Who blows the shofar?

Who blows the shofar?

Two Fair Lawn volunteers talk about visiting the homebound, ram’s horn in hand

Willie Hochman
Willie Hochman

When we hear the shofar, we know that the New Year has truly begun. (Of course, those who hear it every day during Elul are already keenly aware of its approach, as are those who start their cooking early.) Nevertheless, the great majority of us look forward to hearing it in synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

But what happens if we are ill, or our children are sick, or the baby is napping, or we simply are too old or infirm to make it to shul?

Fortunately, there are members of the community willing, even eager, to help.

Rabbi Yosef Adler, religious leader of Teaneck’s Rinat Yisrael — whose synagogue arranges for shofar blowers to visit the homebound — says that “The mitzvah of sounding the shofar is central to the tefillot of Rosh Hashanah.”

“The sound of the shofar is the wordless prayer akin to a crying baby totally dependent upon his/her mother,” Rabbi Adler wrote in an email. “It is the mother who understands the need of that child at that particular moment. Is he/she hungry, in need of a diaper change, or just tired? So too, [God] hears our formal prayers and then the sound of our calling via the shofar and responds appropriately.” Those who volunteer to sound the shofar for people who cannot hear it in synagogue “are fulfilling a great mitzvah,” he said.

William Hochman — Willie to his friends — has lived in Fair Lawn for 35 years. He has blown shofar for the homebound for all but two of those years, as part of Congregation Shomrei Torah’s volunteer contingent.

“I think we were away for two Rosh Hashanahs,” he said, explaining the apparent delinquency. In addition to visiting homebound people, he also blows shofar each morning at the synagogue during Elul.

Like the shul’s other four or five shofar-blowing volunteers, Mr. Hochman is assigned to families within walking distance of his home. But, he said, it may happen that some years he isn’t needed. “Rabbi Yudin organizes it,” he said. (Benjamin Yudin is Shomrei Torah’s rabbi.) “The homebound may call in advance, or it may happen at the last minute.

“For example, a senior may not feel good that day, and someone will tell the rabbi. It’s not always pre-planned. All of us volunteers go to the rabbi after Musaf and he divides the list and we go off after lunch or before Minchah.”

And it’s not only illness that makes it necessary to hear the shofar at home, he said. “A wife who planned to come and bring the two kids may now find that the baby is still sleeping. There are all kinds of last-minute situations.” Depending on the circumstances, the family may or may not need him the following day.

Mr. Hochman learned shofar-blowing from his father, who, he said, did 100 blasts each of the two days of Rosh Hashanah. “I learned the trade from him,” he said. But, he added, he doesn’t carry on his father’s legacy of blowing 100 blasts twice. “It’s a special skill,” he said, citing the importance of “who teaches you and how they teach you.”

The shofar itself also is important. Speaking fondly of his “personal shofar,” he said, “I would be so disappointed if it broke or was stolen.” He bought his shofar in Israel. “When I was in Israel I blew 50 or more to test them.” He explained that once the horn has been cut off, “it has a certain size mouth opening. You have to find the right shofar,” not only in terms of the size but also the sound. He noted that if you’re more energetic, you might be able to blow a more challenging shofar, attaining a better sound. That wasn’t for him. “I wanted something simple, so if I blew lightly, the sound would come out,” he said.

Mr. Hochman, a past president of his congregation and a member of its board of trustees, said “community service is in my blood,” a trait he said he inherited from his mother and father. He would be happy to stay and chat with the homebound people he visits, he said, but “it depends on the situation. Sometimes you can tell if a person feels uncomfortable, so you don’t want to overstay your welcome.”

Mr. Hochman said that his volunteer work enhances his celebration of Rosh Hashanah as well as his belief in Judaism. “We’re a people that does right by our people,” he said. He particularly enjoys the reaction of children as they watch him blow the ram’s horn. “That’s my satisfaction,” he said. “Wide-eyed smiley kids.”

Pinhas Friedenberg
Pinhas Friedenberg

Mr. Hochman would tell would-be shofar blowers to “practice, practice, practice,” noting that even those eager to do it may not be able to. “They may want to do this, but if they can’t get out 30 sounds, they lose patience, huffing and puffing. It’s very frustrating.” Still, when the sounds come out, “it’s mutually beneficial,” both for the person listening to it and for the person blowing.

Mr. Hochman and his wife, Gail, have three children “and many grandchildren.” He now is teaching his grandson how to blow shofar. The shofar-blowing gene “seemed to skip a generation,” he said.

Willie Hochman and Pinhas Friedenberg are two of those volunteers. Pinhas Friedenberg has been performing that particular mitzvah since he moved to Teaneck. He wasn’t always a shofar blower, he said. Born in Israel, he moved to New York and a child. Then, “I played with the shofar but didn’t do anything serious.” That changed in 1988.

