October 15, 2019

A wake-up call from the ‘Master Blaster’ rocks retirement home

“Master Blaster” Michael Chusid got down on his knees so he could face Ida and Shirley, who sat on a couch at Encino Retirement Home. In Chusid’s left hand was a shofar, his spiritual/musical instrument and constant companion during the High Holy Days.

The two elderly women, along with the rest of the dozen residents of the nursing home — some of whom seemed to be in their own private zone of silence and disconnection — looked at Chusid expectantly. In his mid-50s, wearing glasses, with a thick salt-and-pepper beard and imposing presence, the Master Blaster has a gentle, authoritative air.

“Are you a rabbi?” Ida asked.

“No,” said Chusid, a member of Makom Ohr Shalom. “I blow the shofar.”

He held up the ram’s horn and spoke slowly and loudly, aware that some of the residents couldn’t hear, or couldn’t grasp what he was saying.

“So,” Chusid said, “who knows what time of year this is?”

“It’s New Year!” Shirley said.

Chusid smiled, nodded, as did Craig Weisz, husband of Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Makom Ohr Shalom, a congregation founded in 1978 that’s affiliated with the ALEPH movement for the Renewal of Judaism.

The visit to Encino Retirement Home was part of a two-pronged Makom program using the shofar as an instrument of prayer. According to Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, spiritual founder of the Renewal movement, “davenology” means developing creative new forms of meaningful prayer. Expansion of shofar use is davenology in action.

One prong of this program is the Shofar Corps. During Makom’s High Holy Days, about 100 people, located throughout the sanctuary, blast shofarot at the same time. (The group holds its Shabbat services at St. Paul’s Methodist church in Tarzana, but this year is observing the High Holy Days at Knollwood Country Club in Granada Hills.)

“The tradition of the single shofar-blower is a wonderful image of the solitary spiritual warrior,” Chusid said. “It brings everyone together in one voice. But it’s very different when 100 people in the congregation stand up, wherever they’re sitting. So instead of the shofar being something up there, it’s all around you. That sonic field creates a vibration, a spirit. I visualize the blast creating a vibration that travels throughout the community and around the planet to wherever healing needs to take place.”

The other prong of Makom’s shofar program is “to get the larger community involved,” said Chusid, a marketing consultant specializing in building materials. “So in 2005, we started giving classes in how to blow the shofar.”

Chusid stressed that he teaches for free to all who want to learn, whether or not they’re part of the Makom family.

“And in 2006, we expanded the program by doing outreach: visiting hospitals, nursing homes, prisons … even those confined to their homes,” he added.

Weisz mentioned that his son’s preschool has requested a visit from the Master Blaster.

“When I go to a preschool,” Chusid said, “I bring a bunch of shofarot and teach the children how to blow them. They get really excited.”

Before going into the nursing home, Chusid had tried to teach an unmusical reporter how to blow the shofar. He talked about proper breathing and proper stance, about pursing the lips. The reporter had some limited success, squeezing out a few squeaky “ptzzzzz” sounds.

“The idea isn’t necessarily to blow, though that’s part of it,” Chusid said. “The idea is to hear. Reb Zalman says that’s the basic command we were given as Jews: to hear.”

Indeed, when Chusid was kneeling in front of Ida and Shirley, he recited a prayer thanking God for the privilege of hearing the shofar. Chusid and Weisz recited the higianu in Hebrew, then in English, thanking God for having “brought us to this place, right here, right now.”

Those last few words struck a resonant chord with the nursing home residents, conscious of what stage of life they’re in. They sighed gratefully.

Chusid looked around. The climactic moment had arrived. He brought the shofar to his lips and cut loose with a set of master blasts: one tekiyah, then another and another.

The piercing sounds triggered immediate reactions. Ida and Shirley broke into great giant grins, ear to ear, their eyes suddenly bright. More blasts: teruah, tekiah g’dolah. For an instant the residents of the nursing home looked like preschoolers: joy, shock, wonder, even awe — and something else in their eyes: a primal memory from childhood.

Chusid quoted Maimonides: “If the shofar blowing is heartfelt, the blasts have the power to wake the dead.” Well, maybe. The people at the nursing home weren’t dead, of course, but there had been an air of quiet drowsiness.

The shofar blast sliced through it: tekiah-ah-ah, teruah-ah-ah. Suddenly, the blasts of the shofar gave the nursing home residents a moment of surprising wakefulness.

As the Master Blaster points out: Anyone, at any stage of life, can use a wake-up call.

For more information, call Makom Ohr Shalom at (818) 725-7600, or visit shofarot@gmail.com.