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Brooklyn's Crowd-Funded Torah Channels Internet Giving Into Ancient Text

By Sonja Sharp | July 24, 2013 8:32am
 Friends in Crown Heights fund a new Torah in memory of Kazi Benjamin.
Kazi Benjamin's Torah
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CROWN HEIGHTS — For Jews, every letter in the Torah is sacred. For $18, a sacred letter in Kazi Benjamin's Torah can be yours.  

That's the idea behind a new crowd-funded Torah commissioned by a small synagogue in Crown Heights to honor the beloved Benjamin in the wake of his sudden death at age 25. 

"I think it’s actually really, really nice, because he was a single guy, he passed away without any children, and I worry that no one will ever remember him once I'm gone and my family is gone," said Kazi's mom Sarah Benjamin. "Now there’s something to remember him by."

Kazi's Torah is one of the most popular Brooklyn projects on Indiegogo — the same crowd-funding site Humans of New York used to help send kids to camp in the wake of its much publicized photo-license flap with DKNY.

"In our culture and Jewish tradition, it's a great honor to have a Torah written in memory of someone," said pal Mosheh Poltorak, who helped spearhead the plan in the days after Benjamin's death. "We decided to do an Indiegogo, which hasn’t been done before."

At first blush, Indiegogo might seem like a strange place to seek funding for an ancient religious text, competing for donor dollars against rock bands and independent films. 

But it's a place friends and family said the fun-loving Benjamin — an avid musician who is one of 10 siblings— would have been perfectly comfortable. 

"If you look at photographs, he’s smiling in every single one, even ones that have caught him off guard," said Kazi's father Anthony Benjamin. "If you speak to any of his friends, they say how everything lit up when he came into a room."

Despite Kazi's popularity, the nearly $40,000 required to produce a Torah proved prohibitive for the small Itchke's Shtiebel congregation and its mostly young members.

"We came together and said, let's get it done for the second anniversary of his passing," Poltorak said. "It took us two years to get the first $18,000 and a week to get the next $13,000." 

Having already exceeded their Indiegogo goal, the friends now hope they can raise the rest of the funds to pay for Kazi's Torah before it is dedicated on the anniversary of his death next month, marking two years since he died suddenly in his sleep after going to bed with flu-like symptoms.

"The impetus was there and enough people were connected to him that they thought they could really pull it off," Anthony Benjamin said. "It’s an enormous amount of money [to write a Torah] — we’ve raised a bunch of money but we need the last few thousand dollars."