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The Weekday Shacharis Minyan – It’s Just a Minyan After All

In the past, I posted about a weekday Shacharis minyan mechila experience and the difference between a minyan and a Tzibbur. After giving it some thought, I think a typical weekday Shacharis minyan can not become a Tzibbur.

The main reason is that there is not enough commitment from the members. Most don’t spend enough time there and it’s difficult to developer deeper relationships give the daven and out nature of the minyan. In addition the financial commitment is minimal, which also diminishes the emotional commitment.

Given that the minyan is not a Tzibbur in the fuller sense of the word, it makes sense that those most involved, the Gabbaim, should make the rules. They’re the ones who are most committed to the success of the minyan and they should have the say in what rules to follow. That’s not to say the Gabbaim shouldn’t be open to suggestions, but unlike the Shabbos Shul, the process is less democratic in such an instance.

I mentioned these thoughts to the Gabbai from the Shacharis minyan and he asked what were the added capacities of a Tzibbur. I mentioned the Chesed aspect to him , but I think there’s more to it. I’ll try to codify it in the future.

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Judaism’s Little Secret – It’s Hard to Pray

The Secret
A big issue, when it comes to Shuls and Jews, is that davening is very difficult. This is not pointed out very often from the pulpit, possibly because it would discourage people from making the necessary efforts to improve.

Why is Davening Difficult

One of the reasons that prayer is difficult is because it is very complex. In Shacharis, the morning prayer service, there are five distinct parts 1) brachos and korbonos, 2) Pesukei D’Zimrei (songs of praise) 3) Shema and its Berachos, 4) Shemoneh Esrai, 5) End of service. Each part requires different applications of our emotional, intellectual and spiritual components. Davening is also difficult because the act of speaking to G-d is a very abstract process. The third major difficulty is keeping focused and maintaining focus, a problem whose existence is evident from the halacha for hundreds of years. This has certainly become worse over the years as our world has become a more distracted place.

Bad Habits are Hard to Break
People learn to daven very early in life when they don’t have the intellectual maturity to understand its depths. As a result the “Shake and Fake” process, as the kids sometimes call it, gets baked into a potentially lifelong bad habit of going through the motions. Years of Shul going in the early years can also effect our approach to davening.

The Problem for Shuls

As we’ve pointed out in previous posts, one of the primary purposes of gathering together at Shul is to pray. If people are not focused on the prayer process, then the Shul will not be aligned around the goal of providing a great prayer environment. The result of this misalignment leads to problems like talking, speed of davening and structure of the prayer service, which we’ve discussed. In non-Observant Shuls, the disconnect from prayer has been described as a leading cause of the Decline of the Great American Non-Orthodox Synogogue.

What We Can We Do

The first step is to educate people to the fact that almost everyone has trouble with concentration during davening, but with effort we can improve over time. Providing shiurim and starting vaadim (groups working on improving) is a great step in the right direction. Sharing experiences that worked among members can encourage the attitude that if my neighbor has improved, then so can I. From a Shul Politics perspective it’s important to keep “providing a great place to daven” high on the Shul’s agenda even if we’re not at the level we would like to be regarding prayer.

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Shuls Out for Summer

In the Queens and Long Island area, it has become standard fare that the Rabbi goes away for part of the Summer. This is quite understandable as a typical Rabbi is quite busy during the year and he needs the slower country pace to rejuvenate, especially with a hectic Yom Noraim season quickly approaching. Our Rabbi, and I assume most others, leaves his cell number with no calling preconditions, although I would assume the call volume goes down significantly.

Those of use left in the city or suburbs have the same spiritual challenges, perhaps more in the carefree and clothes-free summer environment. On the other hand, a break from school puts many of the chinuch related questions on hold. Personally, I greatly miss not having our Rabbi around. I miss his presence, I miss his Torah and I miss his advice and influence on the Shul.

From a Shul point of view, the first noticeable difference is the lack of a drasha. Some Shuls have a replacement drasha when the Rabbi’s away, but most forego the drasha in the summer months. It’s no secret that some people are pleased without a drasha, but I think the vast majority miss the Rabbi’s divrei Torah. Without the drasha, Shul will end earlier, which is a benefit to some and a detriment to those who enjoy being in Shul, surrounded by friends.

Depending on the structure and composition of the Shul, there may be less decorum since the Rabbi’s unspoken or spoken authoritative presence is missing and people are in a more casual mood, which lends itself to talking. Most Shuls are noticably emptier due to people going away and from the fact that some people might daven in other Shuls when their Rabbi is away.

Tisha B’Av provides an interesting interlude in that the Rabbi often comes back, but the fasting and somberness of the day, prevents fully appreciating his presence. In no time, Rosh Chodesh Elul arrives and the Yeshiva connected Rebbeim will migrate back to the city, while others will make their way back in the following weeks. Then comes the Shofar and Selichos prelude to the Yomim Noraim and Succos and all the Shul excitement that brings.

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Setting Up Your Shul for Shavuos

The Jewish All Nighter
In college, we would occasionally pull an all-nighter. We’d study all night long with ample caffeine, and go right into the test without sleeping. I’m not sure whether there was any real science behind the practice, but I think it sometimes resulted in a decent grade.

The Shul equivalent is the first night of Shavuos. We follow the custom of staying up and learning all night, with the hope that our Shacharis and Musaf the next morning are acceptable and pass the test before Hashem. In fact many of my friends over the years have stopped the practice because the benefit of the learning did not outweigh the wiped-out davening and day long feeling that comes in its wake. If you are running a Shavuos program here are some thoughts based on my experience over the years.

Learning is the Center Piece
The center piece of the program of course is the learning, so make sure there’s space with tables set up for chavrusas and for people learning alone. Make sure the Shul is opened to accommodate the earliest arrivals, which in Queens is around 11:30 PM.

Some Shuls have shiurim throughout the night. Even if you don’t have continuous shiurim, a lead off shuir at the start of the night (11:30 or so) might make sense, because there are a number of people who will stay up a little later and the lead off shiur is a good accommodation for them. With the growing popularity of Daf Yomi, we’ve added a Daf shiur to the program. On most years there is also a program for women and girls learning in a private home during the night.

A more active program with which we’ve found success, is a Shiur preceded by preparation. The teacher gives a brief introduction before the learning begins and hands out relevant source sheets for the chavrusas to learn. After the learning the teacher gives a shiur reviewing the important points. A good ratio is at least twice as much chavrusa learning as shiur time, for example, 1 hour of learning and 30 minutes of shiur time.

Don’t Forget the Kids
For early teen and pre-teen boys, one of our members gives a shiur throughout the night. He happens to be a master teacher, so he keeps the boys involved, entertained and under control. It’s too much for most younger boys to be involved in learning all night, which is fine as long as they don’t run around or disturb others.

We Need Food and Caffeine
The food break is a key component of the program. Make sure you have a water urn, plenty of coffee, sugar and non-dairy creamer for those who will be fleishig for most of the evening. Although I’ve heard some shuls go high end with Sushi and beyond, we normally put out fruit, cake, candy, salty snacks and beverages. The food area needs to be cleaned up periodically and replenished with snacks. Make sure there is a final cleanup before davening so a mess is not left for those who come to Shul at the regular time.

Getting Ready for a Tough Davening
The evening ends, when the day begins with a sunrise (vasiykin) minyan. It makes sense to give a little time for people to freshen up before Shacharis and to be ready in Shul to hear and be yotzei the morning berachos from someone who slept during the night. The big stay awake test for many comes when Akadamus and the haftorah are recited.

