With the high holidays approaching, we asked a series of questions of the longest-serving shofar blowers, or baal tekiah, at Atlanta synagogues. We inquired how they got their start, what skills prepared them for the powerful responsibility of tunefully calling the congregation to attention, their motivation, how they prepare, and their plans for this pandemic year.
Included among respondents, you’ll find a pair of rams horn tooters who’ve been sharing the honor at their synagogue for 40 years; one who has played for two Atlanta congregations and was a professional musician with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra; those who acquired the skill as children; and two rabbis, one for 56 years now.
Many of the shofar blowers believe their background playing a wind instrument helped prepare them for their big high holiday moment in the spotlight, the long and final, mesmerizing blast, the tekiah gedolah.
What this band of tooters have in common is a deep commitment to inspiring their congregations with the sounds that emanate from their instruments. Their united mission: leaving listeners with a sense of awe – even if virtually this year – and awakening them to the importance of the holidays, to the possibilities of starting fresh in the New Year.
Dr. Stanley Fineman
Congregation Etz Chaim
How long have you been blowing the shofar and how did you learn?
I started in 1979 after joining Etz Chaim. My brother, who is ba’al tekiah in his synagogue in Boston, taught me how to blow shofar since we didn’t have a ba’al tekiah at our “new startup” synagogue. I recall blowing shofar at the old Cobb Civic Center, where we had our Rosh Hashanah services. When Allan [Levine] joined Etz Chaim, he offered to help with the shofar since he was ba’al tekiah in his synagogue in Chicago. We’ve been sharing shofar duties since then.
Do you have any special skills that prepared you for blowing shofar and continue to help?
I really don’t have any special skills preparing me to blow shofar. The only instrument I played is the drums.
What was your motivation and what remains your motivation?
I enjoy participating in the service, but my real motivation is the recollection of blowing shofar at the Kotel with my Dad in 1982 when we were in Israel together during Elul. I always recall that moment when I’m blowing shofar.
How do you prepare for the high holiday responsibility? For example, any special exercises for holding some notes so long?
I do practice the notes, but my secret of breath control is swimming. I swim regularly in the summer, especially before the high holidays.
Are you blowing the shofar this year? How do you feel about the pandemic’s effect on this annual tradition?
Rabbi [Daniel] Dorsch asked me to blow shofar in the sanctuary this year. We’ll only have the shofar on Sunday, so I will be the only ba’al tekiah since Allan won’t be able to join us in the sanctuary. Allan and I usually alternate the shofar responsibilities so I will miss hearing his shofar this year. We usually have all the young children come into the service to hear the shofar, so it’s a special treat to have my grandchildren there to hear it. I don’t think they’ll be able to be there this year.
Finally, tell us a little about yourself:
I grew up in Atlanta and had my bar mitzvah at [Congregation] Shearith Israel. I met my wife Judy when we were students at Emory. Next year we’ll celebrate our 50th anniversary. We joined Etz Chaim when I started my allergy practice in Marietta in 1978. We have three children, two daughters-in-law, one son-in-law, and seven grandsons. Our oldest son and daughter-in-law live in Manhattan with two of our grandsons, but since March they have been living in our lake house on Lake Lanier so we have had the opportunity to see them frequently over the last five months.
Ahavath Achim Synagogue
Your start: Rabbi [Neil] Sandler asked me to become the main shofar sounder at AA about 10 years ago when our previous shofar sounder, Dr. Herb Karp (z”l) “retired” from that task. I learned largely through trial and error but with the help of our executive director Barry Herman, who gave me the most important tip: hold the shofar at the side of your mouth, not in the middle!
Special skills: Having played clarinet for many years as well as some saxophone and trombone, I thought it would be easy to make the transition, but at first, it was not!
Motivation: As a congregant, I know that shofar is one of the most memorable parts of the high holiday experience. I know it is supposed to serve as a wake-up call to everyone, to make oneself better in the new year than they were in the year past. Though I get up in front of the congregation to read Torah and lead services regularly, at first, this was more nerve-wracking than any of that, because it only happens during one short period each year and you want the sounds to be loud, clear and strong, to be memorable.
