Highland Park synagogue pulls off 'extraordinary' feat

The goal: Bring people back into the synagogue after the COVID pandemic forced them home.

The plan: Encourage members to read the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew bible.

The reward: a cookie and a sense of accomplishment.

Still, that must be one exquisite cookie.

In the course of one Jewish year, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park attracted 163 people who read portions of the Torah in weekly Shabbat services. The Jewish year 5782 began last fall and will end on sundown Sept. 25 as Rosh Hashanah debuts the new year 5783.

The readers ranged in age from teens to 86-year-old Gerald Lasin, who reprised the portion he read at his 1949 bar mitzvah ceremony.

Those 163 readers are a huge number. Most synagogues have a paid Torah reader and "a few people they can rely on," said Beth El "Team Torah" Committee Chair Michael Millenson.

"The fact that we have had volunteers makes Beth El different," said Millenson, whose wildest dream had initially been 100 readers.

"But the fact that we have this many people is extraordinary," he said.

Reading the Torah is not easy, less a walk in the park than a walk in the wilderness, which is where scholars believe the final version of the Five Books of Moses may have been created, circa 539 B.C.

Several websites note that the oldest complete Torah, located in the University of Bologna, Italy, dates to the 11th or 12th century. lists a few of the most ancient ones, now reduced to mere fragments.

Reading the Torahs at Beth El as part of the Team Torah Committee's "Back-to-Shul Challenge" - shul meaning synagogue - was tough enough. Each Torah is unique, a manuscript whose characters are handwritten on a scroll of parchment or sheepskin that cannot be touched by hand but instead by a short pointer called a "yad."

The reader, who recites a minimum of three verses to a maximum of "lots," Millenson said, must read sentences in biblical Hebrew, memorize proper punctuation and the cantillation marks and symbols, or trope, that indicate how words are chanted and where the stress is placed on a word.

"It's a sense of accomplishment," said Millenson, a veteran reader. "You're reading from a scroll that's been around for thousands of years, The cantillation marks were designed something like 1,400 years ago."

What's more, experts stand nearby ready to correct the reader should they stumble.

"Think if you misplayed a note in a symphony and somebody next to you said, 'You've got to replay that,'" Millenson said.

"The Torah, you read from the original script. It's not punctuated, there's no vowels, so it takes quite a bit of preparation," said Lasin, of Deerfield, a 50-year Beth El congregant and retired pediatrician whose reading this year coincided with the anniversary of his bar mitzvah 73 years ago in June 1949.

"Now, our synagogue has a number of laymen who are experts at reading the Torah. Most commoners like me, it takes a lot more than that," he said.

There was precedent to Team Torah, though the cookies and team jerseys are a new touch.

Beth El founded its Ba'al Korei Institute in 1999, Millenson said, Ba'al Korei translating to "master of the reading." Last year, as the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic faded, in an effort to have more congregants attend synagogue in general and expand Torah reading to a younger generation, Millenson suggested to Beth El leaders a novel way to do that.

Thus, the "Back-to-Schul Challenge - Everybody Reads Torah!" The Ba'al Korei Institute name was changed to Team Torah because the Hebrew term was unfamiliar to many, and "institute" lacked youthful flair.

"If you're trying to appeal to young people, you need to appeal to them in words they understand," Millenson said.

Then, there's that which appeals to people of all ages.


Individually wrapped, the large sugar cookies had the Team Torah logo emblazoned in their frosting. A sticker on the underside of the wrapper had the name of a reader, whose name would be listed on a large poster board to note the accomplishment.

That fun touch, and the recognition it lent, helped the cause.

With the Team Torah Committee's goal of recruiting 100 Torah readers - considered a stretch - Millenson was sure he could get 80 based on the old Ba'al Korei Institute list. He felt he could "beg" 20 more.

By April, though, 120 readers had enlisted. More followed, enabling a greater communal sharing of the entire Torah task from one Rosh Hashanah to another.

Jack Gordon, a Highland Park High School freshman who has read the Torah several times at Beth El, including at his bar mitzvah on Aug. 28, 2021, needed no cookie to entice him.

"As a Jewish adult it is my honor and privilege to read the Torah in front of the community, and be a part of the community and practice Judaism," he said. "And it's even more of an honor to read the Torah on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur."

Twins Aiden and Sam Stoltze display their Team Torah cookies they received as part of the "Back-to-Schul" challenge at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El. Courtesy of Jacob Sandler
Highland Park High School freshman Jack Gordon already is a veteran reader of the Torah at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El. Courtesy of North Shore Photography
North Suburban Synagogue Beth El displays the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah photos of those who have read portions of the Torah as part of the "Back-to-Shul Challenge -Everybody Reads Torah!" Courtesy of Jacob Sandler
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