Although we call Pesach a night of contrasts, Shavuos also follows that pattern. There’s a tremendous energy with all the learning, while at the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of effort made just trying to remain awake.

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No Frills Davening

I attended the Torah UMesorah Convention recently, which is an amazing gathering of Teachers and Principals seeking to improve the quality of Limudei Kodesh education in our schools. On Shabbos morning the main minyan began at 8:15 AM with a Hashkama minyan at 7:00 AM. More men attended the Hashkama minyan than the main minyan. It could’ve been the earlier ending time, the lack of speeches, the faster davening or the early kiddush which attracted the bigger crowd. An unscientific small sampling said it was a combination of these factors that contributed to the Hashkama preference.

While discussing this with a friend, he mentioned that he also liked a no-frills davening – adding no misheberachs and minimal announcements to the list of potential benefits. I sometimes opt for a no-frills davening and had planned on attending the convention Hashkama minyan, but my alarm failed. I was planning on joining the main minyan for the speeches as I’ve done at past conventions. As it turned out the main minyan davening and speeches were great.

One might assess this as a different strokes for different folks discussion. Shmuel likes no-frills, Yaakov likes full-frills and Reuvain likes some-frills. Thank G-d many communities can support different options. Nothing to see here, move on, move on. However, I think the growing no-frills preference is a problem. Although ending early with a morning Kiddush is a benefit, the avoidance of speeches diminshes the impact of learning Torah B’Rabbim, one of the most powerful spiritual group activities. Not all speeches are created equal, but attendance is minimally a show of respect for the speaker and for Torah. Faster davening is also of questionable benefit, although I recognize that davening is difficult for many Jews.

However, the problem with no frills davening goes beyond a pros-vs-cons balance sheet. G-d willing this will be elaborated on in a week or two.

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A Shul Dinner Primer

A Shul Dinner is a wonderful event. The members get together for a wonderful evening together; the Shul is celebrated and strengthened; the service of the honorees is recognized. However it takes a lot of work, and if not for its primary fundraising role, it would probably not be undertaken.

As we’ve discussed previously, even a small 50 member family Shul in a rented space and a part-time Rabbi, can easily cost $75,000 a year or about $1,500 per family. You can’t charge $1,500 per family for membership in a small Shul, so you charge a few hundred for membership, a few hundred for Yomim Noraim seats, hope to raise a few hundred per family at a dinner, and sweat to make up the rest of the budget. The dinner is the key event around which fundraising can take place. Let’s look at four major processes: getting an honoree, picking a venue, encouraging member participation, making the event run smoothly.

Getting members to agree to be honored is not simple. For a small shul of 100 or less active members, getting one couple (or individual) to be honored is fine. In our Shul’s earlier years we would honor 2 couples, but as the years passed we ran short of willing participants, so we usually honor 1 couple now. If we would have had the foresight, we would have honored 1 couple from the beginning.
Some primary reasons people refuse to be honored are:
1) they don’t want to make the financial commitment it implies
2) they don’t want to bother their friends and families
3) they don’t want of feel they deserve the honor
If you set reasonable fundraising goals, you can often overcome objections 1) and 2) by insisting that a big donation or invite list is not expected. Objection 3) sometimes requires the Rabbi to pay a special visit to teach the members about the merit received for accepting the honor for the benefit of the Shul.

After the honorees, comes the venue. Find a few dates that work for the honorees and that don’t present any obvious community conflicts. Call the local halls first, because the less travelling required the better, and it’s always good to do business in your local community where possible. In Queens and Long Island, you can expect to spend between $40 and $60 per person for the caterer and the hall. If you’re a good negotiator, and are willing to tone down the menu, you might bring it home between $30 and $40 per person. Make sure it’s respectable, since you’re asking you members to shell out a few hundred per person, and it’s a let down if they’re served a tired piece of chicken, with some overcooked greasy vegetables.

Next is to decide the participation levels for your journal. Set the dinner attendance cost within the reach of most members, and set the other levels from there. Get a local printer to print your invitations. When putting together your invite list, remember people generally don’t attend or contribute to other Shul’s dinners, so save yourself some postage and printing cost and invite those likely to contribute. Don’t skip on the journal, as it’s a nice touch for the honorees, and it helps you to raise more money with the different journal page rates.

After the invitations go out, comes the ad deadline game. It’s no secret that Jews run a little late when it comes to deadlines, so a liberal amount of Shul announcements and email reminders are usually necessary. Calling members who have not responded is a very wise idea, since people are more likely to respond to a call then to other forms of solicitation. In our Shul we encourage all new members to come, sometimes by reducing their contribution to the catering costs.

Lastly comes the event itself. The goal is to make it respectable for the honorees, enjoyable for the members, build connection to the Shul, all within a reasonable elapsed time. Reasonable timings are 60 minutes for the shmorg or hors d’oeuvres, 60 minutes for the main meal and program, 20 minutes for desert. Throw in a mincha and/or a maariv and some transition time, and your talking 3 hours total. Although in a certain sense, the speeches are the most important part of the dinner, people today seem to have trouble sitting through them. Generally the dinner chairman, the Rabbi, the president, an introduction for the honorees, and the honorees themselves should speak. Inform all parties of the target time for their speech.

You can see there’s a lot of steps, so you need a competent dinner committee, consisting of a dinner chair, a journal chair, and a few other people helping with the planning and execution. It’s helpful if you can get the same people from year to year, because there’s a lot of knowledge that is gained each time a dinner is run. We had our dinner this week and it was a smashing success, due in no small part to our amazing dinner committee.

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The Politics of Pesach

Pesach, like most Yom Tovs has some special Shul issues which must be addressed.

Siyum Bechoros
On Erev Pesach first born sons have to fast until around sundown. They are permitted to eat if there is a siyum and many Shuls conduct a siyum for this purpose. The siyum is made for finishing a Mesechta of Gemorra or a Seder of Mishnayos. The Rabbi is usually the first choice, but if he is not finishing a Mesechta, there is a need to find a member or guest to make the siyum. Once the person finishing the Mesachta is chosen, the second issue is how long to make the siyum since Erev Pesach is a busy day. They can run from under five minutes to over twenty minutes.

Hallel at Night
There is a custom to say Hallel the night of Pesach in Shul. When a Shul adopt this custom it delays slightly the time the members will get home. If the Baal Tefillah decides to sing some of Hallel it enhances the davening, but causes a further delay. This is a trade-off faced every Yom Tov Shacharis, but on Pesach night, when we want to start the seder as soon as possible, it creates additional tension.

Shacharis Starting Time
Some Shuls schedule their Shacharis so they always say Shema within the halachically acceptable time. In the New York area this would be between 8:15am and 8:30am. Since people are staying up much later on Pesach night, some shuls make accommodations by starting a little later on the following Shacharis.

Aliyos for Relatives
Every Yom Tov presents challenges for the Gabbaim, but since Pesach is a particularly family oriented time, there tends to be more guests in Shul. The Gabbai tries to honor as many families as possible with aliyos and other appropriate honors. Although a member can overlook his own honors, it’s not so simple when it comes to relatives and in-laws.

Mishing
In many Shuls, where people are holding by the same standards of kosher, people will eat at other peoples houses. On Pesach, since the standards of Kosher vary more, some people will not eat at other people’s houses at all. The practice of eating at another families house on Pesach is called “Mishing”. It can be a sensitive issue because there is a slight implication that the person’s standard of Kashrus is not trusted.

