Big shuls are dying as intimate prayer groups rise

No Holds Barred: The democratization of synagogue life

HASSIDIC MEN gather for morning prayer outside of a synagogue in Brooklyn. The proliferation of massive numbers of smaller, socially distanced, outdoor backyard minyanim should not be feared but welcomed. (photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)
HASSIDIC MEN gather for morning prayer outside of a synagogue in Brooklyn. The proliferation of massive numbers of smaller, socially distanced, outdoor backyard minyanim should not be feared but welcomed.
(photo credit: ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS)
The Jews have always argued over shtibels versus big shuls, the intimate informal prayer groups that meet, say, in a congregant’s basement versus the giant cathedral-like structures that are the big shuls.
I spend many Sabbaths in Manhattan, where I preside over the intimate, explanation-oriented prayer services of the World Values Network on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We have always been dwarfed by the mega-shuls that surround us. Across Central Park is the largest shul in the whole world, the Reform Temple Emmanuel Congregation. Up on 86th Street there is the colossal, 10-story Jewish Center, which in pre-COVID times attracted hundreds – and maybe even thousands – of worshipers every Sabbath.
Now personally, I have never been attracted to the enormous shuls. At Oxford, where I served as rabbi for 11 years, I was cajoling utterly secular Jewish students to our minyan, and the last thing they wanted was a formal and stuffy service of hundreds of students with the rabbi announcing, “Will the congregation please rise.”
Our intimate shul experience changed the lives of many students, among them future leaders like Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer and, though he is not Jewish, my senator from New Jersey Cory Booker.
There is much to be said about intimate prayer services. They are warm. They are more information-based rather than sermon-based. People get to know each other, and it feels like family.
So why do people prefer the big, giant shuls? Well, for one, a compelling social life. When you’re part of a giant shul, you get to meet and befriend hundreds of people. You feel you are part of an enormous community. You feel like you belong.
I get it. Although big shuls have never been to my taste, I still love being invited to speak at them. There are few feelings as powerful as getting up in front of hundreds of congregants to belt out a passionate sermon. A small shtibel-like environment will never provide the rabbi with that same electric surge.
And then, if we want to be honest, there is also the desire on the part of Judaism to compete – even somewhat – with the colossus of Christianity that surrounds us. Anyone who visits the skyscraping cathedrals of Europe can understand that they made the Jewish community feel tiny and small. No wonder, then, that as Judaism became more exposed to the world through emancipation, the Jews built massive, cathedral-like structures that could compete, like the Budapest Great Synagogue, which, through a historical anomaly, was actually built on the birth-home of Theodor Herzl.
But the age-old debate of big shuls versus shtibels is now a moot point. The big shuls are dying. They are being killed by COVID-19. That is sad, and we all pray for a swift end to this abominable plague that has claimed so many lives and disrupted the entire globe.
But this is the reality we now confront. There may be no going back. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a democratization of synagogue life like never before. Suddenly, anyone with a big backyard is a rabbi. He or she will invite their friends to make a quorum of 10 and recite the Shabbat or even the daily prayers.
I think, in sum, this is a good thing, even for the rabbis. And I’ll tell you why.
RABBIS ARE the leaders of the community. But the mandate they have as leaders is not as people who are supposed to be announcing page numbers or reading a well-researched sermon. Rather, “rabbi” means spiritual master. We are teachers. And the big shuls were pulling us away from our principal mandate as Torah teachers.
Moses had no bricks-and-mortar synagogue. He taught in the desert. Giving sermons was not his forte. The Torah says he had a speech impediment. But his righteousness and prophecy established his authority. I could say the same for so many of the leading figures of the Mishna and the Talmud and those who followed them. Maimonides was a doctor. But he became, arguably, the greatest rabbi since Moses by virtue of his mastery of the Torah and his teachings and his books, not some weekly sermon.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who fathered American Modern Orthodoxy, established his authority though his teachings, mostly at Yeshiva University.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, arguably the most influential Jewish spiritual leader of the last 500 years, was never a shul rabbi. Rather, the Rebbe gathered his hassidim together in mass farbrengens to teach them Torah and hassidut, Judaism’s mystical core.
Could it possibly be that with the rabbis no longer having the burden of having to be congregational officiants to mass gatherings of worshipers, and the incalculable energy that this undertaking demands, they will be freed up to go back to their true calling: disseminating Torah?
As for the community, the proliferation of massive numbers of smaller, socially distanced, outdoor backyard minyanim should not be feared but welcomed. I believe it will lead to a much greater number of Jews embracing prayer.
For the uninitiated, the formal, giant shul can be a foreboding place. You walk in. No one knows you. They don’t always say hello. And, through no fault of your own, you don’t know how to hold the Hebrew prayer book right side up. But when you are the 10th man at a backyard minyan, you feel instantly valuable and essential.
I write this as a rabbi who, on most days, organizes three outdoor minyanim so I can say kaddish for my father, of blessed memory, who died three months ago. On days when I can’t get 10 men together, I go to other people’s backyard minyanim.
I have, at times, gone to the big shuls. But now, understandably, they have become even more foreboding. There is a temperature check at the door, you have to preregister to get in, and there are the strictest rules as to where you can sit. That’s a good thing. We have to keep people safe. But unless you have a truly compelling reason to be at shul – you’re strictly Orthodox or you have to say kaddish – you might decide you’re a lot safer following your synagogue’s zoom services from the comfort of your own living room.
I recognize that a lot of this is personal taste. Many people love hearing a world-class cantor sing beautiful melodies accompanied harmoniously by a professional choir. But that has never been my personal taste. I’ll tell you why.
We have an obligation to keep the Shabbat synagogue services relatively short. Two hours should be the max. If you make it a lot longer than that, you create the JFK club, the people who come “Just For Kiddush” to socialize at the end, or don’t come at all, because of the service’s length. This explains why there are so many three-days-a-year Jews, who come to shul only on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The services are so long that they vow to themselves that they’re not coming back for a full year.
So, given that our time at shul is so limited, wouldn’t it be better to utilize that time in explaining every one of the seven aliyot, Torah portions, so that the weekly reading becomes something relevant to the congregants? Wouldn’t it be better to utilize the time to explain select passages of the prayer services in a way that becomes meaningful to the worshipers who are otherwise just running through it to make time for the cantor’s singing and the rabbi’s sermon?
I recognize that many rabbis are today panicked. They are today watching their giant shuls, which drew hundreds of congregants a week, either shuttered completely or reduced to barely a minyan. But those same rabbis will earn even deeper loyalty to their congregants by putting their time now into teaching Torah, either through Zoom classes, written essays or live classes in socially distanced and safe spaces.
Just as Manhattan is going to have to evolve in a world where 10,000 people in a building during a pandemic is a thing of the past, and people can use massive bandwidth to do their work from home, Judaism is going to have to evolve into more intimate prayer services, organized on a grassroots level by laymen, where the role of the rabbi is to become a Torah teacher instead of a synagogue officiant.