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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Jon Denning (in car No. 46) spent six years as a NASCAR driver, racing cars. Recently, the spotlight shone on another skill: reading Torah.

Denning and his fiancee, Noa Haase, in Israel for Passover 2015.

About to marry, the 29-year-old is a fan of Chabad.org’s “Torah Trainer.”

Former race-car pro reads like a rabbinic pro before his wedding

Jon Denning isn’t a stranger to the spotlight. After all, being a NASCAR driver for six years put him in front of massive crowds of racing enthusiasts as he worked the circuit pursuing his dreams.

It was the fulfillment of another kind of dream that drew attention to the 29-year-old in quite a different way last Saturday at Chabad at Short Hills in New Jersey. There, Denning celebrated his aufruf—the Jewish custom of a groom being called up to the Torah for an aliyahin honor of his upcoming marriage to 28-year-old speech pathologist Noa Haase—by reading from the Torah himself.

“People were extremely impressed by the poise and the manner in which he read the Torah on Shabbat,” says Rabbi Mendel Solomon, co-director of Chabad at Short Hills with his wife, Chana Devora. “It was very beautiful and slow and precise,” as Denning read the segment of the weekly portion for his father’s aliyah.

Denning began his racing career when he was just 10 years old, riding go-karts. He worked his way up to the big leagues, spending six years racing on the NASCAR circuit, leaving in 2009.

Growing up in a Jewish home in Springfield, N.J., Denning attended Hebrew school twice a week and became a bar mitzvah at a synagogue his parents, Brad and Rochelle Denning, were affiliated with at the time.

But it had been nearly a decade since Denning had last read Torah in the synagogue, and he was determined to read the portion on his own once again.

‘Torah Trainer’: A Handy Tool

“Celebrating with an aufruf just seemed like the natural thing to do. And to do so in the same manner my ancestors did by reading the Torah, it’s like a bar or bat mitzvah—a passage into the next chapter of life. It’s a very emotional and meaningful experience, especially when you don’t read from the Torah all the time and have to spend hours learning to do so.”

To become fluent for his pre-wedding aliyah, Denning used an online tool: the Chabad.org interactive “Torah Trainer.” The tool allows users to pick a specific section of the Torah and then listen as it is read aloud using trop, the cantillation or Hebrew chanting melody during weekly services. As the portion is being read aloud, users follow along with the text on screen as each word being recited is highlighted in blue.

Users can also learn to say the blessings said before and after the reading, along with additional special prayers and Jewish readings, like Megillat Esther.

“The ‘Torah Trainer’ made it infinitely easier, and is very encouraging,” says Denning. “The last time I read from the Torah was on Rosh Hashanah about 10 years ago; at the time, I had a CD with the melody on it and printout of the portion. I had to pause and rewind, and kept having to go back and forth” to learn.

“Now, I work 60 hours a week and am in night school studying for my MBA, so if I had to study using a CD, it wouldn’t have happened. With this, I was able to study through my cell phone every day on my commute to and from work.”

The software was so effective that when Denning was called up to the Torah, he says he wasn’t at all nervous or concerned; instead, he notes being able to take a moment and reflect on the beauty of the handwritten words that have remained unchanged throughout Jewish history.

And it’s something he’d like to do again.

“At meaningful points in my life, I would be honored to,” he says. “It’s an almost unrivaled sense of accomplishment because of the spiritual aspect of reading the Torah. When you kiss and close the Torah after your aliyah, it’s a beautiful feeling.”

By Faygie Levy Holt/Chabad.org