On a recent morning walk in the neighborhood, my wife and I approached a street corner where about a dozen people seemed to be waiting for someone. We were mildly curious but kept walking. Just after we crossed the street, we heard a familiar sound — the long blast of the shofar — and we recognized Barry Dov Katz, rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale (CSAIR), shofar in hand, waving to us.
Intrigued, I later learned that Rabbi Katz has been visiting different local neighborhoods to offer up this mitzvah during this month of Elul, when it is traditional to sound the shofar each day (except Shabbat) leading up to the High Holidays.
I checked the schedule of the rabbi’s rounds in his synagogue’s bulletin and caught up with him last Sunday at a street corner a few blocks from my apartment. It was his third shofar stop of the afternoon, and more than two dozen people were there for the occasion. Rabbi Katz soon arrived, thanked everyone for coming out and shared “a little Torah” before allowing us to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar sounded.
He first explained that he is regularly tested for Covid and pointed out that he covers the large opening of the shofar with a mask to minimize the chance of our breathing infectious particles. He tweaked his brief homiletic message, describing the sequence of the various kind of shofar sounds, to fit this coronavirus moment.
The initial tekiyah, the rabbi said, can be thought of as one steady note that represents the normalcy of our pre-Covid lives. It’s followed by shevarim, three short notes that indicate the initial disruption to our daily routine, and then comes t’ruah – nine abrupt notes that conjure up shards, a shattering of our conventional existence, that has followed.
But perhaps we can take solace, the rabbi said, in the final tekiya g’dolah, the single long blast that reminds us that order, and our hopes for the future, will be restored in the end.
“The sounds of the shofar have a way of reaching people in a very deep place.” — Rabbi Barry Dov Katz
With that, he put the shofar to his lips and sounded the notes as we watched and listened. Then he thanked us again and wished us all a Shanah Tovah as the group dispersed.
In all, the encounter was less than four minutes, but I found it all quite moving – the rabbi’s seizing the chance to reach out to the wider community; the opportunity for people to come together out of doors in this time of social distancing to share in a mitzvah; and the imagery of the shofar’s notes reflecting our frailty and fears as well as our faith in the future.
Walking home, I thought back to my childhood, when my father, the town’s only rabbi, would blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana in a sanctuary that, unlike services throughout the year, was filled to capacity. I recalled the congregational recitation in Hebrew, and then in English: “Heed ye the sound of the shofar, the blast that is blown, O my people.” And then the powerful silence of anticipation as my father adjusted the shofar to his lips. In all the years since, I’ve never heard such clear, piercing notes.
“A kind of love”
When I spoke to Rabbi Katz the next day to learn how he came to his Pied Piper role, I found out that his powerful commitment to the mitzvah of shofar goes back to childhood.
“I’ve always loved the shofar,” he said, tracing his affection to discovering instructions for making a shofar in “The Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit,” a book that he received for his bar mitzvah. He was hooked and started looking for a ram’s horn. No easy task, though. “I called every kosher butcher in Philadelphia,” the rabbi recalled, “and I tried the zoo. No luck, but then I thought of the veterinarian school at the University of Pennsylvania, and sure enough, they had two ram’s horns.”
He brought them home and boiled them for days, causing neighbors to complain about the foul smell in the area. But the future rabbi prevailed, made his own shofar and blew it at services at the end of Yom Kippur – a tale that was reported in the local Jewish newspaper.
Rabbi Katz still has the shofar, though he favors another that produces a better sound.
Shofar is “a mitzvah that transports people,” he observed. “It’s a kind of love not expressed in words.”
The rabbi had never made the rounds with his shofar during Elul before, but with Covid upsetting normal routines, he felt that bringing the shofar with him in the community might bring comfort to those dealing with anxieties, including those who will be spending the High Holidays this year without family.
Sometimes only one or two people show up for his shofar-blowing appearance, he said; at other times, as many as 30.
“I did it on a lark,” Rabbi Katz acknowledged. “I figured it’s something that can be done outside, it just takes a few minutes, and I get to see people. It’s been so sweet for me as a rabbi to be meeting congregants again. And I know that the sounds of the shofar have a way of reaching people in a very deep place, opening them up to feelings they’ve held in these last few months.”
The rabbi said he was proud of the level of cooperation among Riverdale synagogues, whose clergy often work together despite denominational differences. This Rosh Hashanah congregational leaders are planning a joint effort to provide shofar-blowing opportunities out of doors in various parts of the community.
“What’s exciting about this year,” Rabbi Katz said, “is that we are using familiar rituals to push out the walls and make Judaism expansive” – a most welcome effort to counter what he describes as “all that’s keeping us apart.”
Gary Rosenblatt is The Jewish Week’s editor at large. Contact him at Gary@jewishweek.org.