“My mother had bypass surgery and within five days, on a Friday night, she suffered a massive stroke,” he said. Rabbi Murray Grauer of the Hebrew Institute of White Plains “asked me if I knew how to blow the shofar. He said, ‘Maybe you can help us and we can help you. Our ba’al tekiah’ — the shul’s shofar blower — ‘retired, and asked that we find someone else.’” Rabbi Grauber offered to host Mr. Friedenberg for yom tov so that he could spend time with his mother and blow shofar for the shul. “It was win-win,” Mr. Friedenberg said.

Since he had no special training in blowing the shofar, he set out to get some help. “When Rabbi Grauer asked me to blow shofar, I reached out to the rabbi of Young Israel in Co-op City, Rabbi Solomon Berel, who knew a lot about shofar-blowing and he guided me,” he said. “He said, ‘I’m going to lend you two shofarot for Rosh Hashanah, so if you have trouble with one, you’ll have a backup.’”

That Rosh Hashanah, Mr. Friedenberg blew the shofar for his homebound mother. “When I blew it, I saw something emotional on her part. Unbelievable. It touched me,” he said. “It also started me thinking.”

Not looking to profit from shofar-blowing, he told a friend — then president of a synagogue in New Rochelle — that he would be happy to blow the shofar, but not for payment. One year, he said, he declined payment but asked that a donation be made to the cause of Soviet Jewry. On one occasion — only one, he said — certain lines he recited — “Min HaMetzar” — “From the narrow place I called out to God” — caused him to “break down and start crying. It became very emotional. The rabbi and others said they had never heard tekiah like that before. It never happened again.”

After his 1991 marriage to Doris Ehrenkranz, the daughter of the well-known Stamford Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz (z”l), he had occasion to blow shofar for two homebound people. One was a patient at a Catholic hospital. (“He said he was going to die but I told him I’d see him the next year in shul. After I blew for him, I saw him smile.”) The other was a blind woman, whom his wife knew from childhood. “Our son was a little baby,” he said. “She wanted to hold him while I was blowing. The tears in her eyes showed me I was doing the right thing.”

The Friedenbergs moved to Teaneck in 1992. The family joined Rabbi Adler’s congregation, Mr. Friedenberg told Rabbi Adler that he would be pleased to blow shofar for the homebound. He also posted his availability on TeaneckShuls, prepared to volunteer locally, in the Rinat Yisrael area. Now, 20 years later, with some 10 volunteers, the synagogue is able to arrange visits to people throughout Teaneck and Bergenfield.

As senior statesman, as it were, Friedenberg meets with other volunteers, offering help as requested. One early member of the group, then a college student, “now blows for the regular minyan in shul. I have a high school student now.” He noted that he doesn’t subject volunteers to auditions if it is not necessary. For example, if a young man tells him he blows shofar for his high school, he’ll simply call the high school himself.

“I hear from other volunteers about how people react,” he said, adding that some people feel they must write to express their gratitude and note the importance of the shofar-blower’s visit. Among those correspondents was state Senator Loretta Weinberg, now New Jersey Senate majority leader. A Chabad volunteer blew shofar for her husband at Englewood Hospital when he was unable to attend synagogue. “She felt she needed to share how important it was,” Mr. Friedenberg said.

Visiting the homebound enhances his own celebration of the chag, he added, “because I feel that it’s helping people, and especially meaningful for the homebound.” He leaves it to each family to decide on which day or days he should come. Most requests come in at the last minute, he said, and come either from the elderly, people who have medical procedures close to yom tov, and families where someone is giving birth around the time of the holiday.

He also tries to encourage other volunteers “to spend another few minutes and get a double-header, the mitzvah of bikur cholim. It means a lot to the people. If someone is able to be a catalyst in helping someone enhance Rosh Hashanah, it’s a blessing for him. I’m privileged to be able to do that.”

Mr. Friedenberg acknowledged that not everyone can blow shofar. “It takes a certain physical stamina,” he said. “Not everyone can do it. If you have breathing problems, you can’t handle it.” He noted, for example, that when one potential volunteer told him that he played trumpet, he knew he could “carry the air that’s needed.” On the other hand, someone recovering from pneumonia will have to see how he’s doing as the holiday approaches. “It’s really a lot of hot air,” he joked, pointing out that while shul-goers hear 100 shofar blasts, 30 blasts are sufficient for the homebound.

It goes without saying that Pinhas Friedenberg does not blow shofar full time. The rest of the year he works in the registrar’s office at Yeshiva University; before that, he was the deputy registrar at Touro College in New York. “He is nationally recognized for his expertise on student privacy rights and academic law,” according to the YU website.

The 74-year-old shofar blower has three grown children; two sons and one daughter. He encourages others to take on the mitzvah he has long performed. “Try it, you’ll like it,” he said.

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