Reading Torah at Sof

Reading Torah at Sof

Torah Scroll, Quill, and Ink.

By Michelle Schneider

My Hebrew education began when my nonobservant parents sent me, at my request, to Sunday School for four years, culminating in my Bat Mitzvah. Until I discovered Sof, however, I basically attended synagogue on holidays only.  Now I’m immersed in Saturday services, and, having drashed and led several Torah services, reading Torah has been the apex of my Hebrew training.

The experience also highlighted and reaffirmed the continual support, camaraderie, and sense of community I have always felt at Sof. With the help of Sandy, Dina and Gregg, I learned my parsha, though when I actually read, my voice quivered at times. Was I nervous? Yes, of course. But I think I was also suddenly in awe, realizing that here I was chanting the same verses that ancient tongues had sung for millennia.

Some time ago, Jack and I found a Judaica shop in New Orleans shortly before a special occasion for Adam Pack. I knew that reading Torah at Sof was a goal for Adam, so we gifted him with a yad. Unbeknownst to me, Jack purchased one for me as well, although I had no such aspirations at the time. Turns out Jack knew better than I did.

Yad In Hand

Torah and Yad.

By Marc Flitter

Several Parshas ago I was honored to read from the Torah at Congregation Sof Ma’arav. Asked to share that experience, my first thought was that perhaps “Jewish geography” might more appropriately be utilized to mark where such reading opportunities have been afforded rather than to share the neighborhood locales and designated public schools of one’s youth. On a turning globe it would be the Torah readings, each marked with an inextinguishable flame, that would hail my tribal claims. For what other endeavor could confer such a timeless bond?

The act of the reading itself, the two-fold tasks of first recognition and then vocalization, was no less memorable. Once, at Har Shalom in Durango, Colorado, when standing before the congregation, yad in hand, I experienced a Chagall-like moment as the calligraphic imprimatur of an unknown scribe seemed to dance, upward from the parchment, individual letters that I was then challenged to corral.

The conflicting claims of trope were faced, questions of melody before meaning and style over substance. The choices, although moot to those schooled in the Talmudic clues that uncover the purpose of those incantations, called for my attention. But unsure of such studied measures, I sought, in the familiarity of the interlinear translated text, the power of simple meaning.

Lingering as well was an astonishing brush with near-idolatry, as siddurim and tallit were extended to touch the adorned and silver-plated mystery paraded in anticipation of the reading itself. Who wouldn’t tremble with awe while sharing the deciphered narrative contained in that purposed object of the procession, honored to rest and then unfurled?

Our beautiful Sandra, with great patience and persistence, expertly hewed, from the unproven stone of my prior silence, fixed pronunciations. Under her tutelage the absent vowels and cantillation marks seemed to emerge from the Pali mist to settle reassuringly upon the sacred words.

Finally, as an initiate reader, enveloped in congregational joy, as if being bar mitzvahed once again, I proceeded in great relief, wished from strength to strength, to the relative anonymity and certain comfort by the side of my adored wife.

How I Came to Read Torah at Sof Maʻarav

Torah Scroll partly unrolled.

By Chad Teasley

As I read from parashah Tetzaveh at Congregation Sof Ma’arav on February 16th, it seemed to me that my Judaic education had come full circle. About six years ago, as I took the initial steps on my journey toward Jewish conversion, I visited Sof a handful of times at the suggestion of my friend and Judaic mentor, Dr. Dan Bender at the Aloha Jewish Chapel (AJC). Each time I attended Shabbat services at Sof Ma’arav, I was amazed at the Hebrew fluency and melodic harmony the baal korei exhibited during the Torah reading. Though I underwent elementary Hebrew instruction at AJC under the patient tutelage of Dr. Marilyn Landis, I was sure I would never be sufficiently skilled to chant the Torah.

In 2014, I transferred to Norfolk, VA, where I continued my Jewish conversion studies at Norfolk’s Temple Israel. On August 30, 2015, I entered the waters of the mikveh, and appeared before a beit din who admitted me as a full member of the Jewish faith community. Though my conversion experience was incredible, and I learned much from my wonderful rabbi and the synagogue family at Temple Israel, culminating in my adult bar mitzvah in 2016, I still felt that I was unlikely to ever possess the ability to publicly read the Sefer Torah.

After returning to Hawaii and becoming a member of Sof Ma’arav last year, I took Sandy Armstrong’s Beginning Hebrew class. As everyone at Sof knows, Sandy is an extraordinary teacher, who has a rare talent for inspiring her students. At the conclusion of the course, when she invited me to read the Torah in an upcoming Shabbat service, I was so motivated by her passion for Hebrew and Torah that I couldn’t help but reply, “Absolutely! I would love to do that!” A month and a half later, after several Torah trope tutoring sessions with Sandy (both in-person and on the phone), as well as a practice Torah reading under Dan Bender’s supervision at AJC, I had the honor to read from the Sefer Torah before the Sof Ma’arav congregational family. That was truly one of the great moments of my life.

Back when I started my journey to Judaism half a dozen years ago, and believed that I would never have the ability to read Torah, what I did not anticipate was the inspiration and assistance of Judaic teachers and mentors like Sandy Armstrong, Dan Bender, Marilyn Landis, and Rabbi Dr. Michael Panitz of Temple Israel. Nor had I foreseen the incredible fellowship and support extended by the members of Sof Ma’arav, the AJC, and Temple Israel. That support, guidance, and fellowship were what allowed me to read the Torah, and attain this tremendous milestone in the progression of my Jewish observance. For that, I will always be deeply grateful.

