One of the challenges facing any operating synagogue is the issue of who will chant the scheduled portion from the Torah each week. In some synagogues, Torah reading is included in the list of duties for the rabbi. He is expected to chant the parsha (weekly Torah portion) every week. In other temples, there is a designated paid professional assigned to read the portion each week.
At Temple Shalom in Colorado Springs, the matter is handled by a cadre of volunteers. For its size (245 member families), Temple Shalom boasts a proportionately large number of members who are capable of chanting from the Torah.
This task is not an easy one. The Torah is written by a scribe, in Hebrew, without vowels, punctuation or trop (the notes of musical chanting). The reader is required to memorize the aforementioned aspects of the reading.
The trop system used by each reader varies according to his or her teacher and the part of the country where the learning took place, although the basic trop groups sound similar.
The length of the reading varies as well, depending upon the portion of the Torah read that week.
Following a custom that originated more than 2,000 ago, some Reform and Conservative synagogues rely on a triennial system of reading. This means that only one third of the total parsha is chanted on any given day. The entire Torah is thus read every three years.
Gary Altman, who has been reading Torah at Temple Shalom for 38 years, is the longest-running member of the Torah reading roster.
Altman was introduced to the idea of reading Torah by his cantor at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles when he was nine years old. Cantor Abraham Salkov believed in teaching students this skill at an early age. Altman was part of a group of students his age who were taught trop and participated in leading services in their junior congregation on a weekly basis.
When Salkov was succeeded by Cantor Pinchas Spiro, the group was continued and expanded. The then teenagers read the Torah for the entire congregation during High Holiday services, using the special trop needed for that time of year. They also learned the special trop for Megillat Esther for Purim. Altman continued participating in these activities when he moved to Colorado Springs in 1981.
Temple Shalom’s current system of reading Torah rests on a rotation of readers who chant on a regular basis. The roster contains six people who read the triennial parashot about once per month-and-a-half. There is also a relatively new group of readers who pool their resources and divide the trienniel parsha into smaller sections (aliyot) for each to chant. This group participates every two to three months and consists of four members.
Harry Mellow is one of the readers for the bi-monthly group chanting. He became interested in reading Torah when studying for his Bar Mitzvah last year. Mellow enjoys reading Torah because he is “interested in reading in another language.”
What does he like most about reading Torah? Since memorization is easy for him, he feels a sense of accomplishment that he can do this. “There are lots of people who can’t do it,” he says.
Howard Simon is in charge of the rotation of readers for Temple Shalom, a task he has undertaken for the past 23 years. He recalls the incident that cemented his dedication to providing coverage for Torah and haftarah chanting:
During a Shabbat morning service, a person was called to read the Haftarah was absent. Simon realized that a system needed to be in place to cover the readings. He began to keep a list of readers and to “twist arms” to get people to chant.
He knew that prep time was needed as well, and a more organized system gave readers that necessary space to prepare for the week’s reading.
At that time, the reading of Torah was a task shared by two generations of readers. Currently, there is only one generation reading.
It is possible, says Simon, that in the future of Temple Shalom the Torah and Haftarah readings will have to be in English.
In the Jewish year 5757, Simon went to a class led by then-cantor Chere Campbell to learn trop. There were two students at first, but the other dropped out soon after the class began. Cantor Campbell gave Simon sheet music that contained the trop. Simon’s wife, Mary, transposed the music for his singing range, and Simon learned trop from this music.
Simon’s biggest challenge lies in keeping the coverage for Torah reading constant. At certain times of the year, when most people are on vacation, it can be difficult to find readers. One person cannot cover everything, he says. At the present time, Simon sends out an email with available dates and waits to hear from Torah readers when they are available to chant.
When asked what he enjoys most about reading Torah, Simon answers, “It keeps Alzheimer’s at bay.” He adds that “participating in Torah reading gives me a sense of community and a way to be present.”
Ken Behar is a relative newcomer to the Torah reading club. He became interested in learning to chant Torah when his daughter, Lauren, was studying for her Bat Mitzvah almost two years ago at Temple Shalom. The process she went through to learn her portion rekindled his interest in and connection to Judaism.
The first time Behar read Torah at the temple was on the one-year anniversary of Lauren’s Bat Mitzvah, the parsha being, coincidentally, Behar.
This first reading occurred 43 years after his last one, that of his own Bar Mitzvah. Behar feels best about reading directly from the Torah scroll. It gives him a sense of accomplishment that he is able to do what so many others cannot.
The challenge is learning to read without the vowels, trop and punctuation. His greatest challenge was learning two sets of trop, those of Torah and those of the Haftarah. Behar offers some advice for others: the same problem exists in learning anything else. Unless study is continuous, one will forget what has been learned.
He recommends that all Bar and Bat Mitzvah students be encouraged to read their Haftarah on the anniversary of their B’nei Mitzvah to keep their skills fresh.
Behar plans to continue participating in Torah reading once a month at Temple Shalom to help share in the efforts of all the contributors.
Simon hopes that the group of Torah readers at Temple Shalom will continue to provide coverage for this very important part of the service for many years to come.
As the late Rabbi Mel Glazer was heard to say, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News