'Sense of accomplishment': Synagogue recruits 163 Torah readers from one Rosh Hashanah to another
The goal: Bring people back into the synagogue after the COVID-19 pandemic forced them home.
The plan: Encourage members to read the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
The reward: A cookie and a sense of accomplishment.
Still, that must be one exquisite cookie.
In the course of one year, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park attracted 163 people who read portions of the Torah in weekly Shabbat services. The Jewish year 5782 began last fall and will end at sundown Sunday as Rosh Hashanah ushers in 5783.
The readers range in age from teens to 86-year-old Gerald Lasin, who reprised the portion he read at his 1949 bar mitzvah.
The number is impressive. Most synagogues have a paid Torah reader and "a few people they can rely on," said Beth El "Team Torah" Committee Chair Michael Millenson.
"The fact that we have had volunteers makes Beth El different," said Millenson, whose wildest dream initially had been 100 readers.
"But the fact that we have this many people is extraordinary," he said.
Reading the Torah at Beth El as part of the Team Torah Committee's "Back-to-Shul Challenge" isn't easy. Each Torah is unique, a manuscript with Hebrew characters handwritten on a scroll of parchment or sheepskin that cannot be touched by hand but instead by a pointer called a "yad."
Readers, Millenson said, must read their portions in biblical Hebrew and memorize proper punctuation and the cantillation marks and symbols, or tropes, that indicate how words are to be chanted.
"It's a sense of accomplishment," said Millenson, a veteran reader. "You're reading from a scroll that's been around for thousands of years. The cantillation marks were designed something like 1,400 years ago."
What's more, experts stand nearby ready to correct readers should they stumble.
"Think if you misplayed a note in a symphony and somebody next to you said, 'You've got to replay that,'" Millenson said.
"The Torah, you read from the original script. It's not punctuated, there's no vowels, so it takes quite a bit of preparation," said Lasin, of Deerfield, a 50-year Beth El congregant and retired pediatrician whose reading this year coincided with the anniversary of his bar mitzvah 73 years ago.
There was precedent to Team Torah, though the cookies and team jerseys are a new touch.
Beth El founded its Ba'al Korei Institute in 1999, Millenson said, with the name translating to "master of the reading." Last year, as the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic faded, Millenson suggested a novel way to have more congregants attend synagogue in general and expand Torah reading to a younger generation.
Thus, the challenge. The Ba'al Korei name was changed to Team Torah because the Hebrew term was unfamiliar to many, and "institute" lacked youthful flair.
"If you're trying to appeal to young people, you need to appeal to them in words they understand," Millenson said.
Then, there's that which appeals to people of all ages: cookies.
Individually wrapped, the large sugar cookies had the Team Torah logo emblazoned in their frosting. A sticker on the underside of the wrapper had the name of a reader, whose name would be listed on a large poster board to note the accomplishment.
That fun touch, and the recognition it lent, helped the cause -- and led to more readers than expected.
Jack Gordon, a Highland Park High School freshman who has read the Torah several times at Beth El, needed no cookie to entice him.
"As a Jewish adult it is my honor and privilege to read the Torah in front of the community, and be a part of the community and practice Judaism," he said. "And it's even more of an honor to read the Torah on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur."