At the end of March 2020, in response to the spreading pandemic and the New York State prohibition against gathering in groups of ten or more, I issued an halachic (Jewish legal) ruling that permitted the OJC community to constitute a minyan (quorum of 10 for the purpose of prayer) via virtual participation, so long as ten people could see and hear each other. I was careful to add:
PLEASE NOTE: It is important to recognize that this ruling only applies under these extraordinary circumstances, and does not establish a precedent for minyan in times when we are free to congregate in groups of 10 once again.
We were not alone in following this legal leniency instituted for a sha’at d’chak, a time of extreme circumstances. And there was much discussion among Conservative rabbis at the time, as synagogues were transitioning to remote participation, about whether this bell could ever be unrung.
We have now reached the stage, by virtue of climbing vaccination and dropping infection rates, where restrictions have been lifted and people are gathering publicly in large numbers, both indoors and outdoors.
It is important to recognize that we, individually and communally, have been traumatized at some level by our experience of the pandemic, which still rages on in parts of the world and continues to produce variants and unanticipated effects. Though current science may tell us that our risk of infection once vaccinated is very low and our risk of serious illness even lower, some of us are simply not prepared to place ourselves in a crowd, especially indoors.
For some of us, there is also a certain level of inertia that has set in. The convenience of life coming to us through a screen, the elimination of our commuting time, the comfort of our loungewear—these things have all contributed to a welcomed slower pace to our days. It is difficult to ramp back up to life in the fast lane when our lives have felt more like a Sunday drive for the last sixteen months.
As a Jewish community whose mission is to care for the vulnerable and preserve life, we have moved deliberately and cautiously towards the resumption of in-person programs and services. As a Jewish community whose mission is also to gather people for the full experience of connection through ritual, prayer, study and celebration, we are anxious to provide all the programs and services we can. Our challenge as a community is to balance these competing values.
We must continue to be there for those people who are not ready to join us inside the walls of the synagogue. We will continue to offer our programming through a hybrid of in-person services and live stream along with the occasional outdoor service.
We must also strive to meet the needs of those who wish to gather in person, and continue to expand on our indoor programming so long as we can do so safely and comfortably.
This goal, however, requires a level of individual commitment that we have not yet expected or even requested as a community. If we are truly to be there for each other—and for those not ready to rejoin us—we must regard showing up as a commitment, an obligation to each other.
I recognize that we may not love the language of obligation, that perhaps in some way it undermines the purity of intention. But intention does not create community. A community for the purpose of prayer is only created when ten individuals commit to showing up. The call for our resumption of in-person services had been loud, but the response has been weak.
The halachic process requires that a rabbi consider the practice of their community, or “where the people are at.” Perhaps we should conclude from the unenthusiastic response to indoor, in-person services that we as a community are not yet prepared to commit to creating physical community. Honestly, I can live with that. I am prepared to view the summer as a transitional time, and to continue to count the daily evening minyan virtually; however, barring a resurgence of the pandemic, in the new year of 5782 I am hoping that we can institute a system where we will gather ten people every night in our building so that a proper quorum can be offered to those who are at home and to those who are present.
In this past week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we read about the obligatory individual sacrifices the Israelites were told to offer at specific appointed times, in addition to their free-will (voluntary) and votive offerings. Are you among those comfortable gathering in person? If so, are you prepared to bring more than your “free-will offering” to your community, to make a commitment to the community that will enable us to serve others and to answer the demands of Jewish law?
Let me know who you are. Together, we will get there, eventually, with and for each other. Together, I believe we will unring that bell.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
It’s a cold Sunday morning in February, the time is 8:55am. Sitting by the window in our Daily Chapel, I have a good view of the synagogue driveway.
Unfortunately, there are no cars entering. From my spot, I can actually see two blocks down the main street that approaches the driveway. Not a car in sight.
And we have 8 people in the room.
And 2 of the 8 are saying Kaddish.
Just up from shiva for their loved ones, they have come to the synagogue on this morning to find solace in community, and I am afraid we are about to fail them.
I pick up my phone, open my texts, and call up my chat group “Local Jews.” These are the families with younger children who have moved into our synagogue neighborhood over the last few years. They walk to synagogue on Shabbat. They tailgate with Rabbi Hersh and his wife Loni in the parking lot after services when the weather is nice. Their children wait around for me to change my clothes and bring out the boxes of Good Humor eclairs. They share coupons to the food store in our text group, and debate whether hot dogs are sandwiches. They wish each other a Shabbat shalom.
I’ve never used this particular forum to seek support for the synagogue, so I hesitate. I don’t want my neighbors to feel that I don’t respect the boundaries between the social neighborly connection we share and the synagogue connection we have in common. I don’t want them to feel any sense of guilt if they must turn down a rabbi’s request.
But time is growing short. And the window of opportunity is closing. So I text:
“Good morning! Don’t usually (ever) do this, but there are a couple of people saying Kaddish this morning and we are 2 short of a minyan. Can anyone drop by for 15 minutes?”
I hold my breath.
