The Magic of the Minyan

I started my day with the Tuesday Morning Minyan, and at sundown, I will join a shiva minyan at the home of a bereaved gentleman in our congregation. In the morning we had learning, and prayers, and then coffee with the guys (this week they were all guys, except me.) In the evening, we’ll have some quiet visiting, and prayers, and then some nosh and more quiet visiting.

“Minyan” literally means “a quorum for Jewish prayer, or 10,” but beneath the surface, it means so much more:

– a group that comes together daily or regularly to pray and share the connections of community

– a group that comes together to comfort the mourners among us

– a group that can represent Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, standing before God in prayer

– a group of Jewish adults: the magic about the age of 13 for bar mitzvah is that that’s the age at which one counts for the minyan

– a group of Jewish adults: when women began to “count for a minyan,” it was a major step forward for liberal Jewish women

– Ten: the minimum number to say certain important prayers, such as Kaddish and the Barechu blessings

– Ten: the number needed for certain important activities, like reading Torah.

Why ten? The traditional answer is that that is the number of the “spies” who persuaded the Israelites that the Land was too scary to enter in Numbers 13-14. God refers to them as eda’ah hara’ah hazot – “this bad congregation.” (Num. 14:27) Their number was sufficient to drown out the good report of Caleb and Joshua; ultimately their voices spoke for the whole people.

I like to think of it in a more positive way: ten is the number of toes on my feet. A person who loses a toe can still walk, but balance will be impaired and speed will be impaired. Even the little toe is critical for the complex architecture of our feet. In the same way, each member is critical to the functioning of the minyan, from the 13 year old awash in hormones to the 93 year old who cannot see the prayer book anymore. Each has a part to play, even though it may be mysterious to us.

I knew everyone at the minyan this morning; odds are, I won’t know many people at the minyan tonight. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the presence of every person in the room. What matters, for the Jewish people, is that we show up.

Working Out Jewishly?

gym-148632_640I work out twice weekly with a trainer. I have some physical issues that make it really important that I work out, and equally important that I be supervised – I tend to mess up on my own, doing either too much or too little or the wrong thing.

My trainer has been out on maternity leave this fall. That is great news (adorable healthy baby!) but it does mean that I’ve been working out completely on my own. The good news for me is that I kept up my workouts four days a week. The not-so-good news is that I didn’t challenge myself enough, so I’m not in the shape I was in before the baby arrived. Could be worse, and at least I didn’t get injured, but I’m glad to be back into routine, working out under Brittany’s watchful eye.

It occurred to me today as I hobbled back to my car that physical training has a lot in common with a number of things in Jewish life. My prayer life and my study life go better with company, too.  When I do them on my own for too long, I get slack. Eventually I will start losing ground, getting lazy, taking shortcuts, losing the benefit of the activity.

This is why, when I can, I pray with others and I study with others. This past summer and fall I did a thorough review of Biblical Hebrew grammar with a teacher. Sure, I know all that stuff – or I did! – but going over it with a teacher who knows the fine points was a great way to work out my brain and re-sharpen my tools. The same is true for prayer. I have been busy with the hospitality project and not in synagogue as much as before. It’s time to fix that, and improve my prayer by doing more of it with a minyan.

What about you? What aspects of your Jewish life go better with company? Is there anything you feel you truly do better alone?


Smooth Davener

I’m very, very tired after a wonderful weekend of wedding festivities. Still I had a thought today that I wanted to share on this blog.

We prayed all weekend, from Friday night services, to Saturday morning services, to Havdalah Saturday evening. We used the Reconstructionist prayer book for services. Three of the officiating rabbis were Reform rabbis and one was Conservative. I am not sure where the cantor went to school, but her voice was from heaven.

The out-of-town guests were of all backgrounds, and from all over the world: most were Jewish, but not all. Some were American secular, some Reform, some from Conservative and Orthodox homes. A few were clearly very traditional, walking to synagogue, and dressing for modesty, heads covered. The Israelis were all secular, but of course, Hebrew was no bar for them, but some of the prayers were in English, too.

Most of us hadn’t met except by hearing about each other from the couple. The lovely thing about having Shabbat together and davening our way through it was that the individuals who came together had, by the time of the chuppah, become a kahal. We had played Jewish Geography, played peekaboo with the cantor’s adorable baby, and shared our “how I met David & Yuval” stories. The Israelis tried out their English, the Americans tried out their Hebrew. But more than that, we and the regular congregation had prayed our way through Shabbat.

I doubt there was anyone in any of the services who found them 100% familiar, because the siddur (Prayer Book) was somewhat unfamiliar to the rabbis and the rabbis were completely unfamiliar to the congregation. We all do things differently. I knew the prayers, but some of the tunes were new to me, and everyone else was unfamiliar with some aspect of the services. But we stumbled together, we let the people who were leading carry us, and we became a congregation. By the time we got to the wedding itself, we were One.

I know that Jewish communal prayer is a challenge for some of my readers. And yes, there are things one has to learn, but the fantasy of being a “smooth davener” can actually get in the way of your real life prayer experience.  None of us so-called experts are all that expert except in our familiar minyanim, our home congregational praying-groups. Put us with a diverse new bunch of Jews and it gets messy fast. That’s OK, if we can resist the urge to squabble about the “right way” to do things and simply let it go and pray together.

