With the High Holidays approaching, Rabbi Levi Druk had a mission. As director of the newly-established Chabad-Lubavitch of Downtown Baltimore, he learned that, in years past, patients at the city’s hospitals had trouble fulfilling the traditional practices of Rosh Hashanah, including hearing the penultimate call to repentance: the blowing of the shofar.
“Unfortunately, these weren’t exactly places where people who knew how to blow the ram’s horn were hanging out,” he said.
Ever the man with the plan, Druk pledged that this year would be different: For Rosh Hashanah, which begins this year the evening of Sept. 29, he’ll be sending a small army of volunteers to the city’s hospitals. He’s spent the past week mustering the troops at a special shofar boot camp, an intensive program designed to teach local Jewish community members not only how to blow the ram’s horn, but also the Torah teachings behind the important ceremony.
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“It’s definitely a lot like boot camp,” remarked Joshua Wnuk, a chemistry graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. “You only have a week to learn how to do it, and do it a lot.”
Wnuk should know. After taking part in Naval ROTC in high school a decade ago, he decided to join the Navy and found himself at boot camp not long after graduation. It was then – thanks to the unhappy coincidence of Yom Kippur taking place during basic training – that Wnuk learned how difficult it can be to fulfill one’s religious obligations.
“I wasn’t even able to fast,” he recalled. “My commanding officer instructed me that this was boot camp and fasting was not an option. I felt so isolated.”
After being forced to eat his meals, Wnuk – a four-year varsity athlete – threw his back out later that day.
“The doctor took one look at me and said, ‘Son, you’re done.’ So I fast every year on Yom Kippur,” he said. “That may add to why I feel so strongly about helping people to fulfill the mitzvahs that one must observe on holy days.”
In Baltimore, Wnuk will be one of eight supporters of the local Chabad House who will circulate through the University of Maryland Medical Center, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Mercy Medical Center during the two-day holiday, checking in with Jewish patients to offer their services, as well as a supportive ear.
Similar groups of roving volunteers, joined in part by Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students, will make the rounds of hospitals, nursing homes and community centers all across the world; Druk’s approach, however, appeared to be unique.
Ron Reitman, another of the Baltimore volunteers, said he was enjoying learning how to blow the shofar, which can be deceptively difficult to master. Having visited patients in both Israeli and U.S. hospitals in the past, Reitman added that he was looking forward to spend the holiday serving the community.
“I see it really gives them a reason to live. It gives them hope that somebody cares,” he said. “I like to be that person to give them the hope. I walk out feeling quite satisfied having helped somebody.”
Reitman first became interested in learning how to blow the ram’s horn 10 years ago when he made a shofar at a workshop run by the Bais Menachem Chabad Jewish Student Center serving the University of Maryland.
“Periodically over the years, I’d play with it and practice it, but I never quite got it. A month ago I tried it with Rabbi Druk, and it was a challenge at first,” he related. “I’ll tell you, it’s a lot of work blowing the shofar the first few sessions. It’s just a lot of effort getting the right grip and learning how to blow. It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s coming quite naturally to me now.”
Druk had plenty of help in putting together the training program. Two local stores, Shabsi’s Judaica Center and Pern’s Hebrew Book & Gift Shop, donated instruments, and several hospital chaplains volunteered their time to put the volunteers in touch with the right patients.
“This really turned out to be a community event,” said Druk. “Everyone’s really coming together.”
One of the chaplains, Rabbi Tzvi Schur of Baltimore’s Jewish Community Services, said that he had a very good reason to lend a hand. After undergoing open-heart surgery two days before Rosh Hashanah last year, Schur found himself unable to attend synagogue during the holiday. His wife called a friend, Rabbi Zev Gopin of Chabad at Johns Hopkins University, who offered to visit her husband and blow the shofar.
“I remember nothing else,” said Schur, a chaplain at Johns Hopkins Hopsital. “I just remember the shofar. He came at 6 p.m. both [days]. I was worried he wouldn’t come, but both [days] he came. I fulfilled the mitzvah and I felt fulfilled.
“When Rabbi Druk came and asked if we could do it at Hopkins, knowing my own personal feelings, I was very excited.”