Pesach is a joyous wonderful time and with a little bit of effort we can overcome the politics of pesach, accommodate our members, and make their Yom Tov shul experience as menaingful and enjoyable as possible.

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Bein Adam LeChavero Opportunities in Shul – Part 3

Here are the last 27 Bein Adam LeChavero opportunities in Shul from David Bar-Cohn.

48. Not pushing anyone out of the way in order to touch or kiss the sefer Torah.

49. Handing a siddur to the person who just did hagbah and is occupied with holding the sefer Torah.

50. Asking women whether they have any names for the misheberach for cholim (ill).

51. Standing for the misheberach for the Medina and Tzahal if that’s the shul’s minhag (custom).

52. Not getting angry at people who don’t stand for whatever reason.

53. Giving your attention to someone who gives a drasha (sermon) – i.e. not talking, reading a book, falling asleep or walking out, so as not to make them feel
uncomfortable.

54. Not being matriach people by giving a long drasha.

55. Being sensitive to the audience, giving a drasha they can understand and relate to, being careful not to offend or alienate people, or give overly heavy mussar
(reproach) if it’s not your place.

56. Not being matriach people with long post-davening announcements.

57. Not getting upset when people speak too long.

58. Picking up trash, candy wrappers, etc.

59. Helping put siddurim and chumashim away.

60. If you used a shul tallis, put it back neatly.

61. Buying a few siddurim or chumashim for the shul if you see they’re needed.

62. Thanking the ba’al koreh, gabbaim, ba’alei tefillah and shul rabbi for their efforts.

63. Offering to chip in for or sponsor kiddush or third meal on occasion.

64. At kiddush, looking to let others take first, not wanting to contribute to a “feeding frenzy.”

65. Offering to get a plate of food and drink for an older person.

66. Making sure that your children aren’t running amok, taking too much food, or making a mess.

67. Not standing right by the kiddush table and making people have to walk around you to get to the food.

68. Extending yourself to people who are standing or sitting alone, or who you know are going through difficult times.

69. Expressing warmth and congratulations to ba’alei simcha and their family members.

70. Thanking the kiddush sponsors and people who do setup and cleanup.

71. Helping to set up and clean up, or at the very least cleaning up after yourself and your family.

72. In general, looking for ways to contribute, not just spectate.

73. Inviting people for a meal on Shabbat/Yom Tov if you suspect they may not have a place to go.

74. Not asking a person where they davened today, so as not to embarrass someone who didn’t go to shul.

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Preserving Shul Sanity on Purim

Purim presents a number of unique issues for a Shul which we’ll try to highlight in this post.

Purim is Like Yom Kippur
The Kaballah masters compare Purim to Yom Kippur. From a Shul’s perspective this is evident in the fact that there are often as many people in Shul on Purim night as there are on Yom Kippur. The presence of more children presents special seating issues and if we want our regular seat we should get there early or find another seat. Although we don’t normally like to split up minyanim, some Shuls make additional minyanim in order to accommodate the overflow crowds.

On Purim night, some Shuls have a party in celebration of Purim and to break the fast of Esther, similar to the break fast that occurs after Yom Kippur. Since the Shul is at capacity, logistics in accommodating the large crowd have to be addressed.

Megillah Readings
Hearing the Megillah is a halachic obligation on men and women, and families with smaller children often need to make two trips to Shul to hear the Megillah. Many Shuls have extra readings of the Megillah. In Kew Gardens Hills, this list contains over 125 readings on Purim day.

Since we need to hear every word of the Megillah, some focus has to be made on restoring quiet after the banging and groggering that occurs every time Haman’s name is mentioned.

Purim Seudah
The Purim Seudah is a wonderful opportunity for the Shul to have a communal meal and is a very popular event in smaller Shuls, where size logistics make it practical. Since many people accompany their Purim Seudah with extra drinking, care has to be made to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors and to make sure adults drink and act responsibly.

Shalach Manos
The mitzvah of Shaloch Manos is an opportunity to show our friendship to our fellow Shul members. This opportunity can also create a problem of overlooking a member and causing a tinge of emotional pain. Some Shuls have Shaloch Manos programs where members can participate in sending group baskets to their fellow members. These programs also have the additional benefit of raising money for the Shul.

It’s All About Unity
The number of activities and the stress they can produce can bring us to the point of conflict. It’s helpful to keep in mind that the mitzvos of the day are focused on Jewish Unity and we should focus on the happiness that Shul unity should bring in its wake.

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Bein Adam LeChavero Opportunities in Shul – Part 2

Here are 26 more Bein Adam LeChavero opportunities in Shul from David Bar-Cohn. See the first 22 opportunities here.

22. Davening Shemona Esrei quietly, so people aren’t distracted by your whispering.

23. In general, not singing or davening so loudly that you take over the room and draw people’s attention, or that people mistake your voice for the ba’al tefillah’s (the leader).

24. Not getting angry when someone sings or davens too loudly.

25. Being careful not to bother or brush by people davening Shemona Esrei.

26. Standing toward the front of the room when davening a long Shemona Esrei, so people in front of you who daven faster aren’t made to wait before stepping back.

27. Agreeing to be the ba’al tefillah if the gabbai needs someone.

28. If you’re a ba’al tefillah, knowing the usual pace of davening and not being matriach (bothering, delaying) people with long davening or slow tunes.

29. As a ba’al tefillah, finding out how much singing is desired/expected.

30. Having patience for a ba’al tefillah who is too slow – or fast – for your taste, or who sings too much – or too little.

31. Not yelling corrections at the ba’al tefillah, but approaching them in a subtle and friendly way when necessary.

32. Not expressing impatience at a ba’al tefillah, e.g. by saying “Nu?” when you want them to start chazarat hashatz (the repetition), or shouting “Yitgadal!” if they pause a bit before kaddish.

33. Not davening so long if it’s a small minyan and you think it may hold up chazarat hashatz.

34. Not getting upset at people who unknowingly delay chazarat hashatz with their long davening.

35. If you have a talent at it, offering in advance to be the ba’al koreh (Torah reader).

36. Not correcting the ba’al koreh if it’s not your place to do so.

37. Being careful not to embarrass the ba’al koreh by harshly correcting them – especially a bar mitzvah or a young or inexperienced reader.

38. Not talking audibly during chazarat hashatz, kriyat hatorah or kaddish, so as not to distract, disrespect or show lack of caring to the person reciting.

39. Not embarrassing someone who’s talking by loudly “shushing” them or otherwise showing anger.

40. Answering “amen” and singing along audibly, so that people leading davening or saying kaddish feel good that people are listening and participating.

41. Expressing genuine simcha for people celebrating significant life-events in shul, and likewise sympathy for mourners.

42. Showing joy when your children come to sit with you, and making it a positive experience even if they distract your davening, talk, don’t daven, etc.

43. Making sure your children aren’t disturbing others.

44. Helping someone who gets a kibud (honor) in shul and doesn’t know what to do, but without embarrassing them.

45. Acknowledging people who get kibudim with a handshake, smile, “yishar koach,” etc.

46. Not being put off when you don’t get kibudim – just the opposite, wanting others to have the honor, feeling reluctant to “take” when you can give.

47. If you’re the gabbai, using kibudim to include people, make them feel welcome, not ignored.

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Bein Adam LeChavero Opportunities in Shul

A friend of my friend is now my friend. My friend Menachem Lipkin from Beit Shemesh messaged me about a post-of-interest that his friend David Bar-Cohn had written. It’s an amazing post titled: Shul – The Place for Interpersonal Mitzvot where David lists 74 Bein Adam LeChavero Opportunities in Shul.

