With renovations nearly complete on her Cherry Hill home, Noa Nidam needed a final touch before move-in day: a sacred mezuzah carefully mounted on the doorpost.
Her neighborhood in the Woodcrest section is among the communities here and across South Jersey targeted in the Cherry Hill Mezuzah Campaign. Hasidic rabbis are on a mission to make sure that every Jewish home in the region has one.
Following careful instructions from Rabbi Menachem Kaminker, Nidam placed the handwritten parchment scroll in a case to the right of the bright red front door at an angle in the lower part of the top third of the doorpost. She repeated a prayer in Hebrew:
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to affix a mezuzah.”
“Amen,” declared the Israeli-born Kaminker.
Kaminker, of the Israeli Chabad Center in Voorhees, and two other rabbis began hitting the streets this month in the ambitious mezuzah campaign, unique to South Jersey. They were motivated largely by the recent wave of vandalism and bomb threats at Jewish community centers and institutions in Cherry Hill and around the country. The Katz Community Center in Cherry Hill received a bomb threat Feb. 27, causing the evacuation of hundreds.
“This campaign is definitely in response to what happened at the JCC,” Kaminker said during an interview. “If people think they can intimidate us - we say quite the opposite, that we are proud of our Jewish identity.”
Nationwide, more than 100 Jewish centers and institutions have been targeted in recent months. In Philadelphia, 75 to 100 tombstones were overturned last month at a Jewish cemetery. Federal authorities are investigating the threats and vandalism.
Jewish leaders have urged tighter security at religious centers and places of worship. Lawmakers have called for additional federal funding to help pay for it.
Kaminker and rabbis from Chabad-Lubavitch of Camden and Burlington Counties and Chabad-Lubavitch of Medford, who are leading the campaign, hope to empower Jewish people concerned about their safety to rely on their strong faith through the symbolism and ancient history of the mezuzah.
“I think it’s a lovely sentiment,” said Jennifer Dubrow Weiss, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey. “When tensions and fears and anxieties are high, it’s a beautiful thing to give peace. I have mezuzahs on every door.”
So far the rabbis have visited neighborhoods in Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Collingswood, Haddonfield, Haddon Heights, Marlton, and Medford. They hope that other religious leaders of all affiliations will follow suit.
The campaign promotes Jewish observances and unity and can be embraced by Jewish people of all denominations, said Daniel Mark, a political science professor at Villanova University, who is Orthodox.
“It's such a powerful Jewish symbol,” said Mark, vice chairman of the United States Commission of International and Religious Freedom. By displaying mezuzahs, the Jewish community can send a strong message to those responsible for the threats, he said.
“It is possible that people with hatred in their hearts may keep doing with they are doing,” he said. “Hopefully with enough resistance they will be discouraged - one can hope.”
According to the Torah, the mezuzah protects one from harm and hate and prolongs one’s life. It is handwritten in the original Hebrew by an expert scribe, known as a sofer and based on two scriptures from Deuteronomy: “And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts (mezuzot) of our house and on your gates.”
There are special requirements on how the mezuzah is handled, including how it is rolled and unrolled. The mezuzah serves as a reminder to those who reside in a home as they enter or leave that they have a covenant with God. It also is a symbol for others designating it as a Jewish household.
Nidam, 39, an IT specialist, said she would never consider moving into the five-bedroom home without a mezuzah. The home, purchased several months ago, has been undergoing renovations. The family expects to move in soon.
“It’s very, very important,” said Nidam, a mother of three, standing in the foyer. “We cannot sleep in a house without that. It’s a blessing. This is what we believe.”
Nidam has several mezuzahs on doorposts at the condo nearby where the family currently lives. She plans to bring them to the new house and place them on doorposts inside the house.
“I’m looking at it as protection,” Nidam said. “I feel it will secure me from all kinds of things.”
Kaminker said the response to the campaign, conducted mostly through social media and email, has been brisk. Requests for mezuzahs have come from around the country.
“Any effort like this to remind people who their neighbors are is a good thing at any time of the year, said David Snyder, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Cherry Hill. “It gives an opportunity for conversation.”
Under the campaign, the rabbis offer Jewish residents a free mezuzah for their front door. If a home already has one, they offer to check it to make sure that it is kosher and offer to replace it if it is not -- if the letters on the scroll have faded or been damaged by exposure to the elements. The parchment is inscribed on one side; on its reverse, one word appears: Shaddai, one of the names used for God.
According to Jewish tradition, a mezuzah should be affixed to the doorpost of every living space in a house, excluding bathrooms, closets, and the laundry room. For now, the rabbis are focusing on making sure that at least the entrance has a mezuzah.
The parchment, or klaf, on which the verses of the Torah are inscribed must be hand-lettered by a kosher scribe. It is rolled up and placed in a case or container, which can be a simple clear acrylic cylinder or something fancier. A mezuzah typically costs $35 to $40, more depending on the size.
During a recent stop at a home, Kaminker checked the mezuzah and discovered that the words on the parchment had been obliterated when the house was power-washed. The mezuzah should be opened periodically and inspected, he said.
“That obviously made the mezuzah not usable and not kosher,” he said.
Abbegayle Morrow, a marketing executive, was grateful to have Kaminker stop by to put a mezuzah on the doorpost of the Voorhees home where her family has lived for about a year.
“It’s something we have talked about,” said Morrow, 34. “I thought it was a great idea, especially with everything going on in the community with the threats.”
Morrow said she had no hesitation about identifying her residence as a Jewish home in the diverse neighborhood.
“I’m proud of being Jewish," she said. "I am who I am.”
For more information about the mezuzah campaign, call 856-720-0770.