Nestled in a trendy neighborhood overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the recently-opened Center for Scribal Arts in the northern mountain city of Safed, Israel, appears at first glance to have been transported from the town’s ancient center. Its exterior, with its stone walls and broad archways, would fit perfectly in any winding alleyway in the old Jewish Quarter; a sign depicting a quill and bottle of ink – a tribute to the museum inside – far from updates the look.

But the center, dedicated to the millennia-old art of writing and assembling Torah scrolls, mezuzahs and tefillin – known in Hebrew as safrut – happens to be one of the most tech-savvy tourist attractions in the entire country.

Open for about a month, the Chabad-Lubavitch run museum anchors itself on four multimedia presentations shown to guests from a rotating and sliding stage. The programs combine three-dimensional films, animation and movable sets to recreate a shtetl-style workshop, and a scribe’s library and office. Among other things, visitors learn about how parchment is prepared according to Jewish law, and how ancient techniques have been aided by modern technology.

Soon, tourists will be able to watch actual scribes painstakingly etch letters with their quills, and workers transform animal hides into square tefillin boxes.

Rabbi Chaim Kaplan, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Safed who founded the center, says that the initial idea behind the complex was to create an institute where many scribes could work at the same time.

“We wanted to create a place where scribes could focus on what they’re creating, and not have to worry about marketing their work,” explains Kaplan, who also directs the center. “We will do that for them. We want it to be the largest such center in the world.”

The museum flowed naturally from that vision.

“We realized that if we’re going to do this,” says Kaplan, “we should really make a visitors’ center as well, because having so many people in one location engaged in the scribal arts” presents an opportunity to teach people about the holy art form. “It is a chance for everyone to see the real beauty of safrut and the continuity of Jewish traditions.”

Israeli Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger, center, was among the center’s new guests.
Israeli Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger, center, was among the center’s new guests.

Interactive Offerings

To get the project going, Kaplan reached out to a close friend in Zurich, Rabbi Chaim Ritri, who together with his wife Devora put up a total of $4 million to fund the center. Renovations on the purchased building began three years ago, and are still ongoing. Over the next few months, more exhibits will be added as space becomes available.

Public response has focused on the center’s educational and tourism value.

Israeli Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger brought his family to the center while vacationing in the region several weeks ago, and the Ministries of Education and Tourism have been encouraging schools and tour groups to visit the museum.

“The exhibits show the special way the Hebrew letters are written,” states Kaplan. “Educators love it, because the kids get excited about the alphabet and get excited about learning to read the letters.”

Among the center’s future exhibits is a multi-tiered sculpture garden that will lead guests through rows of seven-foot high shrubs and ornamental trees to 22 stations each dedicated to one Hebrew letter. Each station will feature a large sculpture of a letter, and images produced by Safed artist Raphie Malka depicting Torah lessons symbolized by that letter.

Indoor exhibits, meanwhile, include a game show-style quiz on the processes involved in producing Torah scrolls, mezuzahs and tefillin, and the various Jewish laws governing their use. Complete with electronic buzzers, the interactive show tests participants’ knowledge and offers a prize at the end.

Kaplan, who’s hoping to find additional partners willing to help finance an on-site coffeehouse and gift shop, says that he views the project as a way to enliven Jewish life in Safed, a mission he inherited from his father, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Kaplan, who arrived in the city weeks before the Yom Kippur War as its first emissary of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

“My father’s work, and now mine, is to help rebuild and strengthen Safed,” he explains. “Our hope is that with this unique center, we can continue to help revive Safed as a center of tourism, but even more as a center people flock to for Jewish learning.”