I thought the list was amazing. I asked David if I could break it down over a few posts so we would have more time to digest and let the ideas marinate a little longer.

Here’s David’s intro:

People naturally think of shul as being primarily a bein adam lamakom domain (“between a person and God”). But in fact, the opportunities to exercise interpersonal sensitivity in shul are so numerous, so constant, that one could reasonably argue that it’s predominantly a bein adam lechavero experience (“between a person and their fellow”).

And of course, all our ritual religiosity is just pomp and circumstance (Chapter 1 of Yeshayahu/Isaiah actually calls it “abomination”) when that religious behavior isn’t built on a foundation of human decency and sensitivity.

With that in mind, here’s just (the first 20 of) a partial list of bein adam lechavero opportunities in shul:

1. Not going to shul if you’re sick or contagious, or if you must, keeping a distance from people.

2. Covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough, washing hands after blowing your nose – even if you’re not sick.

3. Brushing teeth and using deodorant so as not to make it unpleasant for fellow shul-goers.

4. Helping at home before leaving for shul – getting the kids ready, cleaning up, etc.

5. Coming with your own siddur or chumash if you know the shul is usually short.

6. Getting to shul on time if you know someone needs to say kaddish and they might be short on people.

7. Helping set up the shul for davening.

8. Making sure the women’s section is set up properly, comfortably.

9. Making sure the temperature is set correctly so people aren’t uncomfortable.

10. Asking whether a seat is someone’s makom kevua (set seat).

11. Not being angry at or embarrassing someone who sits in your makom kevua.

12. Not taking up more seats or space than necessary with your things.

13. Not saving seats if the people you’re saving them for aren’t going to arrive reasonably soon and the seats are needed by people already there.

14. Making sure everyone has a seat, especially older people.

15. Offering a seat by a table or a shtender to an older person, so they have somewhere to put down their siddur and other things.

16. Making sure people who need have a siddur and chumash.

17. Extending a greeting (or if you can’t talk, a non-verbal smile or handshake) to the person who sits down next to you, and in general greeting people warmly when they walk in.

18. Introducing yourself to a new face, making them feel welcome, noticed.

19. Helping someone not familiar with the davening find their place in the siddur, and finding them a siddur and chumash with a translation.

20. Being careful not to whack people with your tallis, either when putting it on or while davening with particular fervor.

21. Minimizing the clamor your chair makes when you stand up or sit down.

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Between Apathy and Diligence

A number of years ago, a friend attributed the low amount of friction and conflict in our Shul to apathy. If people cared more about Shul going-ons, they would fight more for what they thought was right. Influenced perhaps by my role as an officer at that time, I attributed the low level of conflict to general state of satisfaction with the Shul.

On the other extreme is the trait of diligence, in which you’re constantly concerned with improving the state of affairs. All happy all the time is the lofty goal of this mindset. No problem too small, no problem too tough.

Visiting Israel and davening in many different Shuls gave me a chance to refresh my perspective on this issue. I was very interested in the speed of davening, customs and the running of the service wherever I went, however in minyan factories no input is needed and as a guest, input is usually not appropriate. In fact most minyanim run fine on autopilot: 10 men together – start davening, 10 men finished – start the repetition of the Shomoneh Esrai. My lack of involvement was not due to apathy, rather it was because my input and manpower was not needed.

Sometimes people complain that 20% of the members do 95% of the work. A closer look might reveal that the quiet 80% are not apathetic, they’re just cautious about giving unnecessary input. The diligent one might look for opportunities to get more people involved, while the wiser approach might be to let things run their natural course and most people will find the involvement level that works best for them.

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My Most Favorite Shul in the World

I love Yerushalayim! I love the buildings. I love the light rail. I love the stores. I love the people. I love the learning. And I love the Shuls. Wherever you turn you can catch a serious Shacharis, Mincha or Maariv.

Of all the places in Yerushalayim, I love the Old City best. The Kotel and the surrounding concentration of Jews, Torah and Shuls brings out the spiritual best in me. And my favorite Shul in Yerushalayim is the Hurva.

The Hurva is a beautiful Shul which runs like clockwork according to the Minhagim of the Gra. Nobody says “Baruch Hu U’Varech Shemo”. On Rosh Chodesh, only the Baal Tefillah says Brochos before and after Hallel and there is no skipping back after the first aliyah of leining. However, one of the most striking things (which I don’t think is a Minhag HaGra), is that the entire Tzibbur sings a 15 minute Hallel together. On the first day of Rosh Chodesh we davened at the Neitz minyan, but on the second day we davened at the 7:45 minyan, where a class of grade school boys added an extra melodic dimension to the Hallel.

Additional fine features of the Hurva is the gathering around for coffee after davening, a super friendly Rav who extends and embraces visitors despite a potential language gap, and a comfortable but cozy women’s section high above the main shul.

I love the Hurva and it’s my favorite place to daven in Yerushalayim, but my most favorite Shul in the world is located at 73rd Avenue and 147st in Kew Gardens Hills. It doesn’t have the inherent holiness of the Old City, nor is the davening as focused as the Hurva, but it does have one thing over all the other Shuls in the World – it is filled with people I love. People with whom I’ve shared the majority of my life through joy, through sorrow, through learning, through tefillah, through chesed, through building, through fund raising and through lasting friendships.

When it comes to Shuls, there’s truly no place like home.

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Shabbos Davening at the Holiest Place on Earth

Davening in Yerushalayim is an amazing eclectic experience. In just five days I’ve experienced the Zichron Moshe and Malchei Tzedek minyan factories of Geula, Vasikin at the Kotel, Kabbalos Shabbos at the Mir, Mincha in Meron, and Shabbos Morning at the Holiest Place on Earth.

My friend who has been living and learning in the Old City for the past 40 years davens Shabbos morning at an Old City Yeshivish Ashkenaz minyan deep in the tunnel at the Kotel. The location makes it the closest minyan to the Kodesh Kodashim. My friend has a makom kavuah at the wall, where my son and I joined him for Shabbos.

The start time (this week at 8:30 pm) is 40 minutes before the Gaon’s zman for Krias Shema with a slow Shema and Shemoneh Esrai and no additional lag time, for a total of one hour and 45 minutes from Mizmor Shiur to Shiur Shel Yom. Although the time was straight and orderly, the seats are amazingly scattered, as can be expected at the Kotel. Because my friend is an upstanding minyan regular, I was honored with an Aliyah, and the trek to and back to the bimah was quite an obstacle course – but obviously well worth it.

Even with an inspirational location at the Holiest Place on Earth, comfortable speeds, and an amazing seat, davening is a Service of the Heart, which means what really matters is what’s going on inside the head. So when it comes down to it, it’s not only where you are, but where your head is at.

Greetings of Peace from Yerushalayim!

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The National Holiday Minyan Schedule

For those who get compensated for them, a national holiday is a nice gift. For Shuls they create a little blip, since they have to decide whether to go with the regular schedule, switch to a Sunday Schedule, or some other permutation.

The switch to Sunday schedule seems like a logical move, since most people are off and they like to celebrate with a little more sleep. Even in neighborhoods with many minyanim, people generally prefer praying with the home shul advantage, so accommodating them with a schedule change makes sense.

Following the lead of many Yeshivas, some Shuls prefer not to acknowledge national holidays and keep to their regular schedule.

All things considered, it’s probably slightly better halachically to go with earlier times, although in the winter, when some Shuls daven before sunrise to accommodate working people, the later times would be better.

