The tradition of reading the Torah out loud dates back to the time of Moses, who would read the Torah publicly on Shabbat and at festivals and Rosh Chodesh. But like most traditions that are thousands of years old, congregants at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, CA, were feeling a bit intimidated by the practice and the number of brave congregants reading at each Shabbat had dwindled—to just seven to 10 regular readers.
Cantor Daniel Friedman and the clergy at Temple Ramat Zion took note of this challenge two years ago and set out to change it. The resulting program—the Yad Squad—has done just that in an innovative way and even received a distinguished 2017 Solomon Schecter Award, designed to recognize initiatives that shape an authentic and dynamic experience of Conservative Judaism, for excellence in the advancement of Torah and T’fillah.
Before developing this program, Cantor Friedman had started to reach out and ask congregants who came to Shabbat to read. He noticed some unexpected faces stepping forward, such as elderly women who had been forbidden from reading Torah when they were young and men who never became Bar Mitzvahs, who wanted to chant trope alongside their children and grandchildren. “People were having a visceral, emotional experience reading from Torah,” says the Cantor, who was spending five to 10 hours a week answering e-mails for this lay-led program, teaching Torah-reading in person and then sending out recordings.
Temple Ramat Zion’s charge then became to create a renewed excitement around Torah reading for all generations—from school-aged children to seniors—through a program that capitalizes on the ease and accessibility of the web. Ritual Committee Chair Gideon Paull, who is a mechanical engineer by day, went to work to create www.torahreaders.net, a secure website that allows Yad Squad participants as young as 7 to sign up for readings once they register and are approved to join. Once online, they can access full readings, listen to a parashah, message each other and post on the community board for support. Meanwhile, automating the Torah-reading process has also benefitted Temple Ramat Zion by taking the administrative scheduling off their hands—freeing them up to do more of what they love.
The program has since truly taken on a life of its own. Today, when the Cantor sends an e-blast announcing new reading assignments, program participants rush to sign up as early as six months in advance. Of the 80 to 100 congregants who attend Temple Ramat Zion’s Shabbat morning service, nearly 90 of them belong to the Yad Squad. The seamless platform, which is both portable and scalable, has also spread through word of mouth to multiple other congregations, where it’s now being used to make Torah reading more exciting and accessible to even more Jews of all generations.
“Some of these people,” says the Cantor, “had never seen the inside of a Torah before. Sometimes, a person will break down and cry at the bimah (podium) because he or she never could have imagined chanting trope (cantillation notes). One couple plans to read the entire Torah in their lifetime. Teenagers have started reading Torah to honor their friends’ Bar or Bat Mitzvahs.”
Next month, the Cantor will travel to USCJ Convention 2017 to present the award-winning program to other kehillot. “I wanted to demystify the Torah,” he says. “Hopefully, we’ll have a place in the world to come.”
To learn more, visit the Temple Ramat Zion website at www.trz.org.