When members of Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon want to practice chanting a Torah portion for an upcoming Shabbat, they need go no further than their own homes to see pages of a scroll without vowels or trope marks.
They simply go to the synagogue’s website and click on photos of the pages corresponding to their portion. Four of the synagogue’s six Torah scrolls are completely photographed and posted online, with photographs of special portions from the other two scrolls.
“We really like to encourage people to be on the ladder of learning,” said Susan Berger, the Conservative synagogue’s communications manager. “And in order to do that, we want to provide resources that make them more comfortable to do things such as chanting Torah or learning how to lead services.”
Berger started uploading the photos in 2008 at a congregant’s suggestion. Before that, the synagogue would ask people to come in on Wednesday nights and practice for the upcoming Shabbat service. The ability to practice from home helps members avoid extra traffic during the week.
“Anybody can come [in person to the synagogue] when they want and we’ll help them look at the Torah, but it’s not really something that’s done a lot,” said Berger, who also acts as the synagogue’s webmaster.
Even though every Torah scroll has the same text, each one looks different. The online system helps readers get familiar with the particular Torah they will be reading from.
“Having it look the way it’s supposed to look when I’m doing the actual chanting, that’s just one less thing to worry about,” said Evan Sirota, a congregant who has used the online resources many times.
He said he practices at home for about a week ahead of his scheduled reading, by familiarizing himself with the portion line by line. The photographs help him be comfortable with the upcoming service.
“Even if you’ve memorized the entire portion and you know how to sing it, when you’re up there the scroll doesn’t have any trope marks or vowels,” Sirota said. “If you’ve practiced using one scroll and you know what that looks like and then suddenly someone does a switcheroo on you, even though it’s the same portion and same Hebrew, it can really throw you off because you’re at the bimah, in public, in front of people.”
Plus, there are audio recordings of many different tropes that people can listen to when they practice. The congregation doesn’t have a cantor, and almost all Shabbat services are at least partially lay-led.
“Our rabbi does lead once in a while and she does chant Torah once in a while, but she’s really there more as a guide,” said Berger. “We have congregants who act as cantor,
and one of the best things is, if there’s not a bar or bat mitzvah, we have a teenager lead parts of the service.”
Berger added, “One other benefit of this is that our b’nai mitzvah often invite relatives to have a Torah portion who are not local, and they can use the photos. It makes it easy for guests.”
Rabbi Mina Goldsmith said the synagogue has received emails from people around the country, thanking Congregation Beth Emeth for making the photos available to them.
Berger has organized all the materials, named the files and sorted them by date and Torah online.
Over the years, she and some congregants have tested different ways to photograph the Torah scrolls. The best method, she said, is laying them out on a table and taking photos from above with a tripod. Berger then crops and sizes each photo to be put on the website.
She said the congregation’s tutor, Gwen Sloan, sings the trope for the audio recordings. Sloan also assigns her students to practice at home using the online resources, which saves paper and CDs, which she used to give each student.
Goldsmith said the resources are a great way to encourage congregants toward participation in the community.
“This way people can learn and feel immediately part of what is happening in the room when they walk in the door.”