If you’re a getting things done type of guy, you might prefer the earlier weekday times, so you can get a productivity jump on your day.

Many Shuls daven a little slower on Sundays so that might sway a preference one way or another.

If you Shul can fill all the minyanim, adding an extra later minyan might make sense.

In any case, it’s a good opportunity to perhaps get there a little before the start time, daven a little slower, and stay for the whole thing if that’s not your usual practice.

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The Ramban on the Purpose of Shuls

I’m planning a trip to Eretz Yisroel in February and hopefully I will find myself davening one minyan at the Ramban Synagogue, which was founded by the Ramban in 1267 and is the second oldest active synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. Even if I don’t go with a friend who lives in the Old City and davens there, I might still make the effort because the Ramban in his Torah Commentary at the end of Parsha Bo explains the purpose of Shuls. Here’s the Ramban:

“When one does a simple mitzvah like mezuzah and thinks about its importance, he has already acknowledged G-d’s creation of the world, G-d’s knowledge and supervision of the world’s affairs, the truth of prophecy and all the foundations of Torah. In addition he has acknowledged G-d’s kindness towards those that perform His will, for He took us from bondage to freedom in great honor in the merit of our forefathers.

That is why Chazal say, be careful in performing a minor commandment as a major one, for all of them are major and beloved since through them a person is constantly acknowledging his G-d. For the objective of all the commandments is that we should believe in G-d and acknowledge to Him that He created us.

In fact this is the purpose of creation itself, for we have no other explanation of creation. And G-d has no desire, except that man should know and acknowledge the G-d that created him. And the purpose of raising our voices in prayer and the purpose of Shuls and the merit of communal prayer is that people should have a place where they can gather and acknowledge that G-d created them and caused them to be and they can publicize this and declare before Him, “We are your creations”.

A powerful statement. When we gather and daven in Shul we’re directly fulfilling the purpose of creation. Certainly puts things in a clarifying perspective.

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Keeping Quiet – How to Talk to Talkers in Shul

Should We Ever Talk in Shul
It is clear from this summary of the halachos of talking in Shul by Rabbi Doniel Neustadt, that much of the time a person should not be taking in Shul. In the time periods where it is permitted, I agree with those who point out that a Shul is both a place to daven and a place to relate to members of our community and therefore permitted talking serves a positive function. For this post we’ll focus on how to reduce prohibited talking.

Reasons to Reduce Talking
At its core we should reduce talking because it’s against the halacha, but I think there are three reasons people want to stop the talking:
1) Out of concern for the talker and their violation of the halacha;
2) It personally disturbs our davening or Shul experience; and
3) It goes against the environment that the Shul is trying to maintain

Concern for the Talker
It’s usually rare to find this reason in practice, because hostility towards the talker is the prevalent emotion. This hostility is manifest in both the shush and outright embarrassment of the talker.

If we are truly concerned about the talker, we should think of ways we can be effective in helping them stop. This involves being friendly and showing concern for them and quietly and privately suggesting that they adjust the times they talk or to go to the lobby to talk. A person has to assess each person and determine what, if anything, will be effective in influencing the talker, as we must do with all types of tochacha (rebuke).

Disturbing Our Davening
Thank G-d more and more people take their davening seriously these days. We’ve pointed out previously that davening is difficult and unwanted talking distractions often annoy us. A general suggestion is to constantly work on our concentration so the talking disturbs us less. If we have a relationship with the talker, we can sometimes appeal to him to reduce or stop his talking for our benefit.

If the talking still disturbs us, it is often wise to refer the issue to the Gabbai, President or Rabbi and ask them to make an effort to deal with it. We can also appeal to the people who listen to the talker, to signal to the talker that they will converse with them later.

Against The Shul’s Principles
In the increasingly competitive Shul environment in larger neighborhoods, many Shuls are looking to be known as having a quiet davening, which is a worthwhile goal in its own right. In some Shuls, members are asked to sign explicit contracts that they agree to abide by the minimal talking principles.

It is the responsibility of the authority structure of the Shul to enforce the Shul’s principles. When we take the matters into our own hands, the talker will often question our authority in asking them to stop talking. The issue will sometimes unfortunately be deflected from the proper focus of reducing talking, to that of who has the authority to ask for quiet.

Going Too Far
Some of us have been in the situation where our desire for quiet has caused us to embarrass the talker. Even if this would be permitted in certain situations, it is certainly not what we or the Shul want to become. Unfortunately some quiet Shuls are known for publicly embarrassing talking, which seems to be inconsistent with Torah ideals.

We need to use intelligence and discretion in this worthy cause. Sometimes we can let the talking go, but we have to be vigilant that it doesn’t get out of hand. We need to distinguish between the most important times for quiet, like Shomoneh Esrai, the repetition, and the reading of the Torah and other times where there is more room to look the other way.

As we pursue this goal, we need to maintain a friendly, warm and caring atmosphere and not turn the Shul into a battleground.

Orginally posted February 2012

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The Meaningful Act of Just Showing Up

My oldest daughter and son-in-law were blessed with the birth of their first child, a baby boy on Shabbos of Parsha Vayigash, which also brought with it the blessings of a Shabbos Bris. A Shabbos Bris is an amazing event consisting of a family meal, a Shalom Zucher, Shabbos Davening, the Bris, a Kiddush, a Seudas Mitzvah Lunch and the rest of Shabbos. It’s even more festive than a Shabbos Sheva Brochos.

Shalom Zucherim, Brissim, Kiddushim are tremendous opportunities to deepen our connections to our friends and all it takes is just showing up. Through the various activities I continually thought, “How nice it is that he stopped by?”. Some people just poked their head in for a second at the Shalom Zucher. The effort to leave the comforts of home on Shabbos night, just to say hi, made an impression. My closest friends came to three or four of the activities. It meant a lot to me. That’s the stuff great friendships are made of.

I also had the pleasure to attend two vorts this week. Local vorts are often attendance no-brainers. It’s the longer distance vorts which create the growth opportunities. “I don’t have that much time to spare.” “We’re not that close.” “I’ll probably be invited to to the wedding.” These are all good excuses, but the meaningfulness of the act is proportionate to the effort. Long distance and time consuming attendance shows that you care. And the people on the receiving end really appreciate it.

We’re busy. We’re distracted. We’re sometimes lazy. It’s hard to go to all the things that we know we should. That’s why we can be pretty sure that the meaningful act of just showing up brings the rewards of deeper connections in this world and the rewards of being a chesed personality in the next.

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Beyond Shushing

The Importance of Maintaining Decorum
The laws regarding behavior in Shul discourage most talking. This great set of Synogogue Guidelines by Rabbi Michael Taubes demonstrates the severity of the prohibition of unnecessary conversation and what degree of quiet is required during the various parts of davening.

Our Motivation for Quiet
Despite general knowledge of the laws, people make mistakes and sometimes talk during inappropriate times during davening. This even happens in quiet Shuls. When talking happens we would like it to stop, motivated by a combination of the following factors:
– eliminating something that is disturbing or distracting to us
– preventing the talker from committing a transgression
– helping the Shul to have the proper decorum

Is Shushing Effective?
One of the popular ways to try to stop talking is the shush. It’s certainly better than telling a person to shut-up and perhaps it’s rooted in preventing embarrassment. Although shushing will often result in the talking stopping, without dealing with the underlying causes it’s a stopgap measure and the talking will continue. Another issue regarding shushing is who has the authority to deal with talking, ofttimes it’s not the shusher.

