|Temple Emeth’s Carly Etzin honing her shofar-sounding skills at home. Courtesy Carly Etzin|
Teaneck’s Temple Emeth has not had to look further than its religious school graduates to find accomplished shofar sounders.
According to Rabbi Steven Sirbu, religious leader of the synagogue, his congregation relies on two alumna to sound the ram’s horn on the High Holy Days.
“The older of the two, Jessica Firschein, is in her mid-20s and does all her preparation on her own,” he said. The younger, 15-year-old Hillsdale resident Carly Etzin, has been working with Jessica and the rabbi to prepare for the holidays.
“Jessica was looking for an apprentice,” said Sirbu. “She did a class after religious school four years ago and drew about 10 students. Carly was one of them.”
Having sounded a shofar since age 11, Carly says she was inspired by Jessica’s example. “It seemed like a fun thing to do,” she said, noting it has been something of a challenge to manage her breathing. But Jessica has helped her master the skill.
“She said to practice holding your breath and sounding it out slowly,” Carly explained.
Last year, Carly sounded the shofar at both the main service and the family one.
“It was so nice,” she said of the family service. “All the kids sit on the bimah. It’s nice to watch them enjoying it.”
Having learned the importance of shofar-sounding in Hebrew school, Carly said she’s always excited as Rosh Hashanah approaches because “I love doing it. It’s a good thing to do for the temple.”
According to Sirbu, Jessica has been the shul’s main shofar sounder for several years. A song leader at the Reform movement’s Camp Harlam, “She brings a certain musical element to blowing the shofar.”
Sirbu said that in addition to good breath control and “the patience needed to practice until it’s right, a shofar-blower is like a place-kicker in football or a relief pitcher. They have to work well under pressure. They have one chance to do it right.”
The rabbi pointed out that shofar-sounding in his synagogue has always been done in the service three times consecutively after reading the haftarah. But this year, for the first time, the congregation will follow a different format.
Explaining that Temple Emeth is piloting the morning service of the Reform movement’s new mahzor, he said that “the re-envisioned mahzor pictures the service like a work of classical music, in three movements.” Thus, shofar sounding will now take place in three distinct parts of the service. “I doubt it will affect [the shofar-sounders],” he said, “though it might make it easier, giving them a chance to rest.”
In addition, the new mahzor adds shofar calls in two places they haven’t appeared previously. “There’s a single blast very early, before we declare ‘God, majestic one,'” he said, “like a trumpet announcing the king.” Later, in the prayer Unetane Tokef, the shofar will be sounded during the passage referring to the instrument-“And the great shofar will sound.”
Sirbu noted that at the most recent convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, held in New Orleans, “We spent a whole session being updated on the philosophy and goals of the book.”
The rabbi said that sounding the shofar “is a form of being a shaliach tzibur, representative of the congregation.” Therefore, shofar-sounders need to be Jewish and above bar and bat mitzvah age.
“They also need to be able to blow it well,” he said, explaining that the congregation allows children below b’nai mitzvah age to sound shofar at the family service “to groom younger shofar blowers and set them up as role models.”
Some of the youngsters, he said, view the sounding of tekiah gedolah, the long final blast, as a kind of contest.
“We’re trying to discourage that,” he said. “The point of the shofar is for [listeners] to be called to attention as members of the congregation of Israel – not to break some record.”