In a grand celebration attended by hundreds of people, a slate of politicians and rabbinical dignitaries dedicated a new scribal arts factory and visitors’ center in Safed, Israel.

Kiryat Hasofrim – its name roughly translates to “Palace of the Scribes” – promises to both present Judaism’s rich scribal heritage and support a veritable army of scribes, who will combine traditional techniques with modern technology.

“This will be the first institute of its kind in the world,” declared Rabbi Chaim Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Safed.

The institution, which still requires some last-minute preparation before a summer opening, will feature a visitors center, garden, Judaica store and café. The centerpiece of the visitors center – aptly named Letters of Experience – will be a three-roomed exhibit that will take tourists on a whirlwind tour of the scribal arts, beginning with G‑d’s creation of the world through the power of speech.

A movie will explain the spiritual significance and history of each of the Hebrew alphabet’s 22 letters, while a three-dimensional show will illustrate how animal hides and plants become the various parchments, boxes and inks used in the preparation of mezuzahs, tefillin and Torah scrolls.

“The idea that physical things can attain holiness is a central concept in Judaism,” explained Kaplan. “The exhibit will show how we take the world around us and make it holy.”

A second room will contain an interactive trivia game that will solidify the lessons learned in the movie. The exhibit will end with an opportunity for visitors to try their hand at writing the letters on parchment, with a trained scribe teaching them how.

“We want to use modern methods to teach visitors and school-children about the commandments,” said Chaim Rittri, a 52-year-old attorney from Zurich who with his wife Devorah contributed the project’s funds.

Making the Ancient Modern

Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia, affixes a mezuzah to the new Kiryat Hasofrim, an interactive museum and scribal arts factory in Safed, Israel.
Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia, affixes a mezuzah to the new Kiryat Hasofrim, an interactive museum and scribal arts factory in Safed, Israel.

The factory operations will be decidedly technologically-based, as well, with supervisors scanning every parchment and entering it into a computerized database, providing a quality-control mechanism previously unknown to the scribal community.

“We are taking ancient artifacts and making them hi-tech,” said Ron Shtorch, the project’s CEO.

The staff will be hired from the local community, a feature Ritri contended will boost the underperforming Safed economy.

“It bothered me that many people in Safed do not have a proper income,” said Rittri, who sent four of his children to yeshivas and seminaries in the city. The scribes “will receive a good salary, and they won’t have to worry about personally buying the raw materials or selling their products.”

Said Shtorch: “The center will create jobs for waiters, secretaries, maintenance workers, and so on. And the city of Safed will benefit from the increased tourism.”

Among the many guests at the dedication ceremony were Rabbi Moshe Landau, chief rabbi of Bnei Brak, Israel; Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar; Knesset member Meir Porush; and Rabbi Yitzchak Yehuda Yuroslavksy, secretary of the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical court in Israel.

“I’m happy that the center will increase people’s awareness of the mitzvahs of tefillin, mezuzah, and the Torah,” said Rabbi Mordechai Siev, outreach director for Ascent of Safed, a Jewish hostel and learning center. “This will give them a much more personal connection and appreciation of the commandments.”

For Kaplan, the center’s May 22 dedication represented a fitting memorial to his father, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Kaplan, who was killed 10 years prior by a drunk driver as he drove to Minsk, Belarus, for a Torah dedication. The father, who in 1973 became the first Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to Safed, was delivering Israeli-made mezuzahs and tefillin to the Eastern European city.

“People don’t usually see how these items are made,” said the son. “This will be a place to truly build up Jewish knowledge and practice.”