Day #39: The WKL

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK (DailyBomb) – “The issue of conversion has long been a hot button issue,” explains Rabbi Tzvi Goldhauber, “But this is one fight we didn’t expect.”

We’re sitting in a small shteble in the middle of the Jewish community here. It is the Sabbath and on the Bimah (central table), the Torah is being read.

“We had fights about when it was appropriate to convert people, how long of a ringer we should put them through etc… etc… But this, I thought everybody would agree on this.”

The Ba’al Korah (reader) is speeding through the passage at barely audible rates. The trope (tune) and words are nearly perfect – despite the lack of any markings other than word breaks and consonants. At his side, the checker is verifying every word is correct. At the end of the section, they’ll switch places.

Rabbi Goldhauber continues, “They came out of nowhere and then all of a sudden, en masse, they wanted to convert. We had no idea what was going on. It was amazing though. They didn’t know the first thing about Yiddishkeit (Judaism), but every one of them could lein (read Torah). We were kind of in the dark about what was going on. I mean, this all happens on the Sabbath, it isn’t exactly broadcast on TV.”

Rabbi Goldhauber is talking about the World Koreh League – the international competition for the best readers of the Torah in the world. It was started only 5 years ago by an enterprising outreach Rabbi interested in bringing the beauty of Torah reading to a wider audience while boosting the quality of Torah readers.

The rules are simple, the Ba’al Koreh reads. The checker corrects. If the Ba’al Koreh makes a mistake, and the checker catches it, the checker earns points. If the checker does not catch the error – or if there is a false correction – then the Ba’al Koreh earns points. Mistakes in tune are worth one point, mistakes in pronunciation are worth two. And sentence break or section overshoots are worth three points.

“Our first Thai player came to me two years ago. He wanted to convert. He didn’t know anything about the faith. He spoke no Hebrew and very little English – but apparently there was money and endorsements to be pulled in in the WKL. But he couldn’t join the league unless he was Jewish.”

There’s a referee for each match. They act as a second checker – trying to catch out both the main checker and the reader. But, with the game moving as fast as it does, the referee invariably makes mistakes.

As we watch, the Thai player misses one of the vowels. The referee doesn’t catch it and the synagogue crowd goes wild – calling out the correction.

Of course, it is too late. There are no calls after the reader has made it to the next sentence. And many readers have learned to use that to their advantage, reading at inhuman paces. As it is the  Jewish Sabbath, there are also no video replays.

“We tried to tell him that we discourage conversion, that a great deal of studying would be required. That we would make it tough. We were just shocked that somebody wanted to convert to lein Torah.”

The purses started out small, a few gift certificates, a few hundred dollars for the charity of your choice. But in the past several years, as media attention has grown, so have prizes. A championship Ba’al Koreh can pull down $100,000 in a single match. And endorsements: for everything from investment products to elementary schools to Pesach hotels can add tens of thousands more. The league’s top player, Arthit Jainukul, is one who managed to convert. His earnings are estimated at over $750,000/year.

“We were reasonably sure what we needed to do – which was to deny the conversions. There was a major conference held on the subject. But an interesting thing happened. Many small communities, lacking competent young Ba’al Korehs of their own argued that the readers didn’t need to be Jewish at all. Technically the reader was the person being honored with a ‘call up.’ I didn’t agree with these arguments, but these communities wanted to bring in the Southeast Asian readers and use their community services as a required service prior to entry into the WKL. And the WKL was amendable to that. Suddenly we were faced with two bad outcomes.”

The readers in the WKL are all extremely talented. Some, like Menachem Shpeedler outperform on defense (checking) and some like Yehuda Epstadler on offense (reading), but a player like Arthit excels at both. His ear and his voice are fantastic. As a result, he gets many veteran calls – few referees are willing to challenge his positions.

“For us, there was a real risk that communities would stop emphasizing basic Jewish education for their next generations – because they could outsource it to Southeast Asian readers. There was also a second concern, that the very significant population of young Jewish Rabbis – many of whom had no possibilities of parnasah (earnings) other than those to be earned through religious duties – would suddenly find themselves squeezed out of the vast market for readers in small towns and Jewish communities. We tried to put our heads down and ignore the problem, but it just kept growing.”

At the entry level, Yeshivot (men’s religious seminars) serve as feeders for the bulk of the WKL teams. The bragging rights and additional tuition monies to be earned through placing top competitors in the league drove many Yeshivot to create Ba’al Koreh tracks. Yeshiva-aged competitors are not allowed to compete for prize money, but their presence and successes can attract significant outside funding to the institutions that educate them.

“After a great deal of deliberation, we decided to allow the conversions for those who would show significant and sincere interest in Judaism outside of the league. Arthit was one of the first to complete the program.”

There are small women’s leagues where women alone can be in the audience, but they have failed to attract the attention earned by the WKL itself. Some argue that the caliber of the performers is lower, but given the significantly lower earnings that is not widely considered a surprise.

We watch the rest of the match play out. The final score is 3-2, Arthit is the winner.

Arthit, who grew up in Thailand, developed incredible memory abilities. Like some of his countrymen he specialized in Scrabble by memorizing all possible letter combinations – even through he spoke almost no English. The WKL was a natural next step. Now, in addition to his role as the league’s top player, Arthit is an accomplished mohel (ritual circumciser) and is well on his way to becoming a fully-fledged Rabbi.

“Of course,” says Rabbi Goldhauber, as we partake in the post-match Kiddish, “We just closed one can of worms and opened another. For example, now people are calling for religious exemptions to allow video replay; ideas include everything from non-Jewish referees to a 14-second delayed playback that a referee can check without punching any buttons.  Others are calling for TV broadcasts. Still others are campaigning for women competitors. We even have a movement of Yeshiva students dropping out early to compete in the WKL. The league and religious authorities have been wrestling over these and a whole variety of other areas. Not all of this has been bad. The controversy has really strengthened the level of scholarship and interest in these areas. It has also promoted a very active dialogue throughout the community.”

The league has grown exponentially and has resulted in more than just converts to Judaism. Synagogues around the world are often standing-room only. It is estimated over 5,000,000 people watch a WKL competition (Junior or Premier League) each week. Interest in Torah reading has shot up with 83% of Jewish teenagers – religious or not – having tried their hand at it in the past year. There are dedicated training programs that attract tens of thousands of readers a year. Sales of branded replica yads (pointers), Tikkunim (practice books), Talleisim (jerseys) and home-based competition kits reached $50M last year. With all of this activity, there has been a significant amount of spillover into the actual learning of Torah – what it says, not just how to say it.

Many Orthodox Rabbis, despite the resulting drop in their active membership, refuse to host or even attend league matches. Goldhauber is one of a growing group that accepts the league. In fact, Rabbi Goldhauber’s very productive interactions with the league’s early stage management resulted in them offering him the position as the first commissioner. He believes his own willingness to see the natural limits of the league might make him a very strong commissioner. He is considering whether to take the position.

If he does, many are threatening cherem (excommunication).

While he is aware of the risks, the Rabbi is also intrigued by the possibilities. As we are about to part ways, he states, “Other’s may disagree, but the WKL has been great for Judaism. And I’ve got all sorts of ideas on how to make it even better.”

I press for more information and after some time the Rabbi bends: “Instead of cheerleaders, we can have Kiddish competitions. No more shul-hopping to find the best.”

As I get into my car – I’m not Jewish – I can’t begin to imagine what controversies that suggestion might engender.


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