Chanting Torah

By Linda Lingle

We always feel a great sense of accomplishment when we achieve something we doubted we could—learning to surf, speak a foreign language, fly an airplane, or master a musical instrument. I decided to learn to chant Torah for the same reason you would learn to do one of the skills listed above—to prove that I could achieve something difficult. For a whole year, I had seen others, week after week, walk to the bimah, stand as the Torah was opened, and chant Hebrew words that matched the English I had read for the parshah that week. Some readers had beautiful voices and great articulation. The better they were, the more I doubted it was something I could ever do because I am nearly tone deaf. And, for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how they knew how to pronounce each word since there are no vowels in the Torah. And what was “trope,” anyway? It all became clear during trope class with Temple President Sandy Armstrong and my fellow students. With support from all of them, what had seemed unknowable just months earlier became another notch on my achievement belt. But this skill gave me so much more than bragging rights—it gave me a connection to my fellow Jews, at Sof Ma’arav, around the world, and throughout all time. The tradition of reading Torah out loud dates back to the time of Moses, who would read the Torah publicly on Shabbat, festivals, and Rosh Chodesh. Being able to chant Torah is more than a mere skill. It is a chance to connect to who you are, where you came from, and what your obligation is in the world.

The Story of Torah Trope Class at Sof Ma’arav

By Sandra Z. Armstrong

Studying Torah and learning how to read from the Torah is the greatest equalizer of a Jewish Community. It does not matter where you went to school/college, what career you have chosen, where you live, whether you still work or you are retired, who you like or dislike, what your hobbies are, what trope cantillation you ultimately choose, or anything else. What it requires is a commitment to go beyond your everyday life, that often contains a lot of minutiae, in order to clear the way to learn how to read, and accomplish the task of reading out of the Torah. This is our accomplishment at Congregation Sof Ma’arav in the last secular year.

Eventually nine students made the commitment, worked through the fear, and stood up to be counted as Torah readers. There really are no words to describe the beauty of watching a student stand up and read. A student that perhaps just weeks ago could barely get all the Hebrew words, a student who had to spend more time, more days to accomplish what seemed like an enormous task, and then the outcome is here, to stand before God and community in front of their peers and connect ultimately to heaven in a way that they never thought possible. The spurts and starts, the choices of an aliyah, the missed phone calls for help, and the phone calls for celebrations.

The practice times at Sof Ma’arav were after services. Gradually there was an increase in knowledge, in confidence, and in ability to learn the words without vowels. Adding trope musical phrases and conquering the fear of, what if I make a mistake? were the background to the day. No matter what was going on in their lives, or the lives of others around them, they took the time to sit quietly with God, in order to reap the benefits of becoming closer to Him/Her, and to ultimately become closer to the person they were meant to be on earth. It is in the process, the quiet moments of studying Torah, that an individual becomes a holy being. There is no gift greater on earth for me as a teacher than to be a part of the transformation of a student who begins this process of chanting Torah with very little background or knowledge, and then to hear and see with my own eyes the beauty of it unfold on the bimah.

Torah Trope Cantillation

Steps to a successful Torah reading class:

1). The first step is to organize a Torah trope class using “ The Art of Torah Cantillation” by Cantor Marshall Portnoy and Cantor Josee Wolff. This book is particularly helpful because each chapter teaches a specific combination of cantillation of the musical notes or phrases. At the end of each chapter there are examples from the Torah of the clause or phrase that we have just learned. This class is approximately four months long, every Saturday at Sof Ma’arav after our lunch in the Oneg room. Each student is also encouraged to look for trope cantillation on the web and come back to share with the class. In this manner, students are able to learn the current trope phrase in a manner that suits their individual needs.

2). The next step is to teach the musical notes that accompany the trope with a music sheet complete with the names of the notes and trope combinations. During class, I played the actual notes on the piano to confirm the musical cantillation.

3). I had not studied trope that intently for many years nor had I taught this class before, so it became a learning experience for me and everyone else. I had to prep each week and study quite a bit to get ahead of the students. I played the trope on my piano at home and set the pace of our weekly lesson. The next step I took was to send out a weekly email to the trope class to update them on what we are currently studying and encourage their participation along the way.

4) And here is when it got to be a lot of fun, when we came together each week and reviewed. Sometimes we had to have “therapy sessions” on the sounds of the notes and the combinations. Some people couldn’t sit next to others because it would throw their trope singing off. We laughed hard sometimes and we encouraged each other to keep going. Yet, this sense of learning in a community something so important and new became an exciting and enjoyable group effort.

5). The challenge then begins! I purposely waited a couple of months and then sent the email to the class with possible “short” doable Torah readings with easy trope cantillation coming up in the near future. I asked, who wants one and when? I set the bar higher, knowing the class was ready to take the plunge and actually read out of the Torah. Overcoming the fear of standing up at the Torah and reading an aliyah was now becoming an attainable goal.

The end result was a very high success rate of Torah readers. And we are still climbing. What happened was simply a Sof Ma’arav community effort of like-minded individuals who wanted to achieve a goal that once seemed too big to take on alone. As each former student stood up and read, this positive energy encouraged more readers, to the point that even some members of the initial trope class, who were on the periphery of learning to read Torah, came back in full force, learned to read, and have read several times since. In addition, members of the Introduction to Biblical Hebrew class decided they wanted to become Torah readers too. In my opinion, Torah reading is attainable for anyone with the desire to do so and the encouragement of a community. Now Torah reading by these incredible students is commonplace among us. Who would have ever thought? Will I teach another Torah trope reading class? Of course!

Todah rabah to Hefcibah, Les, Chad, Bill, Linda, Michelle, Tamara, Risa and Marc who showed me the possibilities of human connection to the Almighty with great joy resulting in the powerful impact of a community based achievement.

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