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Beachwood synagogue creates shofar choir to engage children during the Jewish High Holy Days

Beachwood Shofar Choir
Stephen Langel
Ideastream Public Media
Members of the Suburban Temple Kol Ami shofar choir give a performance.
Front row (left to right): Micah Nathenson, Larissa Newberry, Noah Mullen and Isaac Mullen
Back row (left to right): Scarlet Houston, Melanie Newberry, Jacob Mullen and Isaac Vann

The Jewish High Holy Days, including Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are a time of year that is both celebratory and somber. These holidays, which mark the holiest time of the Jewish calendar, can prove daunting for younger children, but Suburban Temple Kol Ami in Beachwood has found a way to include them with its children's shofar choir.

The choir, created last year by Rabbis Allison Vann and Shoshana Nyer, is made up of children ages nine and up, who learn how to play the shofar, a traditional instrument made from either a ram's horn or the horn of an ibex, a type of wild goat.

The Jewish people have been playing the shofar since Biblical times, using it as a call to attention, a call to action and a call to repentance during the High Holy Days.

Now this next generation is learning how to make the four shofar calls: T’Kiyah, Shevarim, T’ruah, and T’kiyah Gedolah. It’s not easy to make a sound on the shofar, let alone to gain the control over the instrument necessary to make the different calls. But, with practice, the choir members all are able to do it.

I say this as the choir's shofar teacher. As a trumpet player, the shofar perhaps comes more naturally to me, and so I was enlisted to help teach the choir how to play.

Ideastream Public Media reporter Stephen Langel practices playing a shofar.
Stephen Langel
Ideastream Public Media
Ideastream Public Media reporter Stephen Langel practices playing a shofar during his visit at Suburban Temple Kol Ami in Beachwood.

The members of the choir, including seventh grader Jacob Mullen and fifth grader Melanie Newberry, said they joined for a variety of reasons.

Learning to play the shofar and then performing with the choir during Rosh Hashanah morning services helped Jacob "to learn more about my culture [and being] a Jewish person," he said.

Being a part of the choir "sounded fun" and gave Melanie a chance to be involved during services, she said.

"It's just one of the only instruments that you could play for the Jewish holiday," Melanie said.

They both said playing the shofar was also meaningful. Jacob noted the sound of the shofar "signals the new year and the coming of … a new chance.”

Learning to play the instrument also brought members of the choir a real sense of accomplishment, with both Jacob and Melanie calling the experience "amazing."

Learning to play the shofar, "is really hard, but it's really fun at the same time," said Melanie.

Playing the instrument “was like trying to play a trombone, except a lot harder," said Jacob.

The use of the shofar originates in the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, said Vann. In the story, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac only to provide a ram for him to sacrifice instead when Abraham proved his faith.

“The shofar is used to announce the new year," she said. "It comes from this idea that God rescued Isaac, as it were.”

Vann added the shofar is meant to serve notice of a time of reflection.

“Waking up and connecting to the soul and really what Rosh Hashanah is, and Yom Kippur, is working on ourselves, to be our best selves," she said. "The shofar is this call to help ourselves be our best self.”

She explained while Rabbis throughout history have attributed various meanings to the different notes, the explanation for T’ruah, a series of nine short notes played in rapid succession, really stands out to her.

“Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom T'ruah, the day of the sounding. And so we know that for T'ruah … that there's this idea of brokenness … and with the high holy days, we're supposed to then come back and be whole,” she said.

Despite the importance, the history and the sense of accomplishment, both children laughed about the sound the shofar can make. Melanie said it "kind of sounds like an elephant" and Jacob added the shofar "sort of sounds like you're sneezing.”

In the end, Vann said this mix of learning and fun is what the choir is all about.

“We're just happy to have the kids be involved in whatever way … to meet the High Holy Days in a way that's meaningful to them," she said. "The Shofar choir allows for that to happen. And it was a lot of fun.”

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.