Is Shushing Disruptive?
Sometimes the shushing is more disruptive then the talking, since the talking is often quiet, while the shushing is heard by many. Depending how it is done, shushing can be embarrassing to the talkers, which some people feel is justified. When the shushing continues through the service, it can be a real disruption.

So What’s The Solution?
Talking in Shul is a problem, but coercive behavior change is not effective. Each Shul needs to quantify who are the problem talkers and how to deal with them respectfully on an individual basis. Tolerating occasional talking may be necessary in many situations.

Originally Posted Jan 2012

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The Care and Feeding of Small Tent Shuls

Our Shul, has been at a comfortable 85% – 90% Shabbos capacity for a number of years. Although we are financially stable, primarily because of our playgroup, we periodically discuss our new membership enrollment to see if there is anything we can do to insure continued equlibirum in our new member to attrition ratio. As the membership ages, the question invariably comes down to attracting younger members.

One problem Shuls face, is that there is not a homogeneous young member profile. Some want a more Yeshivish style davening. Some want a faster davening with a weekly kiddush for socialization. Some want a Shul of peers with no desire for a cross-generational membership makeup. And some want a Shul with a great knowledgable Rav.

In this era of Shul choice, you can’t be all things to all people. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to make your Shul more appealing by eliminating some of the cruft: like burdensome announcements, unnecessary delays in davening, a non-responsive bureaucratic governing body, or an offensive culture of shhhshing. On the positive side, things like more frequent kiddushes can add some Shul appeal.

Although Small Tent Shuls don’t have as many problems as some of their Big Tent cousins, attention, discussion and maintenance is necessary to maintain your Shul’s appeal in our age of increasing Shul Choice.

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Taking Five for Hashem

I didn’t always appreciate Maoz Tzur. Our Shul has a minhag to sing it before Maariv, with last verse repetitions, and it usually delays Maariv by about five minutes. I would sometimes get a little annoyed. I would take out a sefer. Or grudgingly sing along, as I wondered whether this delay in davening was really necessary.

This year I feel differently. While thinking through the “Miracles of Chanukah” sugya, I came to realize that lighting the Chanukah menorah expresses our desire to serve Hashem in a higher manner – in the absence of the full functioning Beis HaMikdash. Just like the Maccabees desired a pure service, our lighting expresses our connection and desire to such a service.

We can serve Hashem in many ways. There’s the learning of His Torah and the performance of His commandments. There’s the service of the heart – namely prayer. And sometimes we can serve Hashem by allocating five more minutes out of our busy schedule. Five minutes to sing a song of thanks and praise. Five more minutes in the Mikdash Meat.

Maoz Tzur never sounded better.

(I wrote a post here about Our Divinely Approved Chanukah Service)

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Four Dimensional Flourishing in Shuls on Shabbos

Four Dimensional Flourishing is a framework that I developed with David Linn. The goal of FDF is to increase the amazing-ness quotient in our lives. We’ve compiled a booklet and given two seminars on the subject and are planning on refining, expanding and publishing the framework in the upcoming year.

What does an amazing life look like? It’s a life where we experience physical pleasure without being controlled by it. A life where we reduce our anger and envy and develop happiness, and deep connections to others. It’s living in a way that finds significance and meaning even in seemingly mundane endeavors. It’s having a clear understanding of our purpose, and living each day in accordance with that purpose.

The first step on the road to a flourishing life is understanding that all human experiences fall into four dimensions: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. To flourish, we need to know the goals we are striving for in each dimension. In the physical realm, we are looking for pleasure. Emotionally, we are in pursuit of happiness. In the mental realm, we are searching for meaning. And in the spiritual dimension, we seek to fulfill our purpose.

In each dimension, there is a central habit that is critical to flourishing and a major deterrent that distances us from flourishing. In order to increase the degree of flourishing we experience in our lives, we need to develop these habits and address these deterrents.

Shuls on Shabbos provide a great opportunity for Four Dimension Flourishing. Onegs, Shabbos Kiddushim and Shalosh Seudos provide pleasure in the physical dimension with the key component that there is a mitzvah to have physical pleasure on Shabbos.

In the emotional realm, connecting to people is one of our primary sources of happiness. Shabbos in Shuls gives us plenty of face time to connect with our friends and deepen those happiness generating connections.

Meaning is the currency of the emotional dimension and we find meaning in things we find significant. For many of us, the Shul is one of the most significant institutions in our lives, and our participation in belonging, supporting and operating it provides meaning.

The highest dimension is the spiritual and it is in this dimension that we define the purpose of our lives; developing a relationship with Hashem. The extended davening and learning that takes place in the Shul on Shabbos helps us achieve our purpose.

Living an amazing day-to-day life of Four Dimensional Flourishing is within our grasp, and Shabbos in Shul gives us a large scoop of such a life.

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The Rabbi As Professional Super-Jew

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer has an article in the Winter 5776/2015 edition of the OU’s Jewish Action titled “Reclaiming the Dignity of the Rabbinate: What in the World Happened and What Can be Done?” He points to the changing role of the Rabbi as one of the main causes of the loss of Rabbinic dignity.

Rabbi Gordimer points out that in prior eras, the Rabbi was chiefly a halachic decisor. Today, in addition to being a halachic decisor, the Rabbi often finds himself in the roles of:

educator
religious counselor
personal counselor
mentor
fundraiser
synagogue manager
congregational policy guide
lifecycle event officiator
prayer service leader
public orator
synagogue fund manager
public relations voice
communal and political activist

…a professional Super-Jew

Among Rabbi Gordimer’s suggestions is that Rabbis should narrow their non-Rabbinic duties. I would like to share my personal experience. Although our Rabbi is not active in all the above roles, many members of our shul do view him as a Super-Jew, and regularly consult him on a variety of religious, personal, shul and communal matters. The line after a Maariv in November can be so long that you might think it’s time to sell your Chametz.

Our Rav also respects the administration and Board of Director’s roles in operating the shul. He works with us and is careful to respect the separation of duties. However, as the wisest Torah-oriented person we know, we seek his advice on almost everything – with the possible exception of where to buy the soda or which brand of tissues to purchase. Sometimes the line of responsibilities gets crossed, but it’s a small price to pay.

As it turns out, there are a few other professional Super-Jews in our neighborhood of Kew Gardens Hills. I was talking to a friend in another shul recently, who is currently being out-priced for a home in KGH, and was considering moving to another comparable community. One of his major concerns is that people in that community aren’t as close to their Rebbeim as we are here. In other words, the Rebbeim there are not functioning as Super-Jews, and he is hesitant to move to a community and lose that important part of his life.

Rabbi Gordimer’s article is an important read and he makes the appropriate disclaimers that each Rabbi and community needs to consider any steps it needs to take. However at the end of the day, I think we need to work towards producing more Super-Jews, and not try to confine their amazing powers.

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Messages From My Grandson’s Bris

The remnants from the Shalom Zucher were scattered around the dining room during Shabbos lunch as my son-in-law casually remarked: “We would like you to be the Sandek at the Bris”. My heart filled with joy and I could only muster a three letter interjection in response: “Wow”. After gaining some composure, I thanked my children and said it would be a tremendous honor.

The next day I contacted two friends who were previously Sandekim and asked them how they prepared. They told me what their research had uncovered, including a trip to the mikvah. At the mikvah, a third friend shared some additional insights. Most of the ideas shared are applicable for any person attending any bris, so I wanted to share them with you.

The first idea is that the Bris is considered the spiritual birth of the boy baby. It is the first spiritual act in which the baby is involved and we should pray that the baby will continually pursue their purpose, which is a life focused and filled with spirituality. It is also an opportunity for us to commit more fully to a spiritually focused life.

