Intergenerational Torah Reading Cohort

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Gideon Paull, member of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, CA shares how his congregation has worked to teach members of all ages how to chant Torah. 

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Chanting Torah is something that in the past had been the domain of Cantors, Rabbis, bar/bat Mitzvah kids and a few faithful members who knew how to chant correctly. Over the years that dynamic has been changing. In many Conservative (and quite a few Reform) synagogues, teens, older members, members who are celebrating a special occasion or wish to mark a Yahrtzeit are learning to read Torah. For many, it has become a right of passage no matter the age. 

In the synagogue where I'm a member, Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, we have seen children as young as 8 years old all the way up to members in their 90's chanting a portion of the Torah. Many say that standing up at the bimah and proudly chanting a portion of the torah gives them such a feeling of accomplishment, a feeling of being proud of their heritage that they would go through the struggles of learning another portion without a second thought.

There are many challenges for not only the first time reader, but also for the seasoned reader. 

The first challenge is that the Torah is written in Hebrew, a language that most people don't speak and can only read with some difficulty - if at all. The next challenge is that the Torah contains no punctuation, no Hebrew Vowels and no notes (also known as Ta'amim or Trope). So, not only does the reader need to know the Hebrew, they must remember where a sentence (pasuk) ends and where the Aliyah that they are reading ends. They must also learn the correct tune to chant -- this is dictated by the Ta'amim/Trope.

No matter how many challenges there are for Hebrew speakers and non-Hebrew speakers in learning to chant Torah, over the last few years we have seen Torah reading programs growing in most conservative synagogues. I asked several young people what drives them to invest in this extra-curriculum learning. The answers were varied but can be boiled down to one central theme - reading Torah connects us to our heritage, to our roots and is another unique expression of our Jewishness. Bar/Bat Mitzvah training programs being led by youth who have only just had their own bar/bat mitzvahs are growing. At Temple Ramat Zion, for instance, it is the youth who are training bar/bat mitzvah kids how to chant their Torah portions and Haftarah reading. 

Fortunately there are growing resources available for those wishing to chant Torah. 

At Maor Intelligent Solutions we have been creating online programs that help synagogues schedule Torah readings, schedule lay participation in services, allow members to select a reading and even learn their aliyah through the online and interactive Torah chanting program.

We started Torah Readers (https://torahreaders.net) about 5 years ago. At that time we had two synagogues signed up for our torah reading scheduling service. The service enables cantors or synagogue admins to select the type of reading they want for each portion(parasha) full reading, Triennial or even custom readings with additional aliyot. Members login to the secure service and with one click they can reserve their reading. Torah Readers sends reminders of the readings to each member and enables them to logon to the service and learn their aliyah with the on-line "Tikun Teacher" and complete recordings for each aliyah.

For admins, the program keeps track of who reads what and when and produces detailed reports of reader participation. With integrated chat and email, it enables temple staff to easily communicate with their Torah readers and members wishing to participate in leading parts of the service.

Today we have grown from 2 temples to over 30 temples from every corner of the US. Since COVID we have seen a massive up-surge in Temples wishing to subscribe to the Torah Reading service. Currently there are over 13,500 readers registered in the system - many of them appear to be regular readers.  In 2018 the program was considered so unique that it was the recipient of the Solomon Schechter award for Synagogue innovation.

As each temple joins Torah Readers, they each have their own wish list of functionality. By listening to our customers, we have improved the program from a simple scheduling program to a very intelligent system that can be customized to each Temple's unique requirements while providing accurate aliyot definitions for any shabbat, holiday or weekday reading. This removes hours of overhead from cantors and admin staff who need to define the readings for each shabbat.

Based on data from 10 Temples who have been on Torah Readers for more than 3 years we notice that 28% of readers in the last year are new readers - meaning they have never registered to read Torah through Torah Readers before. 48% of readers read on average once a month. Only 27% of readers registered on Torah Readers read only once. Most reading slots for each temple are filled within several days of the admin publishing the Torah Readings and making them available to their members to sign up to read. What these statistics are clearly telling us is that regardless of whether a person has read Torah before or not, they are coming back to read more and read often. 

Recently we released "Torah Readers Tikun Teacher" (https://tikuntorah.com) This is an online service for learning to chant Torah for any aliyah (full reading or Triennial), megilah reading, holiday reading or weekday reading. Tikun Teacher is a complete interactive experience where we present the Torah view and the Hebrew view with vowels, punctuation and notes (Ta'amim) side-by-side. Each side of the page interacts with each other and enables the user to cross reference the full Hebrew view with the Torah view. Trope patterns are recognized and highlighted. There is even a Trope Teacher that plays a recording of the Trope pattern when you click on a word.

Tikun Teacher was built from the ground up to support a modern, cloud based solution. With no software to install on your machine, Tikun Teacher and Torah Readers work from anywhere and on any device.

The Tikun Teacher program is completely integrated into Torah Readers and is currently free for all Torah Readers subscribers. Therefore, when you sign up for a Torah Reading you now have the full use of the Tikun Teacher to learn to chant the portion you just signed up for.

By keeping Torah readers affordable (only $480 / year for each Synagogue) we believe that we have been instrumental in the increase in young and old readers standing on the bimah for the first time and proudly chanting from the Torah.

 We see Torah reading participation only growing - as one young reader recently told me, "Being able to overcome my fears and chant from the Torah is my ultimate Jewish experience".

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