Two hundred people might easily fit in the sanctuary of Rego Park Jewish Center – but by 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, barely 10 have taken their seats for the start of the service. As the first hour passes, more and more worshippers filter in, reaching for the prayer books in their niche on the back of the seat. They join in with the service with varying levels of vigor as soon as they find their place on the page.

The building dates back to 1948: its main sanctuary is painted pale green and pink, with wooden wall paneling and unusual Art Deco flourishes, like the two spindly menorahs that flank the stage. The walls are lined with stained glass windows in purples and blues – names like “Sidney and Mary Sekula” or “In Memory of Anna Hess” picked out in white against images of hands, books and scrolls. Two round metal light fittings, gleaming like spaceships, hang from the ceiling. On the stage, two flags – Israel’s and the United States – hang limply to either side.

Rabbi Romiel Daniel stands on the stage and faces away from the congregation, rocking gently backwards and forwards on his heels as he chants in Hebrew. To his left stands the sexton, known as the gabbai, in a black velvet yarmulke. Occasionally, he will call out into the room: “Page 25! Please stand. … You may sit. … Now, page 51…”

A little over an hour into the service, Rabbi Daniel steps to the ark in the center of the stage. It has a purple velvet curtain, embellished with gold and edged in silvery beading. There is a large Star of David in the middle above some Hebrew text. He tugs on a cord once, twice, three times – the curtain opens. Inside, five or six scrolls are nestled snugly together on a shelf, up off the floor. The congregation rises as one and chants together: ‘ein kamocha baelohim adonai v’ain k’maasecha…” (“There is none like Thee among the gods, O Lord, and there are no works like Thine…”)

Four other men come onto the stage to help remove two of the scrolls from their spot on the shelf. The scrolls are the size of small infants: the helpers take them in their arms and hold them against their torsos, resting the wooden ends of the scroll on their right shoulders. One scroll is wrapped in an embellished purple mantle, similar to the curtain that hid it from view; the other in a plainer taupe cloth with a colorful embroidered pattern. The other helpers reach for a dazzling silver crown and a set of matching finials, decked with little bells. Rabbi Daniel takes one of the scrolls from the helper and begins to walk. The others join him, moving slowly down the stairs and in an anti-clockwise direction around the pews.

The men and women of the congregation slip gracefully to the end of their benches, ready to greet the parade. Before, there had been whisperings between them of the outside world (“So windy outside!” said one woman during the chanting, shaking her head), but now there is only the quiet repetition of “Shabbat shalom” from one worshipper to one another. Hands are lightly shaken, but every head is turned towards the procession, like a field of sunflowers looking to the light. The scrolls and the texts they contain may be the central reference and at the center of the liturgy, but more than that, they are at the center of the faith – to be adorned as treasure and, in turn, treasured.

The scrolls are paraded down the aisle: as they pass, people reach out with their prayer books, knocking them against the mantle as softly as a kiss. Almost every man wears a fringed prayer shawl around his shoulders – these too are stretched out over the fingers and touched against the scroll. Some worshippers simply reach out with their bare hands, and then bring their fingers slowly to their lips. They look enraptured.

The procession moves in a U-shape down one aisle, across the back of the room and back up the other, more swiftly than before, before returning to the stage. The crown and finials removed, one scroll is laid on the podium and the other returned to its shelf. The congregation sits once again.