By Rachel Bashevkin, BEKI member
When the ark needs to be opened and a Torah carried, who you gonna call? On Shabbat morning at Beth El - Keser Israel [BEKI], a group of teenagers decides. For the last 15 years, teen shamashim have selected people for all of the honors and have kept the service moving along. At a b’nai mitzvah, their job shifts to locating the family members selected for the honors and then patiently teaching those visitors what to do.
A teen was first trained in 2002 to fill in when adult male shamashim were unavailable, Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen said, “but what I did not expect was the quality of their work. They proved to be dedicated and quickly acquired the skills to run even the more elaborate services with poise and efficiency. They learn the names and tribal status (Jewish? Kohen? Levi?) of most of the regular attendees, as well as their interests and skills, and whom they can call on at the last minute to lead or read.” “The position of shamash,” Rabbi Tilsen noted, “requires the skills of an air traffic controller, a stage manager, and a White House social secretary.” The shamash must know the order of the service, understand the peculiarities of the liturgical calendar, and deal with grumpy or anxious adults. The shamash sometimes has to work very quickly in a high-pressure setting, and has to have the courage to approach strangers -- including visiting scholars -- and invite them to take part in the service.” The shamash also has to know when to ask for guidance. Although the shamashim are too discreet to reveal any details, they learn some rather intimate knowledge about congregants, including who is having a medical problem and cannot carry the Torah that day or who is a leftie and therefore best suited to lifting the Torah during the months when it’s rolled to Genesis.
Although the current team is all boys, “the shamashim have sometimes included girls in a role that is still typically male in many congregations,” Carole Bass noted. “The shamashim play an incredibly important role,” she added, “not only helping the services run smoothly, but also greeting guests and visitors and helping people feel comfortable in taking on honors.”