The Parking Lot Minyan

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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]

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18 Responses

  1. David says:

    To Aaron – you may be missing the point I and several people are trying to make: Rather than judging the 90-minute daveners and trying to find some optimal length of time for everyone, why can’t we agree that having different styles of prayer for different people’s needs is as appropriate as is having different shiurim for different levels and interests?

  2. Henry Frisch says:

    There is no reason why “splintering” should accompany the existence of multiplex shuls. Members can come together on some occasions and respectfully daven apart and attend shiur apart at others. That is certainly the model in Teaneck where many of us belong to more than one shul via affiliate memberships to secondary and tertiary shuls.

  3. Aaron says:

    Oldster, NYC-paced speech is hardly normative for anyone outside the parochially myopic “city” (and outside of Parisians, NYC is the most parochially myopic). It’s a reason I left after 5 years of living there and only return when I’m forced to.

    You read as fast as you speak, too?

    I try to pace myself in English according to a speech pattern that seems to be paced that’s friendly to foreigners and lip-readers as well as clear for any region in the USA. How do I know this? In my college summer session there was an English intensive language program. My regular roommates were from Brooklyn, Boston, Miami, Kentucky and Delaware. All of our foreign roommates found my pronunciation most closely matched what they were being taught in class. Regarding lip-readers, a deaf congregant at my shul would have me mouth what the Rav was saying in his Shabbos drash. Others, he said, barely move their mouths or mumble. OK, I’ll admit to a few of my parents’ Philadelphia-isms, but have worked on getting rid of them.

    Many dialects are INTENDED to exclude others or at least quickly reveal outsiders. “Ooo’s” and “Eee’s” anyone? If a person can’t turn off his dialect so that someone outside his region can easily understand him, he’s no longer in control. Don’t get me started on people who pronounce my name the same as they’d pronounce the girl’s name “Erin”. There’s no “eh” sound in the name “Aaron”.

    As a BT, Hebrew is a struggle. I’ve been to blitz minyanim and there is NO WAY you can convince me that they have kavanah for anything other than to catch the train on time. There is plenty of English, my mother tongue, that I can say as quickly as they mumbled their davening, but there is NO WAY I could have more than a moment or two of focus while doing so. 90-minute Shabbos shacharis and mussaf? 3 hours is long, but it’s hardly an argument for half that time as a standard. Exactly what are you in a hurry for? Do we want to be asked at 120 why we spoke more respectfully and intelligibly at business meetings than to HKB”H.

    My proof? If the old time davener can’t write me a rough English translation of each paragraph of Pesukei Dzimrah in 4x the speed he said it, the davening dilettante doesn’t really know it as well as he thinks he does.

    And while we’re at it, can we outlaw the professional mourner’s kaddish guy who feels it’s his duty to go faster and louder (and chap more “amens”, perhaps?) than those who have a personal chiyuv and are still raw from their loss and don’t want to be rushed?

    And for the haftorah drinkers? I’d close the bar as they’re no example for my kids to see. Ever.

  4. Chana, Columbus, OH says:

    Rabbi – Two of the 3 Orthodox shuls here do not have parking lots ;)

  5. Charles B. Hall says:

    I really appreciated this article. I had read it in *Jewish Action* and it really made a difference for me in terms of how I think about my community. It is an article that I will remember whenever I want to complain about the shuls I attend.

  6. David says:

    As with many things, one size does not fit all for T’filah. This article uses the tactic of arguing the opposite side to the extreme in an effort to make absurd the notion of one shul offering more than one style of T’filah. If a community or shul is large enough, it can sponsor more than one style of T’filah under the aegis of that shul, with all minyanim following the shul’s customs and under the leadership of its rabbi. If managed properly, more peole will find opportunities for meaningful T’filah and for leadership.

    As an aside, I don’t agree that services are growing longer because this is what people want. In any given minyan, look and see what percentage of the people arrive within the first 30 minutes.

  7. Norman, Memphis TN says:

    I am not prepared to accept the argument that an alternative minyan is shteibelization. This is a negative frame around what might be a positive problem – the growth of orthodoxy in America. Why is this movement self centered? Does one size fit all in the American Modern Orthodox Community. Why should someone have to endure 3-3.5 hours of davening on Shabbas morning? Is there a rule somewhere that I am missing. Have you ever tried to listen quietly to Torah reading when there are 250 people with different agendas? No wonder people drink during the Haf Torah! I have tried it both ways and I have to say I do not think it self centered to want to daven with a like minded group that davens quietly and finishes in an hour and a half.

  8. Calev says:

    Rabbi,
    I wouldn’t be so chutzpadik to try to counter your argument. But (admit it, you were waiting for that word!) from my own much more limited experience I would suggest a qualification: your correspondent’s motivation may be the critical factor in undermining his own argument. I am fortunate to be part of a thriving kehilla in England. However, I found that Shabbat davening in the main minyan to be intolerable because of the brazen talking of a significant minority. Fortunately, Shabbat mornings there are three minyanim (excluding youth and children’s services) and I have found a sanctuary in the earliest of them. Whatever the motivations of the founders of the smaller minyanim, all I know is that I now have a better chance of fulfilling my davening duties in a group of people who exhibit more kavanah than ego. So hats off to our rabbi who saw the potential of ‘e pluribus unum’!

