What is a Gabbai? In former times, a gabbai was the person in charge of collecting and distributing the community’s tzedakah, helping people in need in the community. It was only later that the gabbai became the one designated to distribute honours to people attending services. In coordination with the rabbi, they are responsible for maintaining order during services and in particular overseeing the Torah Service and Torah Reading and its choreography. Gabbais fulfil an official role in the community and hold a sacred trust. In some places their position is quite formal and some even wear top hats. But whatever the tradition and level of formality, they make a very important contribution by providing the community with a smooth, well-organized prayer service.
At IJC – and in many other communities – we usually have a Gabbai 1 and a Gabbai 2. Gabbai 1 is responsible for the organisation of the Torah Service, while Gabbai 2 – who must be familiar with Hebrew – follows the reading of the Torah and gently corrects if the reader – the ba’al/at koreh who is leyning the text on their behalf – makes a mistake that would change the meaning of the text. Current practice in most progressive (and orthodox) communities, is that each person called up for an aliyah recites the blessings before and after the Torah reading and the ba’al/at koreh leyn’s the text on their behalf. It is for this reason, that people who have an aliyah touch the Torah with tzitzit or siddur at the beginning and end of the aliyah and then kiss it. This is an indication of the text being ‘theirs’, albeit read on their behalf by someone else. The congregation follows in the Chumash – Etz Chayim – and traditionally chants/leyns aloud the last few words of each aliyah together with the ba’al/at koreh.
In the last couple of months, IJC’s existing team of gabbais has been meeting regularly to refresh their knowledge of their role during services on the basis of an updated IJC Gabbai’s Handbook. In addition, and aware of the heavily gendered language employed in calling people up to the Torah (aliyot), we have been exploring a new and gender-inclusive approach to aliyot, something we now offer alongside traditional aliyot following the advice of our Religious Affairs Committee.
Our final training session is scheduled to take place during services on March 25th. This will be an opportunity to learn together in situ and to explain to the community what gabbais do as they do it.
Our existing team, consisting of senior gabbai Mikael Garellick, together with Andrés Mosquera, Anneke Silverstein, Sarah Wheaton, Alexandra Varese and Peter Goldfein opened their arms to welcome three new members: Val Grimm, Althay Ramallo Fuentes and Aaron Faure. So, if you are approached by one of these community members and invited to the bimah to participate as an ark opener, Torah carrier or for an aliyah, please accept this honour – even if it makes you nervous.
IJC can be proud that we have a strong team of gabbais helping organise services. It offers me as rabbi the mental space to focus on making our services experiences of community, prayer and reflection on Torah.