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Shamash U.: A School For Unsung Heroes

It is an unsung job with many names: shamash, sexton, beadle, ritual director, hazzan sheini — even bar or bat mitzvah teacher. Whatever you call it, synagogue movement insiders say, the real problem is the dearth of skilled laymen who are willing and able to step in.

Whether the task is chanting Torah, blowing shofar or helping congregants identify yahrzeit dates for departed loved ones, many synagogues are increasingly shorthanded.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, there was always some ‘old guy from Europe’ and he became shamash,” said Rabbi Roy Tannenbaum of Beth Tzedec Congregation of Toronto. “He combined a friendly, warm demeanor that welcomed people into the minyan with considerable background and Torah skills. Just to look at him and hear his accent made you feel Jewish. That kind of person is no longer available.”

To fill the void, Tannenbaum, a Conservative rabbi, has helped create a new school — the School for Shamashim, which he believes to be the first of its kind anywhere — devoted wholly to training lay leaders in ritual observance and in prayer skills. The program, sponsored by the Canadian branch of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, is set to kick off this summer with at least six students coming from the United States and other parts of Canada to study with Tannenbaum in Toronto.

Participants will take part in two summers of intensive study in addition to completing a supervised internship during the intervening year.

The schedule includes two full months of classes in which students will learn to read from the Torah and to correct other Torah readers, to care for ritual objects, and to teach and greet fellow congregants.

Tannenbaum will serve as both dean and teacher, with several other Toronto-area rabbis assisting. All have donated their services for at least the first year; participants pay for their own room and board. In future years, Tannenbaum said, congregations may choose to sponsor members.

One program participant, life-long Beth Tzedec member Sidney Ezer, said he is excited to further his Jewish education. When his father passed away a year-and-a-half ago, the 35-year-old started attending services in order to recite the Kaddish mourning prayer. He became a regular, eventually joining the synagogue’s choir and taking up cantorial studies.

Ezer hopes that the School for Shamashim will prepare him for additional professional studies.

In the past, learning a Torah portion meant that the ritual director “gave me a tape and then pretty much I memorized whatever the portion was,” he said. “This course will probably fill in those gaps.”

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