Preparation: First, I borrow a shofar, typically from my friend and fellow congregant Sanford Bauman each year, around the beginning of Elul, since I don’t even own one. This year, due to COVID, I borrowed from the shul itself. Then, much like most things in life, it’s practice, practice, practice! That includes practicing the tekiah gedolah to make it last as long as possible.
This year: This year, much like in recent years, it is more of a team effort. Others participating include our immediate past president Mark Cohen, my youth director growing up in Baltimore, and former AA education director Steve Grossman, as well as two teenagers Tyler Avchen and Frankie Silverman, all of whom do a great job. …
Coincidentally, for the first time in many years, Rosh Hashanah begins on Shabbat, so there was not going to be any shofar sounding that day regardless. However, on the second day, we are holding what can be best be described as a “drive by shofar service”: people will come to the shul after services second day at staggered times, sit in their cars, open the windows, and listen to the shofarot.
Personal: Born in 1970 and raised in Baltimore. Moved to Atlanta in 1993, the day after Yom Kippur. I have been married for five years to Lori Finn, an Atlanta native who grew up at AA and whom I met at AA! She has two children, Maxwell (15) and Isabelle (12). I have two children, Joshua (16) and Jared (z”l). I graduated Emory University School of Law in 1998 and have been in active practice since 2000. I have also been tutoring b’nai mitzvah in Atlanta since I moved here, and with AA since 1995. I have been the baal korei [master of Torah reading] at AA since 1998 and have been one of the shlichei tzibbur [Jewish prayer leaders] there since 2010.
Rabbi Joshua Heller
Congregation B’nai Torah
Your start: I’ve been blowing shofar since I was a bar mitzvah, even when I was sure I didn’t want to be a rabbi. My grandfather was a cantor and an amazing shofar blower, and my father, a rabbi, also was a great blower, and they both taught me. I started blowing shofar in my home shul as a teen, and I’ve been leading high holiday services since I was 18. (Though only 16 years at B’nai Torah)
Special skills: I’ve spent time learning the rules, but my congregants tell me that it helps most that I am full of hot air.
Motivation: I want people to fulfill the mitzvah and be inspired. I also find it to be very meaningful in my own spirituality. When I am sounding the shofar, I offer up prayers for well-being for the entire community and try to offer forgiveness to others. For many years at B’nai Torah it was the practice that only the rabbi blew shofar because they wanted to be sure it was being done “the right way.”
About 10 years ago, I had surgery right before Rosh Hashanah. The surgeon begged me not to blow, so we got a number of our congregants to help out. Since then, I have shared the task with a whole team of people who take turns, but I’m the longest standing.
Preparation: I blow shofar every morning of Elul, so that’s a good daily warm up. I have had some lung problems over the years, but somehow they have never affected my ability to blow.
This year: Yes, I am blowing. In fact, I will be blowing even more than usual, since we are having live outdoor shofar blowing in the parking lot. I was involved in some of the early research about shofar blowing and COVID. I really hope that we can arrange that no one has to miss out on hearing shofar.
Personal: Rabbi Heller has been the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs since July 2004. He was the president of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association, was founding president of the Metro Atlanta Community Mikvah, and served on the boards of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and Jewish Family & Career Services. Within the Rabbinical Assembly, he served on the executive committee and as vice president of its Southeast region. Heller is a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the RA and was chair of its rights and rituals subcommittee. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in computer science but gave up a career in the dot-com boom to become a ninth-generation rabbi, the third generation ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Congregation Dor Tamid
Your Start: I have been blowing shofar for Congregation Dor Tamid since it was founded. Before that I was the baal tekiah for Temple Shir Shalom, a predecessor to CDT, since 1998. So this will be my 23rd Rosh Hashanah. I learned the style of blowing from our baal tekiah at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, Mich., where I grew up. I read up on the kavanah for blowing shofar in “The Jewish Catalog” I received as a gift from that congregation for my bar mitzvah.
