by Rabbi Ilan Feldman, Beth Jacob Congregation, Atlanta GA
I have good news for those of you in despair about the shtiebelization of American Orthodoxy. I have inadvertently conducted a social science experiment in my own community, and the results suggest that–surprise, surprise–people will join bold leadership in countering this trend in American Orthodoxy.
My experiment developed when I found myself behind deadline (again) in submitting my article for our synagogue bulletin. The erratic and unceasing demands of the American rabbinate are less than fully conducive to contemplation, serenity and creativity , states of mind so critical in producing something worthy of one’s readership. As I sat before my computer’s blank screen under pressure to produce, it dutifully alerted me to the fact that I had received another email, entitled “parking lot minyan”. Faced with the choice of ignoring its contents and focusing on producing an article or nibbling at the bait dangling before me, I chose, of course, to take the bait.
The email was authored by a long-time member of the community, a kind and caring soul. He complained about the length of the most recent Friday night service, during which the beginning of L’cho Dodi “sounded like a funeral dirge”. He went on to confess,
Out of desperation, I’m frivolously talking about organizing a parking lot minyan. Don’t worry, it won’t happen. But there’s no reason that mincha, kabballas Shabbos, and maariv should take longer than 45-60 minutes. My problem with Atlanta (and much of the U.S.) has become that there are few shuls where I’m comfortable with davening. The one exception is early minyan. Even weekday mincha-maariv has become a one hour event when a d’var halacha [ed.-short halachic discussion] is added. In [A North Eastern Jewish community], the davening is too fast (30 minutes for morning minyan), but it’s preferable to the long drawn-out services now taking root in most parts of the U.S.
I was hooked. My fingers seemed to have found a mind of their own, and I watched as, suddenly filled with creativity and energy, they formulated this response:
There is a reason this trend you negatively describe is happening: most people like it. That is why we have a huge crowd, in spite of the longer service than you would like (the difference between a longer service and a shorter one is really maximum 20 minutes; is that such a hard thing to tolerate, when you see it works for other people? One of the frustrations I have is that people want to have exactly their preference in length, flavor, and color of yarmulke, otherwise, the davening is wrong, wrong, wrong).
When you organize a parking lot minyan–which I know you are not serious about, though you fantasize about it—you will find that after several weeks, people will feel that you are either in the wrong parking lot, the seats are not soft enough, the lighting is imperfect, you started five minutes too early/late, davening is too slow, too quiet, too public, or too fast, etc. They will also criticize those who use the parking lot for–parking their cars while others are trying to daven. Eventually, you will have a lobby minyan, a parking lot minyan, a social hall minyan, and several living room minyanim. Everyone will be happy with their own little fiefdom, and no one will even know that what they are missing is connection with others, and training in dealing with the needs and the world of the other. They will be totally happy in their alienation and separateness, secure that all their judgments about everything are right, never challenged by anything different than their own fantasy world. And they will introduce a resolution at a board meeting to change the name of the real estate the shul owns to Teaneck, or Passaic, or Monsey, or Brooklyn, because that is what defines Orthodox life in much of those communities (and which seems, somehow, to be the default model of ideal Jewish living). And when Moshiach comes, they will resist following him, because if they do, they will have to stand in line with “everyone else” and it will take too long. Isn’t it actually spiritually better for people to daven in a place where they are not totally happy, but aware that there is a big world out there with different people who are worth being with even though they daven too fast/slow/Carlebachi/low mechitza/high mechitza?
The challenge–and opportunity for growth, for someone as accomplished as you, as independent as you, who runs his own professional life exactly the way he wants to– is to learn how to value that which is valuable to others and not you, and to learn how to play ball with an enterprise that is run by other people and their ideas. You are one of the brightest people I know, and you have contributed a lot to my well being and that of others, and through that, to the community, and you are not at all a selfish person. Which only adds to my question: why is someone of your level and ability spending his time in the back of the shul dreaming about parking lot minyanim to save 20 minutes (O.K., 30 minutes) on a Friday night instead of dreaming big dreams for this shul and community, empowering it by bringing your skills and imagination to the table to help the community grow, reach more Jews, save more lives, serve existing members, make a bigger difference, produce intensely devoted Jews who themselves will make a difference to others? Horrible thought: suppose Hashem made you as smart as you are and capable as you are in order to lead others in a huge common cause, and not to make a parking lot minyan of refugees from slow davening, whose only common commitment is to get davening done their way at their speed? That would be a big uh-oh, wouldn’t it?
After firing off this unedited outburst, I deleted my correspondent’s name and sent a copy to several board members, who, given their obvious bias as patrons and supporters of community, commended my fingers for their thoughts (and suggested I consider a Sabbatical while leaving my fingers behind). Several encouraged me to publish the exchange. I obtained permission from my pen pal to publish the dialogue while guaranteeing his anonymity, and, presto! I had met my deadline for the bulletin article.
Now, I have published many bulletin articles over the years, addressing issues such as Oslo, Gaza, homosexuality, grief, outreach, relationship with Reform and Conservative movements, and other purportedly provocative issues. Many of these articles, written with painstaking care, hours of editing, expressing controversial positions, have been greeted with the communal equivalent of a collective yawn.
Not this time. People stopped me late at night at the supermarket with positive excitement. Emails came in thanking me for the article. My overnight voice mails contained messages of thanks and enthusiasm. One person called to say that he had been angry at the shul for some frustration he had experienced and was wondering why he should continue paying dues, when he read this correspondence. “You reminded me why I am a member of a community. Thank you.” The reaction to this piece far outstripped anything else I had ever published.
All of which is very heartening to me. The trend in Orthodoxy to create micro-minyanim, meeting at the perfect hour, the perfect place, davening at the perfect pace, with the perfect group of likeminded friends, followed (or interrupted) by the perfect Kiddush is symptomatic of a larger illness plaguing Orthodoxy. Minyan splintering is only a symptom of the illness. We have become a group of religious consumers, demanding services from our shuls and other organizations, asking not what difference we can make to our community, but what difference our institutions can make for us. “Me generation” self-centeredness has crept into the religious community, masquerading as religious fervor and sophistication, and the trend seems inexorable. I am sure I am not alone among rabbis in wondering if the only approach is to sponsor the splintering before the splintering renders any notion of community totally meaningless. When shul and davening and community are about meeting my needs, is it any wonder that most of our religious communities are closed spiritual communes that have not the slightest expectation of seeing a single newcomer or seeker entering our gates?
The outcome of my unintended and admittedly non-scientific experiment indicates that when leadership takes a stand for the concept of kehilla/community, when we give voice to people’s higher selves, people can reject the appeal of fragmentation and accompanying alienation. It is time for rabbis and lay leaders alike to remind people that the point of religious life is to give it away, to be of service to others, not to be served.
[This article appears in the Summer 2007 edition of Jewish Action, soon to be online]