicemen and women as “Airman of the Quarter.” Her superiors said she was on track for “Airman of the Year”—all this in her very first year of service.
Still, she made time to fulfill a life’s dream of traveling to Kenya, and she did so with her mother. The two had become very close. Bonnie later recalled that “Julie was never actually in Kenya. She was so happy there, I would say she floated right over it.”
Soon afterwards, back in the United States, she came down with a mysterious illness, possibly caused by a tick bite in Texas. Within days, she passed away on June 2, 2001.
“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.”
In January of 2002, the family was invited back to Texas as guests of the U.S. government for a special ceremony. The place where Chattler had worked was renamed the Chattler Family Advocacy Center in her memory.
Yet Feder, a member of the congregation of Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook, Ill., wanted to do something more 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.”
Older people or people with handicaps will be able to carry the miniature scroll without difficulty or fear of dropping the sacred object.
A Torah scroll, which contains the Five Books of Moses, is the most sacred object in Judaism. An authentic handwritten parchment scroll can take a year or more to craft. It is then stored in the ark in the front of the synagogue and read only during services.
Good Things Come in Small Packages
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 a little different: write a miniature Torah scroll.
With 248 columns of text written on parchment wrapped around wooden dowels, Torah scrolls can weigh as much as 50 pounds.
“So we commissioned an extra-small scroll,” said Rabbi Meir Moscowitz, the congregation’s director. “This way, older people or people with handicaps would be able to carry it without difficulty or fear of dropping the sacred object.”
Feder and her husband, Dovid, a nonpracticing rabbi, and the rest of her family members put together the funds to have the Torah written by an expert scribe in Israel.
That scribe, Yochanan Nathan, said the scroll measures just 30 centimeters tall: “It is light enough to carry in one hand.”
Nathan, who has written a number of scrolls and is the “go-to” person for Chicagoland congregations wishing to commission Israeli scribes to write Torahs on their behalf, said that this represents 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.”
According to Moscowitz, the Torah will have its own hand-built portable ark, allowing it to be used for ad-hoc services at retreats or other events. It will also be available for use at congregants’ homes during times of bereavement, known as shiva, when religious services are held at home for a period of seven days.
Moscowitz said he is “really looking forward to this Simchat Torah”—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 helpful for lifecycle events for people with special needs. “For example, just a few weeks ago we celebrated a bar mitzvah of a boy with severe mental and physical disabilities. 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 one,” he said.
Nearly two years in the making, the Torah is set to be welcomed into the Northbrook congregation on Sunday, July 21.
The welcoming ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. on the grounds of Stanley Field Junior High School, where the scribe will write the last few letters of the scroll. A children’s program will be held for those who want to craft their own flags to wave as the Torah is paraded across the field to Lubavitch Chabad. The kids will also have the opportunity to have their names written on parchment by the scribe using the same ancient Hebrew calligraphy as the scroll.
The Torah will be heralded into the synagogue’s new location at 2085 Landwehr Road, to be followed by festive singing, dancing and brunch.