  9. Bob Miller says:

    Darya (July 9, 2007 @ 8:40 pm) used the phrase “unasked-for” to describe some perceived change in a shul’s orientation. Obviously, someone did ask for it and someone else did not.

    When a shul controversy really is about a major matter of principle, and not about style or atmospherics, it’s not so clear that keeping all “combatants” under one roof is the best course.

  10. Earl says:

    Ideally, I’m for the idea suggested in the article, but I think most would agree with me that there’s a limit, even though I may be on the other side of the fence here. Many shul minyanim have become far too fast, to the extent that one can’t even come close to saying the words at a regular pace of standard conversation. Throw in a heavy amount of talking and the occasional innapropriately dressed daughter (over 3 years old, raising serious halachik implications), and I’m faced with completely legitimate threats to having a meaningful davening. To that, I think it’s only fair that something is done.

  11. Darya says:

    The Atlanta situation can hardly be described as “shtiebelization.” Whereas elsewhere hareidim leave mainstream congregations and wall themselves off in shtieblach, in Atlanta it is the converse of this situation that took place. Disheartened by what they feel is in essence an unasked-for, creeping hareidization of the main congregation, many long for changes that hark back to earlier days.

    Of course, I have no way of knowing whether it was merely a gripe about the length of services, or a surrogate complaint about the new reality. I would not be too quick to pooh-pooh it, though.

  12. Oldster says:

    Why must people be subjected to long stretches of time between their expression of each particular tefilah in the davening and the chazan’s forward movement? I cannot daven as slowly as davening has come to move nowadays. I have tried to stretch my words out but I cannot d-o- t-h-a-t without losing all kavanah. When I grew up in the 1950’s, we learned to daven at the same speed we read at and talk at. Why would anyone expect the Kadosh Boruchoo to listen to slow, slow, slow recitations?

  13. Dr. E says:

    Many who espouse the 7-11 perspective of having a shul that works for them rather than vice-versa are short-sighted to say the least. Even without venturing into the more esoteric value of “Kehilla”, there is a tendency to overrate davening “with a minyan” as opposed to the very different construct of “tefilla b’tzibbur”. While the former is what upbringing and yeshiva has hardwired us to to, the latter is the more desired ideal with all of the theological benefits contained within. After all, are we doing God a favor or is He doing us one? Unfortunately, in some areas, shteibels have devolved into places made up of guys who went to the same yeshiva or two, are of the same age, who think alike, make fun of the same out-group, and even prefer the same brand of kishka in their cholent at the Shabbos morning Kiddush. Sounds more like a clique to me than a tzibbur.

    The shteibelization short-sightedness exists because it ignores the importance of tefillah b’tzibbur for women and more importantly is deprives shul-age appropriate children of what it means to daven in that context. While on a cold Friday or Saturday Night, the idea of a minyan down the block is appealing, one’s kavana is not exactly maximized when davening in someone’s family room wedged between the unused treadmill and the family pictures from the past 20 years. When a father exposes his 10 year old son along to this paradigm of davening (assuming he isn’t playing in the other room, in the shteibel around the corner, or worse), he isn’t exactly exposing him to a great example of what tefilla is all about.

    Of course, shuls need to be progressive and not sit on their laurels. Sometimes they need to reinvent themselves, within limits, in order to remain relevant.

  14. SM says:

    Thank you for such an interesting article. I think the response suggests that people respond to what they can directly influence – an interesting thought perhaps.

    An alternative suggestion is that you could different things on different weeks so that everyone gets what they want, as well as simply being part of the community although they don’t want what’s on offer. Most shuls are run round core groups who resist change because what they most want is comfort. Everyone pays lip service to the idea of bringing new people in, but very few are prepared to compromise their own sense of ease to do it.

  15. Aaron says:

    Surely there is a sweet spot between a parking lot minyan and stadium seating where neither aliyas nor the ability to sponsor a kiddush is available to the simple baal habayis of moderate means.

    I’m also not fond of shuls where the Rav can be financially threatened by well-heeled machers. I see neither stadium nor oligarchic “community” as suitable for raising my children.

  16. Bob Miller says:

    The underlying assumption above is that the kehilla is bigger than any of its members or cliques, and that its broad priorities, not their narrow ones, should be respected, in the interest of unity to accomplish a common purpose.

    For a kehilla to live by this successfully, the kehilla’s own operations have to be open to needed corrections, not always “this is our way, period”. Without continual self-examination by the Rabbi, officers, and congregants, conditions can be created that justify breakaways (gasp!) and other things we’d rather avoid.

  17. easterner says:

    would it be fair to say that the more Modern elements of O can tolerate a ‘lumper’ type of shul, where more RW need a ‘splitter’ shul, devoid of the too boring, too long, too short, not enuf kavana, not frum enough etc? maybe i’m wrong maybe everyone wants just the one flavor and doesnt care about the Other —which many of us were taught to beieve are probably deficient if the other doesnt worship, learn, act just like us……

  18. cvmay says:

    What a super article Rav Ilan! “Be Givers”, “Improve the Whole Picture”, “Community Building” – if we could inculcate these slogans into our personal lives, what a difference it would make for klal yisroel.