During the actual Bris, the cries of the baby and the Mesiras Nefesh involved activates Hashem’s attributes of loving-kindness and mercy. This creates an opportune time to daven to Hashem for our special needs and the needs of our friends and family.

Finally, the Bris is a sign that focusing on the spiritual over the physical is especially necessary in those areas which have tremendous physical pull. We can use the occasion to re-energize our own committment in these challenging areas.

Being the Sandek at my grandson’s bris was a tremendous event, but focusing on the ideas behind every bris helps make our life’s spiritual purpose a more central part of our lives.

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Tzedakah Collectors and the Unintended Tyranny of Policy

Shul policies are absolutely necessary to resolve conflicts between different interests. In the case of Tzedakah collectors coming around during davening, the conflict is between people praying, who would prefer to not be disturbed, and the collectors, who want to go around the shul asking for donations.

There are basically three policies regarding collections:
a) Collectors can go around any time, but should use common sense to avoid disrupting the daveners
b) Collectors are asked to only go around during certain times
c) Collectors may not go around, but may go to the Rav or the Gabbai

In addition, collectors sometimes request to make a short public appeal
There are basically three policies regarding this:
x) Public appeals can be made after davening
y) Public appeals are made only with the permission of the Rav or Gabbai
z) No public appeals with a few exceptions

In my Shabbos and sometime weekday minyan, they’ve adopted policies b) and y).
The current weekday minyan that I daven at has adopted policues a) and z).

Recently during the weekday minyan a gentleman came in to request to make a public appeal. He was told no by one gabbai, but waited for the second gabbai to finish davening to ask him. He was told again that he could not make the appeal but could go around the shul collecting like everybody else. He was not happy with that and left without even going around the Shul. He didn’t talk loud, but in the small space we daven in, most people were aware of what happened.

As it turns out, the shul sometimes does makes exceptions for appeals, but in this case they stood by the policy. It’s a hard call to make, both in terms of setting policy and enforcing it. There is a need to keep decorum and there’s a need to make exceptions. When and where is in the hands of the Rav or the Gabbai and when they stand firm on policy, the collectors come face to face with the Unintended Tyranny of Policy.

Originally Published 12/27/2012

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The Ups & Downs when “Everybody Knows Your Name”

This post’s title references the hit show Cheers. One of its running gags, was the character Norm arriving in the bar and being greeted by a loud “Norm!” There was palpable sense of camaraderie among the patrons.

When I come to Shul on Shabbos morning the sense of camaraderie is also palpable. You can be greeted with a warm smile, a hearty handshake, a hand slap or even a hug. It’s a great feeling, but there are conflicts that should be explored.

On one hand, community is a cornerstone of Judaism, and a community consists of friends. Friends that go beyond the handshake, to being there in the tougher times, and to sharing your moments of joy. The closer the friendship, the more likely and deeper the sharing of your lives. The ropes of friendships are spun from the threads of the shared events we experience: the big ones like the weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, and the small ones like the warm handshakes and the “How Ya Doing?” greetings.

Even with the move from the social Shul of the past, to the growth oriented Shul of the present, the Shul is still the primary friendship building vehicle. And cultivating meaningful friendships is an integral part of spiritual growth.

The downside of such an environment, is that a Shul is not a bar. There needs to be a sense of reverence when standing in a House of Prayer and too much backslapping can negatively effect that feeling. The words that bring a smile to your friend’s face are only a small step away from the words that might be considered Kalut Rosh (lightheaded activity) which is prohibited in a Shul (see Shulchan Aruch 151:1).

One solution to this potential conflict is to be social outside the Shul, or in the lobby, or at the kiddush, and maintain a quiet dignified, little-to-no talking environment in the Shul. The problem with that solution is that there are significantly less opportunities for the friendship spinning small interactions.

Another approach would be to continue with the warm smiles, handshakes and brief words in the Shul, and to be cognizant of the Kalut Rosh boundaries that the halacha sets. My Shul follows the watch-the-boundaries approach because the balance is achievable, and the wonderful feeling of being a part of a warm and caring group of people is foundational for individual and communal growth.

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Searching All Over for Inspirational Prayer

Judaism has the power to put pleasure, happiness, meaning and purpose into our lives 24 by 7. Prayer is one of the primary mechanisms to accomplish our purpose of connecting to Hashem. However, as we’ve discussed previously, prayer is difficult and we need regular inspiration to maintain and elevate our prayer.

One common source of inspiration is the Baalei Tefillah.The right nusach or niggun can emotionally unite and lift the entire Shul. One problem with this source of inspiration is that yesterday’s popular Chazzanos has become today’s unpopular kvetch and cry. In Minyanim with a deep bullpen of younger Baalei Tefillah this is not such a problem, but in some cross-generational Shuls, a regular diet of Baalei Tefillah based inspiration is hard to come by.

A second source of inspiration has unfortunately arrived and that is the current Matzav in Eretz Yisroel. Shuls across the world are gathering to say extra Tehillim. At a recent gathering in my neighborhood, the Tehillim was said slowly line by line with everyone focusing on each word. The group was so inspired that they twice requested more Tehillim after the end was signaled with the closing “acheinu kol beits yisrael..”. However, this is one source of inspiration that we hope will vanish quickly.

A third source for inspirational prayer is the flame that burns within. It begins with a mental commitment to improve our davening. The flame is raised further by davening slower and by making more effort in concentration. Learning more about the prayers adds a freshness to the familiar words in the prayer books.

Of course not every prayer will be a home run, but finding inspiration from within is the most reliable way to increase our on-base prayer percentage.

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Davening Above the Din on Yomim Noraim

A number of years back I spent Rosh Hoshana with a good friend of mine at a Hotel based program. My friend was seated between two Rebbeim who would cry quite audibly during the moving “Unsana Tokef” prayer. He related that since he was surrounded by crying, he did the only sensible thing, which was to start crying himself.

For many people, crying is not an option. They understand the seriousness of the Day of Judgement, but we’re not a crying generation. We don’t relate so well to judgement. Rather, many of us are looking for some melodic inspiration, so we can mentally commit to making some improvements in our behavior.

What if you find yourself in a Yeshiva or other din-oriented venue on the Yomim Noraim? You can still chose to make the most out of it. Don’t focus on your dissatisfaction with the davening – that is unlikely to improve the situation. Try to read an inspiring Dvar Torah. Work a little harder on praying with kavanna, especially on the first brocha of Shomoneh Esrai. Make sure you do join in when there are musical moments.

Any effort we make to demonstrate that we want to connect to the day and to Hashem is valuable. And the Yomim Noraim are a time when we get double coupons for our efforts. Let’s hope that we all make the best of these important days.

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Rosh Hashana Revelations

A long time Shul member recently expressed his concern about a long term issue. We talked for about 10 minutes and I explained why things were that way, what was attempted, and why there was no easy fix. After our short conversation he said that he didn’t realize these types of issues were so complicated.

I am working with two friends on Yomin Noraim seating because our long time seating chairman was niftar this past year. People will sometimes make seemingly unreasonable requests. When the implications of those requests are explained, they will usually come to a workable compromise.

These problems begin because Hashem designed us to see things from our unique perspective. Each of us lives inside our own head and that is the lens with which we see the world. When more information is revealed, most people can see the picture from a wider angle and come to a reasonable conclusion.

