The prayers of the world might be focused on Haiti, but Jewish tradition says God was paying special attention yesterday to a little rowhouse synagogue on South Fourth Street.
"May all your prayers be answered," Torah scribe Menachem Youlus said each time he extended his ink-stained hand to the men and women departing the open Torah scroll at Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel.
More than 50 had come to ritually ink in a letter of the restored scroll, but few seemed prepared for the emotion of the moment. "I still have tears in my eyes," said Howard Sorkin, 64. "This is something I will never forget."
Two years ago, the city had condemned crumbling Shivtei Yeshuron - the last of the hundreds of Orthodox neighborhood shuls that once dotted South Philadelphia - for demolition.
Yesterday, however, members and friends of the little synagogue, with its flaking, stamped-tin walls and ceiling, were celebrating its new future by inking the final letters of their restored, 97-year-old Torah.
While inking ceremonies are a tradition when a synagogue gets a new scroll, the honor of lettering in the last words typically goes to the rabbi or congregation president.
But like most of the immigrant rowhouse synagogues of a century ago, Shivtei Yeshuron, founded in 1876, does not have its own rabbi. And so it allowed any adult Jew who came through the doors yesterday to step up to the bimah, or Torah platform, and take up Youlus' quill pen.
"First you have to wash your hands," synagogue president Rich Sisman explained as people arrived, pointing them to a sink and instructing them in the short hand-washing prayer.
Sisman helped raise the funds to rebuild a crumbling outbuilding at the back of the synagogue that spared it from condemnation.
Most of its members are not Orthodox, said Sisman, a fiber-optics designer. But the congregation keeps it so to honor all the Orthodox shuls, now vanished, that were once the heart of the city's immigrant Jewish life.
In groups of four they stepped up to the elevated bimah at the center of the sanctuary.
Youlus, a Torah scribe, or sofer, from Wheaton, Md., invited them to simultaneously clutch the quill: a short feather whose central shaft was sharpened to a point.
"You're all scribes now," he told them, only half in jest, and then instructed them in the solemnity of the moment that awaited.
"By writing just one letter in this Torah, it becomes yours."
But this was no ordinary mitzvah, or good deed, Youlus continued.
"This is the highest form of charity. When you fill in your letter you will have God's undivided attention.
"Even with all the six and a half billion people in the world, God will be listening at that moment only to your prayers. And so you can change the world.
"You can ask God for peace in the Middle East," he said. "You can ask for an end to world hunger. And if there is someone you know who is deceased, you can ask God to move that person's soul closer to him."
"This is your one opportunity to change things," Youlus said, grinning broadly. "You get to play God. And there's nothing wrong with playing God."
He then invited each person to come forward and state his or her first name in Hebrew, hold the quill with him, and say: "I'm doing this for the good deed of lettering the Torah" or, in Hebrew, leshem mitzvat ketevat sefer Torah.
Crouching over the open scroll, Youlus guided the person's hand to a Hebrew letter of the Torah that he had outlined during the restoration but had not fully inked.
As the person held the back of the quill, Youlus, holding the front, would then ink in the letter. After both stood upright he would extend his hand. "May all your prayers be answered."
The youngest "scribe" of the day was Alex Berger of Northeast Philadelphia, 22. The oldest, lifelong South Philadelphia resident Sam Blyweiss, was 93.
"Oh, my God," said Herb Chilnik, 73, as he stepped up the bimah around 2 p.m. "I was bar mitzvahed here - what? Sixty years ago. And it still looks the same. I can feel my father here," he said, pointing to a pew in the front. "That's where he always sat."
After each inking of a letter with Youlus' help, a member of the congregation recorded in a notebook the precise chapter, verse, line, and letter - an aleph, or lamed, or shin, or resh - that each person filled in.
One of the many women who lettered the Torah also said she felt overwhelmed by the occasion.
"Just being allowed, as a woman, to do something like this was an honor, a thrill," said a woman who gave her name only as Phyllis.
After identifying the exact letter - a tau - she had inked, she pulled open an English translation of her Torah portion and studied it closely.
It was Genesis 1:2. "Now the Earth was unformed and void," she read.
"From now on," she said, "that's going to be my verse."