A shofar blast from the past

Memories of a joyful moment and a pivotal mentor

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My favorite moment of the High Holidays is the final blast of the shofar--not just the sound, but seeing the intense emotions it sparks in both the congregation and the people performing the ritual. 

I especially love to witness someone taking on the role for the first time. There is no mistaking the anticipation and joy on their faces--and it is a visceral reminder of one of the most meaningful Jewish experiences of my own life. 

When I was a teenager, I struggled to find my place participating in community. I was late to Jewish summer camp and youth group wasn't for me. My Hebrew wasn't strong enough to tutor. There just weren't as many pathways to involvement in the 1970s as today. But I really wanted to find a way to contribute to Jewish life.

Then the Baal Tekiah who had long sounded the shofar at Congregation BJBE passed away, and I had an idea. I asked the senior rabbi, Mark Shapiro, if I could take on the role that year.

Rabbi Shapiro looked puzzled. "But you're a girl," he said.

"Yes, but I play the trombone," I said earnestly. "I'm in band."

"But you're a kid," he rejoined.

I shrugged. "So?'

Rabbi Shapiro looked at my thoughtfully. Then he smiled, that smile that went all the way to his eyes and shrugged back.

"Why not?" he said. "Let's give it a try."

I was elated.…until the enormity of the situation hit me.  

I Could Not Screw This Up.

In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, I practiced, psyched up, and practiced some more. And I prayed I wouldn't embarrass Rabbi Shapiro--or myself.  

The day came. As we lined up to process in to the first service, I suddenly realized I had not asked an important question.

"Rabbi," I whispered frantically. "How long do you want me to hold the Tekiah Gedolah ?"

He shrugged and said: "As long as you can."

I gulped. "But--"

"Just hold it as long as you can," he said reassuringly, leading the way into the sanctuary. 

The shofar service went by in a blur. Finally, I heard Rabbi Shapiro say: " Tekiah Gedolah !"

I took a breath--a deep, full, wind player's breath--and let it rip with everything I had.

As the sounds of the shofar filled the sanctuary, Rabbi Shapiro stood behind me and murmured his encouragement.

So I kept going. And going. I would not disappoint my rabbi!

Finally, he whispered: "Lin? Lin! You can stop."

After the service, I was still shaking with adrenaline and emotion when he came up to me. He looked me in the eye and chuckled, shaking his head. 

"You did say to hold it as long as I could," I said solemnly. 

"That I did," he replied.  

Then Rabbi Shapiro put his hand on my shoulder and said: "Ya did good."

It's a moment I relive every year, and at each stage of life it takes on different significance.

Through the rest of my teen years, I glowed at the memory of making my rabbi (and my parents) proud.

As a young adult, reliving that moment propelled me to participate more fully in Jewish life. 

As a young mother, I felt proud to have helped blaze a trail for my daughter.

Today, I just feel incredibly grateful for a very special memory and a very special mentor. Because I realize I wasn't the pioneer: Rabbi Mark S. Shapiro was.

Rabbi Mark S. Shapiro was the spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE) from 1962-2000 and served as rabbi emeritus until his death in 2020. 

Linda S. Haase is the Senior Associate Vice President of Market Communications for JUF.  

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