Seconds later my phone buzzes: “Gives us a few minutes. Dragging kids from beds.”
Ten minutes later, mom and her two young teens walk into the room, smiles on their faces, siddurim in hand. Imagine that, I think to myself. Teenagers who have just rolled out of bed, leaning into and giggling at their mother’s side. On a Sunday morning at 9am.
The sight takes me back to my own youth, to the many Sunday mornings I spent sitting under my father‘s right arm, surrounded by people a generation (or two) ahead of me. I recall how they greeted me with warm smiles and expressions of appreciation for my presence. They made me feel seen. They made me feel important. They made me feel connected.
My guilt over crossing some imaginary boundary dissipates, as I remember why this family moved into the neighborhood in the first place, around the corner from the OJC. They chose to make the synagogue and its community a focal point of their lives. For their own benefit and for the benefit of others.
Do I wish that people would want to come to services on Sunday morning for a half hour without prompting? Of course I do. But I’ll take neighbors who eagerly answer the call when they are needed any day of the week. And I’ll always cherish that moment when a teen sees the look on the face of an adult, telling them they’ve made a difference in someone’s life.
Local Jews, I promise not to abuse the privilege of having you as neighbors. Unless you give me permission to do so!
Rayna and Zev, I see you. You are more important to us than you know. And while you may not be able to name the feeling now, I hope that someday you will look back and recognize the way connection to community was cultivated in your lives. Mom, great job.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
My teacher, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Dr. Ismar Schorsch, likes to say that the requirement of a minyan is the secret of Jewish survival throughout the centuries of dispersion.
Every week in News You Need to Know, we remind you to fulfill your obligation to attend a morning or evening minyan.
Every OJC member is assigned a number which represents the day of the month that one is required to attend the minyan at the synagogue.
With regard to a prayer quorum, we singularly use the language of obligation and responsibility. On the one hand, these words are appropriate. Gathering ten to say prayers that praise God’s name publicly is a mitzvah, a commandment of Judaism. On the other hand, perhaps we should instead employ the language of loving kindness. Gathering for a minyan provides a setting for chesed (loving kindness). How so? One of the most painful elements of modern life is a sense of isolation and loneliness which it can foster. A minyan just might be an antidote. I formulated this idea over the past week as I davened with different kinds of OJC minyanim.
Last Tuesday morning, ten of us gathered at Esplanade on the Palisades to make a minyan for Estelle Sollish, our much loved congregant who recently moved there. Bringing the minyan to her was a sign of devotion and our desire to ease her transition to a new living situation.
On Thursday morning as we stood at the Torah, one of the people of the minyan added the name of a loved one during the prayer for healing. The tears in his eyes bespoke a concern and worry that he was not yet able to articulate. But the minyan allowed him a safe space to be vulnerable.
On Saturday afternoon I chanted the words of the memorial prayer on behalf of a congregant’s mother whose twentieth yahrzeit falls this week. As I prayed that her mother’s neshama would have an aliyah, I saw that the gathering of fellow congregants gave her permission to express her grief even after all these years.
Last night there was a minyan at a shivah house. As the family gathered close for comfort, the arrival of fellow congregants brought the sure sense that they were not alone.
Admitting what we need, asking for help, showing our vulnerability — can lead us out of isolation and into community. A twenty-minute prayer service can accomplish all that. Mark Nepo has written: “As water fills a hole and as light fills the dark, kindness wraps around what is soft, if what is soft can be seen.” It is indeed the obligation of a community to create minyanim so that people can pray together. I have no doubt that Dr. Schorsh is correct in his estimation that the minyan has kept the Jewish people together. But perhaps the most important reason for a minyan is that gathering together allows others to be vulnerable, to know one another, to seek a path away from loneliness. Gathering to be one of ten allows us to be our very best selves through this act of loving kindness.
Flying home from Israel a couple of weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with a Modern Orthodox man from the Wesley Hills area of Rockland County. He shared with me that his learning community struggles to get a morning minyan (quorum of 10 for public prayer) on a daily basis, and that the community elected to pay five people to come on a daily basis to assure the presence of a minyan!
Our history is replete with stories of people looking for someone to serve as “the tenth” for a minyan. To this day there are many neighborhoods where it is not uncommon for someone to stop you in the street and ask “are you Jewish?” and “can you help make a minyan?”
There is no mitzvah in the Torah that obligates a person to pray with a minyan!
Having said that, let me explain.
Public worship and the requirement of a minyan were rabbinic enactments some two thousand years ago. Their purpose was to encourage communal prayer; more specifically, the rabbis taught that our prayer, the Amidah, was accepted more favorably by God than individual prayer. The rabbis have long debated whether there is an actual obligation to pray with a minyan or whether it is simply more meritorious to do so! The Shulchan Aruch (OC 90:9) writes that a person should “make an effort” (yishtadel) to daven with a minyan, but does not state that “one must.” Even those who call it an obligation recognize many exemptions to the obligation: where someone is occupied with another mitzvah (obligation); where someone needs to travel further than 18 minutes by foot (and the rabbis disagree regarding whether this is exemption is based on distance or time!); or where someone is busy earning a living. Personally, I would add to the exemption list: when someone is occupied caring for the needs of another.
