WHEN Leon Berger walks up to the bima at Winnipeg's Congregation Etz Chayim to read from the Torah on the morning of June 2, it will be about the 1,000th time he has done so at that particular synagogue.
This time, however, will be a little different, as Berger will be both the Torah reader and the guest of honour.
That morning, the conservative synagogue will recognize Berger as a "moreh l'darot," a teacher to the generations, and commemorate his longtime dedication and service to the synagogue, Jewish education and the Winnipeg Jewish community in general.
The Sabbath celebration is part of a weekend-long tribute to Berger, who has been sharing his extensive Judaic knowledge, insights and synagogue skills with the community for more than 60 years.
"The primary goal of the event in Leon Berger's honour is to offer the extended Winnipeg Jewish community an opportunity to honour him in a meaningful manner for his long-standing commitment to developing a deep appreciation for Jewish values in its midst," says Gordon Steindel, who is organizing the event on behalf of the synagogue.
The 80-something Berger has been reading Torah at the Etz Chayim three times a week since its founding a decade ago. Before that, he was the Torah reader at Beth Israel Synagogue for about 20 years.
The Torah reading is the essential part of synagogue services every Saturday, as well as every Monday and Thursday morning. The Torah is divided into parshot, or portions, and a different one is read aloud each week. The portions range in length and many of them are comprised of dozens of individual verses.
Although Berger knows most of these verses by heart, Torah reading demands an actual reading of the scroll, according to the ancient cantillation marks, or trope.
Berger first learned how to read trope from his father, when he was growing up in the Polish town of Radzewelow on the Russian border. That training was complemented by the education he received at a Tarbut school, one of hundreds of Jewish day schools that thrived in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.
When the Second World War broke out, Berger's father was arrested and never heard from again. Berger, his mother and a brother were exiled to Kazakhstan. Following the war, Berger continued his education at a displaced-persons camp in Germany, taking courses at a branch of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem operating in Munich. He taught refugee children in the camp.
In 1949, Berger came to Winnipeg to teach at the Talmud Torah, a burgeoning Hebrew school in the city's North End. He remained a teacher in the local Jewish day-school system throughout his career, teaching Hebrew language, Torah and Jewish history to thousands of students. When he retired in 1996, he was the longest-serving day-school teacher in the community's history.
"The greatest reward for me as a teacher is to bump into former students and realize that they made something of themselves in this world," he says.
Throughout his career, Berger also gave bar mitzvah lessons to countless young men in the community, training them to read from the Torah and sharing with them the commentaries that explain the significance and relevance of each parsha.
"Whenever I read the Torah, I look up commentaries and I find something new every time," Berger says. "Torah has everything. It encompasses everything in life."
This idea the Torah embraces every kind of learning is an idea Berger has reiterated innumerable times in the six decades he has spent in Winnipeg as a teacher, mentor, Judaics expert, Torah reader and a fixture of the local Jewish community.