Divre Harav – October/2020

When this pandemic is over, we will have fundamentally altered the definition of community. A minyan has long been defined as a mini-community. The boundaries of minyan are defined by the space of a room. You are either in the room and in the minyan, or out of the room and out of the minyan. If the room’s door or windows are open, however, and if someone is leaning in the window or standing in the doorway, than the liminal space is included in the minyan-space. And that slight extension of minyan opened the door, so to speak, for a kind of online minyan – at least for exigent circumstances. We treat your computer screen as a window into another space. And if a collection of spaces are connected in real time and there are 10 individuals within those spaces, it is as if a collection of individuals have become a community, a minyan. 

We began our online Monday through Friday minyan as a temporary measure to maintain some semblance of connection as pandemic closures began cutting us off from human contact, never thinking that more than six months later, we’d still be meeting, approaching our (God willing) 150th consecutive weekday morning minyan. We have people participating regularly in our minyan who have rarely or never come in person. Their is no question that they form a community that looks forward to seeing each other every weekday morning. 

When we begin broadcasting our Shabbat morning services online, several of those who had been coming in person decided to try out the online service at home. It’s convenient, to be sure. It’s great for those who cannot travel to Grand Rapids every week, those who have other mobility challenges, and those with health concerns about being in a closed space with others. But it does not create community. There is no connection among those who are watching, or between the leaders and the watchers. The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has ruled that once a minyan is properly constituted, those watching may participate fully as if they were within the minyan, even saying Kaddish. But we need a minyan in the sanctuary for this to fully happen. So I have a request: If you are watching the broadcast and you hear me say that we are short of a minyan: if you are able to grab a mask and help make a minyan, would you come to the synagogue and help out?

Looking ahead another six month to when (again, God willing) we have an effective, widely-available, vaccine against COVID-19, how do we reconstitute our face-to-face community? How much of the virtual community do we retain, even though it takes away from our in-person minyan? We have fundamentally altered what it means to be part of a synagogue community. Can we take the best of the online opportunities and the best of the in-person minyan and build out from there? We can’t really eat together virtually – for that we need to be really together – but we can hold very effective and efficient meetings without taking the time and the gas to travel to the synagogue building. Can we create a hybrid weekday minyan, gathering some people in person and others through Zoom? Can we distinguish between weekdays and Shabbat and not let technology be a substitute for true community for our Sabbath service (at least for those who are able to join in person)?

In the meantime, those of you who are young enough to imagine being a part of a 22nd century Ahavas Israel will someday look back and know that you were part of an amazing era of synagogue transformation!

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Minyan – a quorum of 10 adults
  • Mei-ayin – “from where,” as in ‘Where are you from?’
  • Mi-nayin – “from where,” (Talmudic expression) as in ‘Where [do you know that] from?’, ‘How do you know?’

Divre Harav – January/2020

From the writings of Abba Kovner.*

The Nazi ghetto did not make me a religious person, and I did not become a romantic in the forests with the Partizans. On the day I first arrived in Jerusalem, before even washing my face or changing my clothes, I went to the Kotel. It was 1945, and the place was narrow, crowded, dirty and depressing.  British soldiers were stationed there, armed with guns and rubber truncheons.  I had no friends or relatives who longed for those large stones. I did not go there to pray, my head was uncovered, and I had no plan to push a note into a crack between the stones.

Behind me I could hear the donkeys braying and the Arab merchants whose language I did not understand, and I was flushed with the odd sensation of fear and foreignness and the feeling that I belong somewhere else. And then someone pulled at my sleeve and asked in a whisper, “maybe you can join the minyan?”

Had the fellow called out like the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s young men who grab you by the sleeve at the bus station in Tel Aviv or on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, in a commanding tone: “Are you Jewish? Come put on tefillin!” I would have responded the way I do to the ChaBaD commandoes: “Sorry, I’m Jewish but I don’t put on tefillin.” 

But the anonymous fellow by the Kotel in 1945 said only: “we need a tenth for a minyan,” and his voice was like the voice of Avraham Leib, the shamash.

Avraham Leib was the shamash of the local shul in the city where I grew up (Vilna). In those days it was called “Jerusalem of Lita.” For morning and evening services there were enough davenners, but for Mincha, even in Jerusalem of Lita there were not many. The elderly shamash would stand in the doorway of the synagogue and, in his hoarse voice, invite Jews to make the minyan.

I’m sure you know that minyan is an important value-concept in Judaism, perhaps the most Jewish thing in Judaism, to be part of the minyan. To know that nine Jews need a tenth, and that the individual Jew needs nine more to be a people, a divine congregation. At that moment it was as if the thousands of miles that my feet had trodden from Vilna to Jerusalem disappeared.  I put on a hat and joined the minyan. I felt I’d arrived.

*Note on Abba Kovner from Wikipedia:

Abba Kovner (March 14, 1918 – September 25, 1987) was a Jewish Hebrew and Yiddish poet, writer and partisan leader. In the Vilna Ghetto, his manifesto was the first time that a target of the Holocaust identified the German plan to murder all Jews. His attempt to organize a ghetto uprising failed, but he fled into the forest, became a Soviet partisan, and survived the war. After the war, Kovner led a secretive organization to take revenge for the Holocaust; he made aliyah in 1947. Considered one of the greatest poets of modern Israel, he received the Israel Prize in 1970.

P.S. Ahavas Israel needs YOU for a minyan, Wednesdays, 7:30 a.m. and Thursdays, 7:15 a.m.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • shamash – “service” or “helper” light; later, describing a person who is a helper or assistant.
  • shemesh – sun
  • minyan – from the verb “mana,” to count. A quorum of 10 adult Jews.