There are many added benefits to praying with a minyan. First and foremost, a minyan helps create community. A minyan also enables us to answer “amen” to Kaddish and Kedushah, both of which are the public sanctifications of God; a minyan enables us to read publicly from the Torah. Coming off a week with 3 shiva houses, we know that by having a daily minyan, our community fosters a culture of care, compassion and support for its families. All these benefits are wonderful by-products of coming together to offer our prayer. Some rabbis labelled as “bad neighbors” those who failed to support public worship when they were not exempted.
It is a mitzvah as well, however, to pray at home. And it is a mitzvah as well to come to the synagogue to pray with others, even if a minyan quorum of ten is not achieved. Our Tuesday morning 8:45 service rarely gets a minyan, but the people who are there pray, sing, teach, learn, meditate, give love and feel embraced. Our Thursday morning 6:45 service often has a minyan, but even when it doesn’t, the morning’s “regulars” count on seeing and connecting with each other and are glad to complete their prayers together. Our Sunday morning 8:45 service often comes up just short, but those of us there count on that time to breathe together. With or without a minyan, we benefit by coming together in prayer.
Some mourners feel a sense of disappointment when they come to say kaddish and we don’t get a minyan. I try to teach, however, that the mourners’ sacrifice, effort and intentions are what fulfills their obligation to their loved ones, regardless of whether they actually utter the words of the kaddish on a particular morning. Furthermore, a minyan that exists for the primary purpose of a mourner’s kaddish fails to meet the primary objective of public worship and will never shape the consciousness of the community.
Our community would love to achieve a quorum every day. And our success rate this summer has been pretty good in the evenings, thanks to the efforts of some pretty dedicated people. But I would rather fail even half the time than succeed by paying people to pray, or by counting the Torah as the 10th person as some communities have resorted to doing over the centuries (a practice dismissed as shtut, or foolishness, by most of our authorities, and resorted to by the minority only in cases where a community is on the verge of collapse!).
Twenty years ago most of our community lived within a three mile radius of the synagogue. Today, many of our congregants drive twenty minutes to be here. Forty minutes of driving for a fifteen minute service is hard to justify for some, just as the sages of old drew the line at an eighteen minute walk! I question nobody’s commitment to the synagogue or to the community on the basis of whether they attend our public prayer services.
That being said, I invite you once again to experience the benefits of public prayer. Find a place of prayer near you where you can draw near to others. Come create community with us, even one night per month. All who are willing receive a number correlating to one of the nights of the month, and each month we hope you will commit to attend our evening service on that date of the month. (If your number is 23, for example, you would attend the 23rd of each month, and we would see you tomorrow!) You even get an exemption on Shabbat and holidays. If you didn’t receive a number or don’t remember receiving one, reach out to me and I will make sure you get one. (Just don’t all jump for 31 at the same time!)
May we find ourselves in the company of good neighbors, and may we strive to be the same.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
If you read the Orangetown Jewish Center emails, you have seen that we have experienced an inordinate amount of loss in our community in these weeks leading up to Pesach. Answering the needs of every loss in a community includes support for the immediate family, answering the questions of loving friends and acquaintances, advising regarding traditional practices and personal decisions, preparing for a funeral, coordinating shiva houses and minyanim, being present for the mourners in the days and weeks and months following the death. “This must be the hardest part of your job,” say loving, concerned congregants. They ask Rabbi Scheff and me how we cope.
There are two answers to the question. The first answer is that responding to the needs of a family at the time of loss is one of the holiest things that rabbis do. Families open the doors to their hearts and share their stories with us. They depend on us to answer some of the most important questions that humans can ask. And when we can be helpful, it is indeed sad but also uplifting.
The second answer is unique to our community. And the answer is: This community. Without the OJC community, we would not be able to help our families in the loving, respectful way that we do. Sometimes our president or Krista in the office are the first to know of a death. They respond as part of a team and find one of the rabbis immediately. The Ritual Committee delivers chairs and books, finds davenners, alerts Minyan Captains of the alternate sites for minyanim. In these past three weeks, we cannot thank Steve Richter and Jonathan Cohen enough for their responsible and caring attention to every detail. Sisterhood delivers some food for the condolence meal, Chesed finds out if there are any special needs for each family. And then all of you come out to the homes of fellow congregants. Some of you turn plans upside down in order to be there for another. I cannot remember making very many shiva calls without an OJC congregant coming to pay condolences at the same time. Tomorrow night, we will have four shiva homes in addition to the minyan here at the OJC. Some people are understandably hesitant about going to the home of a mourner they do not know. Not every mitzvah is easy. But the hard thing is almost always the right thing to do.You can be a part of the compassionate outreach of our synagogue by attending one of those minyanim. You might just be the tenth.
If you would like to know of a shiva house that would benefit from your attendance Sunday evening, please email one of your rabbis at Rabbi.Scheff@theojc.org or Rabbi.Drill@theojc.org.