The biggest barrier for me in that situation is my ego. If I need to look “expert” then I’m going to be uncomfortable. I learned all my Hebrew as an adult, and when some words are new, I stumble. I don’t know every tune that was ever invented, either. Back when I clung to the fantasy that someday I’d be a smooth davener, services could be miserable. I was unsure of the pages, unsure of the tunes, unsure of the words, and absolutely sure that I looked like a fool.

This weekend, there were moments when I was unsure of the page, unsure of the tune, stumbling over the words, and it was all OK. After twenty years of davening as a Jew and eight as a rabbi, I know that that’s going to happen with an unfamiliar siddur and a minyan that’s new to me.  When those moments came, I shut my eyes, relaxed my body, and felt the prayers around me lift me, like a fresh breeze under my wings. And it was all good.

Choosing Synagogue Membership

A synagogue is not just a building.
A synagogue is not just a building.

I have to be honest about my bias on this topic.  One of the fixed items in our household budget is synagogue membership. Our children are grown. We don’t need religious school. No one is studying for a bar mitzvah. But to borrow a phrase from Moses – excuse me, Charlton Heston! – I’ll let go of my synagogue membership when they take it out of my cold, dead hands.

Why is synagogue membership important to me? Let me count the pros:

1. I have a rabbi (actually, two rabbis) on call should we need them. I like knowing that if I have a big decision to make, there’s someone grounded in the tradition with whom I can talk it through. I like knowing that if something bad happens, all members of my family will be free to call on the rabbi for support and guidance.  I don’t want to be looking for a rabbi at a crisis in my life.

2. I have a community. I don’t love everything about that community, or everyone in that community, but it is my community, people who know who I am and with whom I navigate life. If I am looking for a plumber, or a doctor, or a real estate agent, everyone has a recommendation. If I have something to celebrate, they will care. If something bad happens, they’ll care. I am not anonymous there.

3. I benefit from the Caring Community, or Committee, or whatever it is we’re calling it now. When my kids were still in school, and I fell and smashed my knee, someone picked up my kids from the bus, someone brought dinner, and someone was on the other end of the phone to help me figure out how I was going to deal with life while my leg was immobilized. As an aging woman with some disabilities, this is not a small thing.

4. I have somewhere to develop and use my talents as a volunteer. This goes for small stuff, like bringing food to potlucks, and to larger things as well. Currently I don’t work for a congregation, but I volunteer some of my professional skills for my congregation. If I had the time, I could sing in the choir (I wish I had the time.) I get appreciation for the things I do from time to time, and that’s nice too. I also learn about social justice action opportunities, and have a ready-made group of people with whom to pursue those.

5. I have a minyan with whom to pray. Jews engage in private prayer, but there are some kinds of prayer for which we need a minyan of at least ten Jewish adults.

6. I have people with whom to learn. There is no substitute for a community when doing Jewish learning: it just does not work alone. And even though I went to rabbinical school, I still have lots to learn: learning is a lifelong activity for a Jew.

7. When there is truly a crisis, I have a community and a rabbi. Much of my work is with unaffiliated Jews, and I have to tell you that that more than anything has convinced me of the benefits of belonging. I do my best for families who are grieving, but they’ve turned to me because someone gave them my name after disaster struck. I’m essentially a nice stranger with a set of skills they need. How much better it would be for them to have a rabbi they know, that they can call the minute trouble looms, and who already knows their story? That is what I want for myself and my family.

8. I know that by supporting this synagogue, I am contributing to the future of Judaism in my area. Even after my kids are grown, children will be learning about Judaism at that synagogue. Couples will get married. Funerals will be held. Celebrations will happen, holidays and fasts will be observed. By being a part of a synagogue, I keep Judaism going.

Now for the “cons” of synagogue membership:

1. Yes, it costs money. Having that rabbi on call, and a secretary and whatever else (a building, a janitor, teachers, etc) costs a lot of money. If money is tight, then you have two options: talk with the synagogue about reduced rates, or opt not to belong for now.

2. As I said above, not everyone at my congregation is my best friend. Sometimes there is conflict. There are some people who drive me a little nuts. I probably drive them a little nuts, too. Comes with the territory. As the old joke goes, sometimes it is easier to love Judaism than it is to love real live Jews.

3. Yes, they bug me to give and to do stuff. Linda and I get periodic appeals for financial and volunteer participation. I also feel free to say “no” when I really can’t or don’t want to do something.

4. I don’t agree with the way everything is done by the synagogue. Policy is up to the board, and they call those shots. I get to state my opinion, but I am not the boss. If it’s the only synagogue in town and the disagreement is about something serious, then maybe it isn’t worth it. For example, I am not sure I could be a happy member of a congregation that wanted me to be closeted, or that did not count women for a minyan.

5. Paying dues is just the beginning. To really get the benefits of synagogue membership, you have to invest time and heart.

Synagogue membership is not cheap. It costs money, time, and heart. Sometimes it is aggravating. But for me, it’s worth it.