Special skills: I was a tuba player in high school. But more than that, any tubular object around my house growing up became a musical instrument. I can get a tone from a plastic coffee stirrer. When our previous baal tekiah at TSS left for college, I decided that I could do better. I walked into Chosen Treasures on Lavista Road and picked up a short Ashkenazi style shofar and blew into it. I got a great tone from it. The clerk asked me how long I had been blowing shofar. I looked at my watch and said about 30 seconds. I now have a longer Sephardi style shofar. They have a much nicer brassy tone.
Motivation: I want every note to be perfect. Of course, that produces a lot of anxiety. However, if I just relax it comes out fine. I spent some time thinking about kavanah I should have in my mind while blowing. I want to represent the congregation well and help their prayers move higher. On Yom Kippur, I try to picture the gates closing as I blow as long as I can. Since I haven’t eaten, I usually see spots after I’m done. I need to be very careful walking down the steps from the bimah so I don’t trip.
Preparation: I have been very physically fit as I was a runner for many years. It helps with my ability to move a lot of air and keeps my diaphragm strong so I can support the column of air a long time. I start practicing in early July when our temple choir starts practicing. I’m also in the congregational High Holy Day Choir.
This year: Since we won’t be together for the High Holy Days this year, our service will be streamed. Rabbi [Jordan] Ottenstein and Cantorial Soloist Mike Zuspan have a creative idea. All of the people who have been in the Shofar Choir, which is a tradition we started about three years ago, will have a note that they are to record in their homes. These videos will be edited together into a shofar service so everyone will have the chance to continue their personal tradition of blowing shofar for our congregation. Very creative, but still we will miss being together.
Personal: I have been living in the Atlanta area since 1985 with my wife Mary Frances Katz and our two sons Adam and Joel. We have been members of Congregation Dor Tamid since its inception in 2004 and were members of one the two predecessor congregations, Temple Shir Shalom since 1991. I am a professional services manager and Mary Frances is a professional musician who teaches voice and piano both privately in our home and at a local music school.
Congregation Etz Chaim
Your Start: I started blowing the shofar for my synagogue in a little town in Pennsylvania at age eight, which makes it about 70 years that I have been blowing shofar!
Special skills: I started playing trumpet after the shofar, but it did help to some extent. I don’t even know where my trumpet is now, but I still have the original shofar that I learned on in Pennsylvania many years ago.
Motivation: I cannot tell you what my motivation was at the beginning. Maybe curiosity or a challenge. Regarding what remains as a motivation, I must tell you a story.
Maybe 10 years ago, when coming back to my seat after blowing an unusually strong tekiah gedolah [long, final blast] a member of Etz Chaim came up to me with tears in his eyes asking me if I was aware of how many generations of children I have affected by my doing the shofar during the high holidays. THAT continues to be my motivation: to stand on the bimah and look down and see all of the children “feeling” the shofar!
Preparation: I generally start practicing several months prior to the high holidays-usually at night.
I was surprised several years ago to find out that one of my neighbors would go out of their way to walk in the evening around the time that I practice “to get a head start on the holidays.”
This year: Because of the pandemic, in combination with my age and “at risk status,” I will not be publicly blowing shofar this year. Etz Chaim, however, has had the advantage of having two baal tekiah: Stan Fineman and I have shared the honor every year for as long as I can remember! On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, one of us does the main body of blasts and the other one does the last 40 blasts and we switch places the second day.
We have been doing this, alternating first and second day roles, for about 40 years!
Personal: I was born and grew up in Oil City, Pa. There were only 65 Jewish families, yet we had an Orthodox synagogue that became Conservative when I was about 16 years old. That was where I learned to blow shofar.
I went to college at Washington & Jefferson College and medical school at Chicago Medical School. … I met my wife Vivian in Chicago, have been married 47 years, have four children and six grandchildren.
I came to Georgia in 1976 to practice orthopedics in the Cobb County-Douglasville area until I retired in 2002.
Temple Beth Tikvah
Your start: I was asked by a Rabbi [Don] Peterman, the rabbi at that time of Beth Shalom, if I’d like to play the shofar. He gave me a small ram’s horn and told me which notes to play, and I’ve been playing ever since. I have been playing the shofar for well over 30 years, first with Temple Beth Shalom, now with Temple Beth Tikvah.
