new york | Michal, 8, hunched over a shofar that was precariously balanced on the edge of a table and held in place by her classmate Danielle.
As Danielle struggled to hold the ram’s horn still, Michal pushed a 3-inch handsaw back and forth over the tip of the instrument.
Silenced by pursed lips and furrowed brows, the two girls erupted in squeals as Michal broke through the horn.
“You almost got it! You almost got it,” screamed Danielle.
Seconds later, Michal triumphantly held up what would be a shofar, Judaism’s ritual horn.
Far from the shofar factories of Jerusalem that account for most of the world’s shofars, these third-graders took part in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s Shofar Factory earlier this month.
In the weeks before Rosh Hashanah, a group affiliated with Lubavitch, Tzivos Hashem, travels to schools and community centers to lead shofar-making programs like the one at the Ramaz Lower School in Manhattan that Michal and Danielle attended.
A shofar is the hollowed-out horn of a ram that is blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, students learned that day.
Its biblical roots trace back to the sacrifice of Isaac, when a ram took the place of Abraham’s son on the altar. In modern-day Judaism, the shofar symbolizes repentance associated with Rosh Hashanah.
For students, making the shofars is as much about fun as it is about learning.
“Learning in class is great, but nothing compares to seeing how it’s made and then making it with your own hands,” said Rabbi Steven Penn, coordinator of Judaic Programs at the Ramaz Lower School. “It’s also exciting to see the kids excited about a mitzvah,” he added.
After watching the anticipation on the faces of the 66 third-graders at Ramaz, Penn’s words seem like understatement.
Many of them had been waiting for a few years to take part in this activity, which is only offered to the third grade.
The students rushed to claim seats around Michoel Albukerk, shofar man du jour. Albukerk, the program director of Tzivos Hashem, soon described himself as an ex-dentist willing to fill cavities with the drill he had brought for the shofarim.
He kept his pint-sized audience laughing as he shared qualifications for selecting an appropriate horn to fashion into a shofar. Using a play on words, Albukerk pointed out that “A shofar is not that person who sits in your car so you won’t get a parking ticket in New York City,” he said.
With the help of student volunteers, he then demonstrated the sawing, drilling and sanding activities the rest of the students would do with their own horns.
Minutes into the demonstration, the students were mesmerized. The noxious smell of keratin, the compound that fingernails, hair — and shofars — are made out of filled the air as Albukerk drilled into the demo horn. Students grabbed their noses and made faces as chaos ensued.
But once they were unleashed onto a table of unfinished horns, they clamored to find the perfect specimens to work with.
Most called the morning project “exciting” and “cool,” but Zack, 8, pointed out that making a shofar was “harder than I thought it would be.”
Given the power tools, it can be dangerous, too, but the drilling was left to Albukerk and his three assistants.
Nonetheless, making a shofar is a messy business, as the students learned.
Once a kosher animal — typically a ram — is slaughtered and the horns are removed, the horns are boiled and cured.
Afterward, the bone-like inside is almost completely hollowed out.
The third-graders then joined in, sawing off the dense tip of the horn that is too narrow to be cleaned out. Tzivos Hashem workers drilled holes into the horns for mouthpieces, and the students were instructed to blow through them to ensure a clear airway.
The mouths of the shofars were then sanded down. Finally, the students glazed their shofars with shellac and set them to dry in the sun.
The Shofar Factory’s first program took place in 1988. This fall, it is scheduled to visit at least 37 sites in the New York, Boston and Philadelphia areas.
The shofar program is one of 10 similar hands-on projects that include baking matzahs for Passover and pressing olives into oil for Chanukah.
For this particular presentation, the four-man team of shofar men came to the Ramaz school armed not only with their tools, but also with stuffed animal heads, complete with horns, that were meant to illustrate where shofars come from. They gave each participant his or her own horn, which costs around $5 and which the Lubavitch members typically buy from Muslim slaughterhouses.
In step with the Lubavitch mission of outreach, Albukerk said these projects in particular grab the attention of children who are otherwise assaulted with video games, television and movies.
“It’s a bonafide look behind the scenes of Judaism in a way that can appeal to kids,” he said. “What kid doesn’t want to blow their own shofar?’