COVID-19: When your pandemic outdoor minyan folds up - opinion

While obviously ecstatic that COVID has been tamed, I’m saddened that this minyan – a positive outgrowth of the plague – is being shut down.

AN OUTDOOR minyan prays in Modi’in, September 2020. (photo credit: DEBBIE ZIMELMAN)
AN OUTDOOR minyan prays in Modi’in, September 2020.
(photo credit: DEBBIE ZIMELMAN)

The World Health Organization may not have sounded the all-clear sign, the Health Ministry may still be on alert, and some people may still be getting sick, but in my mind the coronavirus is a thing of the past.

Why do I say this?

Because my outdoor minyan is folding up.

While obviously ecstatic that COVID has been tamed, I’m saddened that this minyan – a positive outgrowth of the plague – is being shut down.

Outdoor minyans

WHEN THE epidemic first hit in the spring of 2020, one of the first venues that became off limits was synagogues.

But a Jew needs to pray. So during lockdowns, when you couldn’t stray more than a few hundred meters from your home, what emerged in my religious neighborhood was what became known as the balcony minyanim. Everyone would go to their balcony and together – within earshot and eyeshot of the prayer leader – form the necessary prayer quorum of 10 men.

Jewish men wearing prayer shawls perform morning prayers in a courtyard of a synagogue in Jerusalem (credit: REUTERS)Jewish men wearing prayer shawls perform morning prayers in a courtyard of a synagogue in Jerusalem (credit: REUTERS)

I loved this. Nay, I was in heaven.

I could pray in my slippers from my balcony, sitting amid my houseplants, feeling a cool breeze on my face. Nobody sat in my seat, nobody sneezed on my neck, nobody opened a window I didn’t want opened. This was a different league of davening. Nirvana.

Sure, the power of hundreds of husky voices in one room rising up in unison to the heavens on Friday night to greet the Sabbath bride was lost, but – at least for me – the chirping of the birds and the twinkling of the stars more than compensated.

That was during the lockdown.

After the lockdowns, if you recall, we could all move about, but the number of people who could enter one closed space was limited.

As a result of this welcome change, all the neighbors came down from their balconies and onto the sidewalk, where they would pray. This, too, was a pleasure. Each morning I would take a folding chair – as though I were going on a picnic – and find a spot on the sidewalk right below my apartment to join in.

Then, many months later, the shuls finally opened up. Nevertheless, one of the two outdoor minyanim on my street – the one, in classic Jewish fashion, that I pointedly did not attend – remained in operation. So I joined it.

And what does “join it” mean? It means I participated. Obviously, there were no membership dues; you just joined by taking part.

This was the most whimsical little minyan you ever did see.

It was located in a vacant lot between two buildings, about 300 steps from my home, with artificial grass covering the gravel and the weeds, and a white tarp spread above to protect the worshipers from the sun and shelter them from the rain. Dozens of white plastic chairs were brought in, a homemade table was used for reading from the Torah, and the Torah – on loan from someone in the neighborhood – was brought out from a bomb shelter on Shabbat, and then housed during the service in a discarded closet turned ark.

At first a shower curtain served as a makeshift ark cover. The first time I opened the ark, I expected to see a rubber ducky, not an impressive Sephardi Torah. In time, the shower curtain gave way to a blue velvet cover, crafted in a store in Mea She’arim that would have made any synagogue proud.

It wasn’t, obviously, the physical surroundings that made this minyan special; it was the people and the ambiance.

The people were neighbors, some of whom I had passed in silence for nearly a quarter of a century, never knowing their names. Not that we engage in animated conversation today, but at least we now nod in passing.

And it was all of Am Yisrael.

Unlike the neighborhood synagogue setup where there are Ashkenazi synagogues and Sephardi ones, as well as a couple to deal with the different customs of Moroccan Jews, this was a one-size-fits-all shul. And that is what gave it its immense charm.

One of the gabbaim – one of the people who ran the show – was Sephardi, and the other was Ashkenazi. The tunes that were sung, the way the Torah was chanted, the prayer customs that were followed, went according to whoever was leading the davening at that particular moment.

That meant that on any given Shabbat morning you could have a Moroccan rabbi lead the preliminary prayers, followed by an Ethiopian immigrant chanting Shacharit, a Yemenite man reading the Torah, and some guy originally from South Africa bellowing out Mussaf.

And it worked. And it was lovely. And it was completely unpretentious and m macher- (big shot-)free. As my kids would say, it just flowed.

Nobody corrected anyone for mispronouncing a word – except, of course, when reading from the Torah. No one had a particularly good voice, which meant that if you sang off tune, you just blended right in. The WhatsApp name given the minyan was Minyan B’binyan (“the minyan in the building”). A better name would have been the Atonal Minyan.

No one growled at the women if they pulled the mechitza back a notch. No one had a permanent seat, so no one ever scowled at you for sitting in their place. No one had a place – yet everyone did.

And the cherry on top, the icing on the cake, the meat in the cholent? It was quick. Not you-can’t-keep-up quick, but rather no-frills quick. Or, as my mother might have said, no patshkeying around.

One of the reasons that outdoor minyanim became so popular, and so many of them – as this one – outlasted corona by months, is that, for the most part, the services were shorter.

You knew here that Shabbat morning services started at 8 and ended at 10. You could count on it. There were no surprises, like an overlong speech in the middle or an excess of misheberachim (public blessings for individuals) during the Torah reading, or someone who wanted to showcase his cantorial skills during Mussaf.

BUT NOW it’s gone, done in, I believe, by the weather. In the heat of the summer, more and more people preferred an air-conditioned service inside to sitting in the stifling heat.

I was one of those people, and now I regret it – sorely. As Joni Mitchell sang so memorably 50 years ago, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”  