Special skills: I guess it’s somewhat easier to play the shofar if you already play a brass instrument and I play the French horn.
Motivation: I’m motivated by the fact that it’s a great honor and huge mitzvah to be given the opportunity to play the shofar and I never forget how it reaches the soul of so many.
Preparation: I usually start weeks before Rosh Hashanah to practice the blasts a few times a day to build up endurance and get the sequence in my head so I am more than ready for the holiday. The long note is always a challenge as the congregation looks forward to it. I’ve been told that many say their individual prayers during this time, and I am mindful of this. For me, if my setting is correct, lips on shofar and the note is steady, I feel confident the tekiah gedolah will be just that. While holding the sound, I try to go through all the names of my family, kids, their spouses and in-laws and grandkids while I play this long note. It keeps me focused.
This year: Yes, I do plan on playing the shofar this year. The pandemic will be a challenge for all of us, especially with very few people within the temple and much of the services virtual. Hearing the shofar blast, this year more than most, may be reaching deep into the heart and soul of many. Congregants either know of someone who contracted COVID-19 or succumbed to the disease and look for someone or something to center their fear and bring peace. Besides social distancing and the challenges of this pandemic, 2020 has been a hard year. Hopefully, with the blast of the shofar, 5781 will be year of milk and honey and lots of chicken soup, which always makes things better.
Personal: I belong to Temple Beth Tikvah. I have been a chiropractor in Tucker for the past 42 years. Prior to attending chiropractic college, I was a professional musician within the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and continue to play French horn within the DeKalb Symphony Orchestra.
Your start: I have been blowing shofar as long as I can remember; we always had shofars around the house growing up. We even have one that has been in the family for over 50 years that was from my great-uncle’s synagogue in Dixon City, Pa. The shofar was formed and flattened to resemble the biblical form. When the synagogue closed it came to our family. It is the hardest one to blow as it is a flat shofar with a tiny opening and it is a really high note. If you can make that one make a sound then you can make any shofar make a sound. In 2005, I was on a trip to Israel with my wife and friends and we bought a bigger shofar in Tzfat.
I have been blowing shofar at Gesher L’Torah since 2005 following the purchase of the shofar. It used to be that anyone who had a shofar would get to participate. In 2006 or 2007 the shul moved to just one. Myself and another shofar blower from the congregation, David Hummel, shared responsibility and eventually I ended up being the primary.
Special skills: I was an avid cyclist and collegiate rower so I think the lung capacity may have come from that but I’m not really sure. I try to stay as active as possible and I do think the exercise plays a big part of it. One year I was recovering from pneumonia and was still able to blow shofar.
Motivation: My motivation to blow shofar in the beginning was to see if I could blow the longest and loudest tekiah gedolah. … It is a blessing to be able to make the sound come out of the shofar so I am thankful for the physical ability to do it. But it is the look on people’s faces, … the way the Hebrew school kids silently cheer me on to have the longest tekiah gedolah, the way people just don’t move when the shofar is sounded, the way they are silent after the last blast, the way the sound hangs in the air, that brief moment when there is no sound but the sound of no sound. I can’t explain it but there is a moment that happens, and it feels like time stands still. I do it for those moments that mean something special to each person individually.
At Gesher L’Torah our building was too small and we had a caravan of pickup trucks taking the ark and reading table from the shul to The Standard Club ballroom. We packed in people to the ballroom and we usually sat in the back. As I was walking back to my seat, Reuben [Berger of blessed memory] got up from his seat with the help of a walker, stood up proud. I could see tears in his eyes. He shook my hand and gave me a hug and thanked me. Each year I would see him, and I realized how much this moment meant to him.
Preparation: When I prepare to actually blow the shofar, I close my eyes and think about my grandfather who died in 2013. He was born in Russia in 1918 and escaped to Israel (then Palestine) in 1920, eventually going to New York and then settling in Seattle, where I was born. … As I take that first deep breath, I feel him put his arm around me and say, “Ok Josh, let’s show ‘em what you got!” If you want to see his picture, he is now on the wall at Bagelicious in East Cobb!
