September 29, 2014
Experience is the greatest teacher. 25 years ago, I worked as the youth director at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, under the leadership of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. Rabbi Lookstein, at the end of every major event would review our activities and asked what we could do better. He would write it down and then review it in time to make the following year’s event even better.
Last Rosh Hashana, morning prayers were called for 9am and we only had a minyan (a quorum of ten men necessary to start the prayers) after 10:30am. Last year, there was a large lag between the time when those called had to open the Ark and when they actually did it. While it had been considered a successful Rosh Hashana, I made notes to myself how to make it better. We needed a better page-turning announcement system. I needed a Gabai (someone to call people to the reading of the Torah). Perhaps the biggest fault was last year’s shofar-blower (me). I had never blown the shofar before, and while I did it correctly, it was a sometimes painful process for those listening.
This year I called morning prayers for 10am. By 10:05 we had a minyan and were moving through the prayer service. I had come up with a system to reduce to zero the wait before opening the Ark. The page-turning worked out better (still needs some work) and I got a Gabai. During my recent trip to Israel, I had the chance to sit with my Rabbi, Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon of Alon Shvut. He edited a special Machzor (the prayer book for the High Holidays) for Israeli soldiers and mothers staying at home with their children. He highlighted the bare minimum of prayers that needed to be said, what prayers can only be said with a minyan and which don’t need one. I explained to him that I had an entire congregation that was less than enthused with the quantity of prayers. We went through each page of the Machzor and determined what we should say and what we could skip. It was a significant amount.
Another innovation that we imported from Israel was to have a Kiddush (refreshments) to break up the long service.
Finally, and most importantly, we got someone new to blow the shofar.
We finished the first part of the prayer service at 11:30am and proceeded to the Kiddush as scheduled. The Kiddush was a great joy to the congregation and attracted many participants who socialized freely and unrestrained by an ongoing prayer service.
At 12 noon, we convened back in the synagogue, I gave my speech and then we heard the shofar. The shofar blower is a young man who hadn’t blown the shofar before for Rosh Hashana. He was concerned as to his spiritual suitability for the task. He studied the laws and consulted with multiple Rabbis. He went to the Mikveh (ritual bath). He prepared himself mentally and spiritually for the big responsibility of blowing the shofar for the congregation. I think he took the idea of Teshuva, of repentance, very seriously. He was completely focused. He didn’t talk or chit-chat with anyone before or after his part.
And then he blew the shofar. It was clear. It was strong. It was perfect. He didn’t need to repeat one note due to error. At the end of each series of blasts, there is the Tekia Gedola, a long continuous blast that seemed to last forever. The sound incredibly expanded with each passing second. One could feel the heavens opening up to hear the blast and our accompanying prayers. In all my years of attending Rosh Hashana services around the world, I cannot recall a more powerful, moving, spiritually charged shofar blowing act than what we just had in Montevideo.