October 15, 2019

Shofar players breathe life into services

High Holy Days services are fast approaching, and the sounds of the shofar soon will fill sanctuaries throughout Los Angeles.

Teruah, nine quick blasts. Shevarim, three medium, wailing sounds. Tekiah, the long, breathy blast. 

But who are the brave souls standing in front of hundreds of congregants performing this mitzvah? They are trumpet players and lawyers. They are people such as Richard Weissman, who has been doing the deed for the past 15 years at Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills — and in far-flung lands, too.

Last year on a trip to Tibet, the 68-year-old visited the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the 1,000-room, 13-story structure that formerly housed the Dalai Lama. The temptation to blow his shofar — which he had brought along for the trip hoping to find an idyllic locale to play it in — was too much to overcome. So the practicing lawyer brought his shofar to his lips and produced a long blast that turned heads and rang through the valley below. 

“When I got back and thought about the experience, I realized I need to take the shofar wherever I travel and blow it at the highest peak I can find,” Weissman said. “It’s for my spiritual connection. You blend yourself with nature and God.” 

The shofar’s roots go back to ancient Israel, where it was used to announce the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh), calling people together. The instrument, often made from a ram or kudu antelope’s horn, is used during High Holy Days services and during the month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

Weissman’s tenure as his congregation’s ba’al shofar (shofar sounder) began when his predecessor took ill on the eve of services 15 years ago. When his rabbi called upon him, knowing of his musical background, Weissman couldn’t say no. 

“He knew I played trumpet. Brass horn players do a lot of shofar blowing,” he said. “Woodwinds are less inclined.” 

Weissman played trumpet in the UCLA marching band during his college years. Up until last year, Weissman blew the shofar alone in front of the congregation, before realizing that he missed the dynamic of playing with other musicians. 

“I was a loner and I needed a group,” he said. “I get more playing with the ensemble. I listen as I’m blowing my shofar. I want to hear everybody and I want to hear it melding together.” 

Weissman also believes that the congregation gets more out of experiencing Kol Tikvah’s shofar performance, in which shofar blowers — ranging in age from 8 to 80 — are stationed throughout the sanctuary, filling the room with different sounds. 

“When you do it alone, you’re the object of everyone’s attention, but the congregation loses sight of what’s really going on. They hear the sounds, but they’re watching me do it and not really hearing. I’ve played in symphony orchestras, marching bands — you’ve got this melding of sounds that makes the whole so much better.” 

Phil Ganz, 61, has been playing shofar at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills for over a decade now. He’s a data analyst for the state who has played trumpet his entire life — a skill he leans on heavily in his shofar blowing. 

“I play the shofar exactly the same way I play the trumpet,” he said. “I play with exactly the same embouchure. Some people have different methods, like blowing off to the side. I play exactly the same way. It helped me pick it up fairly quickly.” 

Although he doesn’t remember exactly how he came into the role, the reason he wanted to get involved was always clear. “I realized that I should put my trumpet-playing abilities to good use for the High Holy Days. It’s a good opportunity to give back,” he said. 

Ganz stays sharp in the month leading up to services by practicing during the month of Elul, blowing shofar at the end of Shacharit services every morning and lending his expertise to anyone looking to learn the craft. 

“Every morning during Elul, I try to blow at least one set of three notes, which keeps me warmed up and ready for Rosh Hashanah,” he said. “Oftentimes, I’ll also just blow it for the kids when they ask. It’s giving back to the community. People want and need to hear shofar.” 

Shira Bensonpeck, 25, has been playing the shofar at West Los Angeles’ Temple Isaiah for seven years. She too has a background in brass horn, playing trombone as a child. When she inherited her older brother’s shofar after he moved out, Bensonpeck never looked back. 

“My mom knew I had the lungs for it and signed me up to play at synagogue,” she said. “I guess I traded one instrument in for another.” 

Bensonpeck played at Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC) for six years before moving to Temple Isaiah. She admits to being nervous in front of crowds, but the sanctity of the duty helps her overcome the butterflies. 

“When the cantor makes the first call, everything goes blank, and it’s just me and my shofar. It’s my way of connecting with God and doing a mitzvah for everyone else,” she said. 

Going back to her teenage days at PJTC, Bensonpeck has made it a point to visit the homes of congregants, often the elderly, who are unable to attend services. She credits her mother with coming up with the idea to include those who can’t experience the shofar blasts at synagogue. For Bensonpeck, the task enriches her personal High Holy Day experience. 

“I always get tears. It’s a good feeling. They love it,” she said. “They can’t come and for many of them it’s the most profound moment, especially the elderly. It’s what they miss. If they can’t hear it, it’s not the High Holy Days for them.” 

Troy Slaten, 41, a criminal defense attorney, has been blowing shofar at Temple Isaiah — sometimes with Bensonpeck — for the past 10 years. With no musical background, Slaten doesn’t view the shofar through a musical lens like some of his peers, but rather a way to break a language barrier with God. 

“I look at the shofar as a call out to God. We don’t know God’s language,” he said. “This is the primal scream out because we don’t know how God communicates. It’s asking God to listen, to hear us. It awakens everybody, and I’m so honored that I get invited to do this mitzvah.” 

Before his career in law, Slaten was a child actor and he still appears on television frequently as a legal analyst. However, he thinks of High Holy Day services as a separate challenge, one that lights and cameras can’t prepare him for. 

“I’m on television all the time with millions of people watching, but this is my congregation, my family, my tribe. I get nervous,” he said. “I don’t want to shake hands with people because my hands are clamming up. But the nervousness means I care deeply. It’s a good nervous, and it helps me put on a good performance.”