Praying from the balcony - comment

In one of the unique ways that Israelis – as opposed to Italians, Americans and Chinese – are coping with the virus, balcony minyanim have sprung up in religious neighborhoods around the country.

  A Jewish worshipper wears Tefillin as he prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City March 8, 2012. Tefillin, leather straps and boxes containing sacred parchments, are worn by Orthodox Jewish men during morning prayer (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
A Jewish worshipper wears Tefillin as he prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City March 8, 2012. Tefillin, leather straps and boxes containing sacred parchments, are worn by Orthodox Jewish men during morning prayer
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Call it a moment of mooring in a time where everything feels adrift.
In normal times -- that is, in times before the coronavirus -- whenever one of the five books of the Torah is completed on Shabbat morning,  the congregation traditionally shouts out, “Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek,” which means, “Let us be strong, let us be strong, and let us be strengthened together.”
But these are not normal times, and with the doors of all the country's synagogues ordered closed for the first time in the state's history, I thought that these words would not be shouted out this Shabbat morning.
I was wrong.
In one of the unique ways that Israelis – as opposed to Italians, Americans and Chinese  – are coping with the virus, balcony minyanim have sprung up in religious neighborhoods around the country, where a quorum of 10 men from a few adjacent buildings stand on their balconies, or in staircases, and join together to form prayer quorums.
It doesn't happen for each of the daily services, it is sporadic, it depends on the weather -- but it is happening.
It happened in my neighborhood on Shabbat morning, and provided a welcome sense of normalcy.
The COVID-19 virus has dislocated our lives in ways both huge and tiny.  From not being able to work, to not being able to see and hug one's children or grandchildren, to not being able to go out for a cup of coffee, everything has been knocked off kilter.
For the religious, it also means not being able to pray in a synagogue in a minyan. All of a sudden, something that for many is such an elemental part of daily  life – something that some feel guilty if they miss – is unavailable, unattainable. This creates a sense of detachment.
I never thought I would miss so much the people in my minyan -- some whom I never even talk to, some who even annoy me when they lead the prayers --than when I am unable to see them.
Just seeing them everyday is normal, the inability to see them is abnormal. A taste of the normal in abnormal times is refreshing, and that is what I got on Shabbat morning from a balcony minyan.
In a downstairs porch from a building across the street, a man – whom I could not see, but whose voice I recognized – belted out the morning services.  From the sidewalk and street where a few people stood many meters apart, and from balconies in buildings nearby, men in tallitot  – looking like love struck Juliets in prayer shawls – answered “amen.”
I said "shush" to the neighbors downstairs standing below me on their balcony in an effort to give the atmosphere a more authentically synagogue feel. For that same reason, I told my wife to come by and tell me I was sitting in her seat. Actually, for the first time, I gained an appreciation of what it is like for women in a synagogue straining to hear from the women’s section up in a balcony.
There was something uniquely Israeli and Jewish in this moment. Israeli, in that there are not many places on the globe where enough religious Jews live in such proximity where this would be possible – or comfortable – to carry out.  And Jewish in that even in the most trying times, under the most unusual circumstances, the davening (praying) must go on. Especially now.
When the reader of the Torah this Shabbat  –  with a booming, strong, almost operatic voice – finished reading the weekly portion from the porch of the apartment across the street, the call went out from one balcony to the other, from one porch to the next: “Chazak, chazak v'nitchazek,” -- “Let us be strong, let us be strong, and let us be strengthened together.”
Rarely have those words carried more meaning, or seemed more relevant.


Tags prayer