Aside from exercising I do have a fun program I do with my seventh grade Hebrew school students. We have a competition called Shofar Star where I teach the kids about the shofar, teach them how to make the different notes, and then we have a competition for the best sound and the longest blast. It is not only great fun but I figure if one of these kids ends up at college and someone asks if they can blow shofar, they will know how to do it with style!
I also practice with YouTube and Cantor Benjamin Warschawski of Skokie, Ill. That guy is every shofar blower’s hero!
This year: I am blowing the shofar this year but it will be outside. This pandemic has made an impact on everyone and I hope that hearing the sound of the shofar being delivered over the internet or in person brings a special moment to those who need it most.
Personal: I grew up in Seattle and moved to East Cobb, where I attended Congregation Etz Chaim. After going to UGA and moving back to town, we settled in Alpharetta and joined Gesher L’Torah, where we have raised three children and have been members for almost 20 years.
Rabbi David Silverman
Congregation Beth Jacob
Your start: Since I was 8 years old (56 years – I am 64). My father brought home a Bartons candy toy shofar filled with sweets. The shofar was plastic and had one of those party favor sound makers that you blow through in order to imitate a shofar sound. A few hours later my dad noticed that the tip was broken and he was a little upset, but I told him I could still make the sound. I blew into the shofar and my dad’s face lit up. He was very musical and understood I could really play it like an instrument. He took me to Reb Maury Osborne [of blessed memory] who was the gabbai at Sinai Temple of Los Angeles and with a few words of encouragement I took a shot and literally blew him away.
Special skills: My dad took me to a music store where I tried a trumpet. I started in the elementary school orchestra and shifted to the French horn. I also went through a box of shofars at Solomon’s Book Store in LA and chose one that I practiced on for a long time. The practice strengthened my embouchure [use of lips for wind instruments] and that first year I was given the opportunity to blow shofar at the young people’s service in Temple Beth Am, where I grew up. I have been blowing shofar almost every single year since, sometimes in shul and sometimes as an auxiliary for people who missed it in services.
Motivation: I thought it was a special honor to be able to blow shofar, especially if I could do it pretty well. Over the years I became more aware of, and motivated by, the sense of responsibility connected with the mitzvah of blowing.
Preparation: Practice, practice, practice. During the month of Elul, I try to blow for several minutes each day; different notes and sometimes different styles of doing some of the sounds. I also make an effort to learn and review the laws of blowing the shofar and the meanings behind the blowing. It makes me aware of the awesome sense of responsibility of helping our tzibur (congregation) sweeten the judgment on Rosh Hashanah.
This year: Last year, at this time, seemed like a “regular” year. I took my responsibility of representing our community seriously and did my best to blow inspiring and appropriate shofar blasts, but I had no idea that this is what the year was going to be like; a pandemic that affected the whole world! So I am doubling my efforts, as I hope everyone is, that Jews all over the world will pray and hear the shofar (on Sunday this year) which will sweeten the judgment for this coming year. There is a discussion about requiring a mask on the shofar, because of COVID considerations and I am trying to respect that decision, but I think it will affect the sound a little bit.
Personal: I am a member of Congregation Beth Jacob, where I have been fortunate to blow shofar for many years. I am the dean of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel, married to Julie and we have children and grandchildren, some of whom practice blowing the shofar as well. I grew up in Los Angeles in the Conservative movement but migrated to a more Orthodox life before the end of high school. My wife and I have lived in Atlanta for 33 years and our children live in the states and Israel.
- Congregation Beth Jacob
- Atlanta Scholars Kollel
- rosh hashanah
- Solomon’s Book Store
- Sinai Temple of Los Angeles
- Rabbi David Silverman
- congregation etz chaim
- Gesher L'Torah
- David Hummel
- Josh Needle
- DeKalb Symphony Orchestra
- Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra
- temple beth tikvah
- Joel Margolies
- Allan Levine
- Congregation Dor Tamid
- Doug Katz
- Rabbi Joshua Heller
- Congregation B'nai Torah
- Ahavath Achim Synagogue
- Jordan Forman
- Dr. Stanley Fineman