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In preparation for Sunday’s Great Shofar Blowout, Don Ganz teaches students at Temple B’Nai Abraham in Beverly how to get sound from the horns.
In preparation for Sunday’s Great Shofar Blowout, Don Ganz teaches students at Temple B’Nai Abraham in Beverly how to get sound from the horns. (Globe Staff Photo / David Kamerman)

At the `Great Shofar Blowout,' Jews get to toot their own horns

Piercing yet imprecise, the noise sounds like elephants stampeding.

It comes from about 100 ruddy-faced, out-of-breath children and longtime couples, even octogenarians, pressing twisted horn-like instruments to their pursed lips.

Gathered at the Marblehead Jewish Community Center, they try to blow the ram's horn known as a shofar in just the right way to emit notes that have been played since Abraham decided not to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

They are on another mission to reclaim a Guinness World Record that was topped last year.

Traditionally, the 4,000-year-old instrument has been entrusted to selected hands, blown by clergy or specific members of congregations on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But not so north of Boston, where more than 400 Jews from the area, including these 100 trainees, will attempt to form the largest gathering of shofar blowers at 3 p.m. Sunday at Phillips Beach in Swampscott.

``It was a collective consciousness," says Chelmsford's Sam Poulten, a lieutenant colonel in the 804th Medical Brigade, who helped set the original shofar record in 2004.

Poulten spent more than a year in Iraq and Kuwait before returning home that year. ``How often can you get hundreds of people together to experience the same thing at the same time in exactly the same way? That is something very special, and it had the extra meaning because of what I had just gone through," he said.

``I thought of every man and woman with whom I served as we stood there making the shofar blasts, and the one word that was going through my head was peace, shalom."

The idea of bringing hundreds of people together to set a record for shofar blowing came from Robert Lappin, a Salem-based philanthropist who says, ```There is some magic to it that reaches very deeply into the Jewish psyche."

In the Jewish educational sphere, Lappin, a real estate developer and money manager, is somewhat of an anomaly. With intermarriage rates at 50 percent, and affiliation with Jewish institutions declining, Lappin spends more than $1 million a year out of his own pocket on free Jewish programming with the goal of ``keeping our children Jewish."

For the last 10 years, he has fully subsidized annual trips of teenagers to Israel. He also has created programs that mix traditional Jewish ritual and culture, such as providing meals and prayer guides on the Sabbath, interfaith outreach programs, and trips to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

His foundation also began giving out free shofars to area Hebrew school students in 1999. In 2001, he held the first ``Great Shofar Blowout" at a Swampscott beach, and repeated it in 2002 and 2003, with participants receiving free shofars. After hearing about a group of Indiana students who created a world record for dreidel spinning, Lappin decided the time was ripe to set a Guinness World Record for shofar blowing.

After conferring with Guinness representatives, it was determined that at least 100 people had to blow a shofar for a minimum of five minutes to create a record. Lappin's minions took it much further, and, on Aug. 17, 2004, 386 people blew their shofars concurrently at Kings Beach in Swampscott for 6 minutes and 50 seconds, creating the world record.

After the event, word spread across the country about the new record, spawning 15 ``baby blowouts," from Fair Lawn, N.J., to Gainesville, Fla. And, in 2005, Congregations Shaare Shamayim of Philadelphia accepted a challenge from the North Shore to break the record.

The thought of bringing unity to another community through Jewish ritual delighted Lappin, who subsidized the Philadelphia attempt. Last September, the Philadelphia synagogue broke the North Shore record by having 400 shofar-blowing participants.

While some saw the event as a gimmick, Jacques Lurie, the Philadelphia Hebrew school's educational director, believes it helped build community. ``We need to reinvent ourselves if supplemental education is going to succeed, and we need people out there who are willing to push the envelope and take some risks," says Lurie.

David Starr, a professor of history at Hebrew College in Newton, says programs like community shofar gatherings show a strong desire by adult Jews to learn about their religion, and pass it along to their children. Starr says the learning doesn't necessarily have to be in a classroom.

``Jewish education cannot occur just in a formal context, it can't occur just in classrooms or with textbooks. It's got to be about life and in life," he says.

At the Marblehead training session, newly accomplished shofar players clutch their instruments, and talk of the upcoming shofar ensemble.

``It means that I'm connected with all 3,000 years of folks who have been doing this," says Sarah Simon, of Ipswich.

Mindy Walters grew up Cleveland and now lives in Swampscott. She gets light-headed after blowing the shofar, but says it's worth it.

Like Simon, she feels a new connectedness to her religion, and is happy about passing the tradition down to her children.

``My father's a Holocaust survivor, and he has two shofars, and he's always been really good at sharing that with our family," she said, ``so it's neat for me to be able to do that, and have my own shofar."

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at rosenberg@globe.com. For more information about Sunday's shofar blowout, visit www.rilcf.org.

Click the play button below to hear Globe reporter Steven Rosenberg reports on North Shore residents' attempt to break a record for shofar players.

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