Students arriving for classes at the Beth El synagogue in Pikesville yesterday morning knew immediately when they walked through the door that something unusual was brewing. The pungent odor of boiling rams' horns was in the air, a rather unpleasant smell that resembled burning rubber.
The horns were soon to be transformed into shofars -- the ceremonial horn that is blown to summon the faithful to the synagogue during the high holy days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur -- by a class of seventh-graders studying for their bar mitzvahs later this year.
The lesson was part of the many preparations being made by the area's Jewish community for Yom Kippur, the day of prayer, fasting and repentance, which begins at sundown tomorrow.
Making their own shofar will "bring children closer to their roots," said Eyal Bor, the school's director of education.
"They will look at the holy day a little differently. When the person blows the shofar in the synagogue, they will appreciate his work a little more. They will appreciate its sound. They will appreciate its meaning," he said.
The shofar is a religious symbol with many layers of meaning, and the youths were encouraged to think about this as they began to work.
"We don't use a clarinet, a flute or a trumpet. We use something very primitive," said Rabbi Hillel Baron of the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education in Columbia, who was hired to teach the craft. "And the sound of the shofar is not supposed to be musical. It's supposed to be like the cry of a person. We're supposed to be sobbing and crying and being sorry for being far from the way God wants us to be."
The horns can come from one of several animals, including a ram, a goat and a gazelle. The only horn not permitted is that of a cow, because of its association with the golden calf the Israelites worshiped at the foot of Mount Sinai, "which is a symbol of the worst sin of all history," said Beth El Rabbi Mark Loeb. "And to blow that horn in His face would be an insult."
These horns were shipped in from Texas. Rabbi Baron said that livestock in the eastern states tend to be slaughtered at earlier stages of development -- often before they grow horns.
At first, the students seemed a bit squeamish at the smell and the slimy texture of the horns, as well as the fact that until recently, the horns had been attached to an animal.
Jeri Merritt, 12, looked disdainfully at the black horn that sat on white paper in front of her. "Can I hire someone to do this?" she asked.
But they overcame reservations and got down to work. First, they scrubbed the horns in soapy water.Then they smoothed the surface with steel wool, files and sandpaper. A parent cut off the tips, and then a hole was drilled for the mouthpiece. Finally, a finishing coat of wax was applied to make the surface shine.
"In the beginning it's disgusting and very hard work. But I guess in the end, you appreciate what you've done," said Jeri, admiring the fruits of her effort.
Nick Slatkin, 12, said that making his shofar brought him more satisfaction than simply buying one. "It's better making your own," he said. "You're making something that was brought up in your past, your heritage."
While the children were being schooled in the traditions of their religion, some residents of the nearby Milford Manor nursing home, already steeped in those traditions, were looking forward to services at their newly renovated synagogue.
"Religion is a very big part" of life at the nursing home, said owner and administrator Earl Raffel. The synagogue will be packed for Yom Kippur services, he predicted, with many residents being joined by their family members and people from the surrounding community. It is this mixture of nursing care and religion that makes the facility so attractive for Jewish families.
"They know that [their relatives] will be taken care of medically and at the same time they can be here with them for services," he said.
The renovation, complete with new lighting, larger windows and glass doors, and a wood-and-glass cabinet for the Torah, was greeted by residents with delight.