Seeing the bigger picture is an extremely important skill on Rosh Hashana. Our task is to focus on the King’s perspective and to clarify our role in His Master Plan. May we all reach some clarity on Rosh Hashana so we can reach the win-win situation of His Will becoming our will, so that our will becomes His Will.

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Messages From A Tzedakah Collector

This morning was like many others, Shacharis at ~6:00 am, followed by Doing-the-Daf and then heading home for a quick breakfast before hitting the keyboard.

As I was leaving, a smiling, familiar face Tzedakah collector was in the lobby, having just left the Yeshiva minyan. I reached into my pocket to hand him some change and he said that he thought I gave him something at the earlier minyan. I told him I was pretty sure that I hadn’t and continued to extend my hand with the change.

He said that he wanted to make sure that I was giving it with a Lev Shelem (a full heart), even if I was mistaken and had already given. It would be a shame to have to come back as a gilgul for some mis-collected small change. Wow! I told him that I was ok with giving again, even if I gave earlier.

As I was walking to my car, the idea of giving with a Lev Shelem really hit me. I have no problem giving Tzedakah to the collectors on a weekly basis and I feel like I have a relationship with many of them. But a Lev Shelem. Could I really say I was consciously giving at that level?

So here’s a task I can work on. It’s a small amount. I don’t mind giving. I’m already giving regularly as per the Rambam. But now I can work on giving with Lev Shalem, with complete committment, with joy. I can’t wait till tomorrow.

Once in a while you get shown the light. In the strangest of places if you look at it right.

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Pillars, People and Prayer

One of the early considerations for a Shul is where will it be located? Will we rent or will we build? How will we pay for the pillars? These are not trivial issues, but they’ve been adequately addressed by many Shuls.

After the pillars, we need the people. A Rabbi to fill the primary role of spiritual leader. Some active-for-life members in some key roles. And the officers, board and committee members who keep the Shul running smoothing.

After the pillars and people are in place, we need to focus on the purpose of it all. The primary reason we’ve made all this effort – and that is to pray as a Tzibbur to Our Father in Heaven. Prayer is difficult, but it is an integral part of building a relationship with Hashem. It would be silly to spend so much effort in financing and running a Shul and not put a significant effort into improving our prayers.

Our Rav recently highlighted another aspect to consider. He taught that one of the primary determinants of spiritual success is the company we keep. Our friends have an extremely powerful influence on us. Our approach to prayer effects how others approach their prayers. It’s a self-referential loop which can bring us all to higher levels.

As we approach Rosh Hoshana it’s a great time to work harder on our kavanna during prayer so we can collectively advance in our spiritual mission.

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The SP Guide to a 45 Minute Shacharis

As I walked into the 8:00 Shacharis for the bris of a friend’s grandson, I wished him a Mazal Tov and asked about the pace of the davening. The bris had to take place at 8:45 sharp, and he asked my opinion.

I thought it might be worth the effort to sketch out one possible allocation of times for a 45 minute Shacharis in nusach Ashkenaz.

8:00 – Morning Brachos (6 min)
8:06 – First Kaddish, Mizmor Shiur, Second Kaddish (2 min)
8:08 – Pesukei D’Zimra, Kaddish (9 min)
8:17 – Barechu, Brochas before Krias Shema (2 min)
8:19 – Krias Shema (3 min)
8:22 – Brachos after Krias Shema (2 min)
8:24 – Shemoneh Esrai (7 min)
8:30 – Shemoneh Esrai repetition, Kaddish (6 min)
8:36 – Tachanun (1 min)
8:37 – Ashrei, Uva Lezion, Kaddish (3 min)
8:40 – Alenu, Kaddish (2 min)
8:42 – Song of the Day, Kaddish (2 min)
8:45 – End

Morning Brachos in 6 minutes means a lot of skipping, but you can get in the essentials. If you listen and answer amen to the Baal Tefillah’s Brachos you’ll lose a minute of your own davening time there, so get to Shul early.

The Pesukei D’Zimra time is a little fast for my taste. I would prefer 12 minutes, but that wouldn’t work here where we’re constrained to a 45 minute davening.

The most critical time to set for davening is the time from Barechu to the beginning of Shemoneh Esrai. There are the two times when you need the highest level of Kavannah, during the beginning of the Shema and the beginning of Shemoneh Esrai. If people are davening fast during those times it will be harder for them to slow down and focus. An elapsed time of 7 minutes from Barechu to Shemoneh Esrai is a reasonable Kavannah-achievable pace.

The Shomeneh Esrai is when we are standing and talking directly to Hashem, so I think 7 minutes is a good time to allocate there. I’m also a big proponent of a dignified Shomeneh Esrai repetition and 6 minutes is respectful and is safely beyond AFAHP (as fast as humanly possible) range.

The end of davening on this scheduled is a bit rushed for my taste, but we only have 45 minutes. Going slower and being out of sync with the Tzibbur is less of a problem at this point of the davening.

What this exercise has shown me is that we really need 50 minutes for a dignified davening. If we truly realized what could be accomplished in our hearts, minds and the spirtual worlds during Shacharis we would give Hashem 50 minutes in a flash.

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August Begins With An Aleph

It’s mid August, a time when many families’ thoughts turn to their summer vacations. A few years back I took my two youngest to Lake George for a few days. A key factor was that there was a minyan. I can still clearly picture arriving at the minyan tent a little early and seeing a group of ten Sefardi men and teens gathered and saying Selichos, as is their minhag to start from the 2nd day of Elul.

The juxtaposition of August and Elul is striking and holds an important message. Judaism permits, and often encourages, man to partake of the pleasures of the world, but it’s with perspective. The summer months provide fun weather, fun places, fun food and free time to enjoy it all. Then after a few weeks the Shofar and Selichos of Elul arrives. It’s a call for perspective.

Man has four primary pursuits. The pursuit of pleasure, happiness, meaning and purpose. They’re all important, but Judaism places the highest priority on purpose. Why are we here? What happens after we die? Our purpose is to develop an awareness, a relationship, and a connection to Hashem, and that connection lasts for all eternity.

August begins with our pursuit of pleasure, perhaps the most self-centered of the four primary pursuits. August begins with the aleph of ani, the aleph of “I”. And then comes Elul, and the aleph of Elul. The aleph of Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li. We take the aleph of “I” and we turn towards Hashem as we start to prepare for the most purposeful oriented days of the year. It’s truly amazing how we have the opportunity to take the aleph and pleasure of August and transform into the aleph and purpose of Elul.

Have a Gut Chodesh Elul!

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The Puck Stops Here

Our Shul is in Presidential transition mode awaiting the upcoming membership meeting where we’ll vote and then witness the changing of the guard and have a slice of Pizza or two. In the years where we don’t have a vice presidential succession plan, it’s sometimes a difficult task finding the right person to accept the job. I blame Harry Truman and the Rangers. Let me explain.

Harry Truman kept a sign on his desk that said ‘The Buck Stops Here’. It’s a play off the phrase ‘Passing the Buck’ which was originally a poker term, but has come to mean – not taking responsibility. By keeping the sign on his desk Truman was acknowledging that the President has to make the decisions and he was accepting the ultimate responsibility for those decisions. It seems that the sign was last sighted on the Presidential Desk during the Carter Administration.

I think some people reject the Shul Presidential position, not because of the amount of work involved, but rather because they don’t want to shoulder the responsibility for all that goes on in the Shul. In fact, that’s a better stance than accepting the position and then passing the buck.

Let’s segue to the Rangers. Except for a few notable exceptions the goalie is not a glamour position in hockey. After every goal scored, the goalie’s head is lowered because he ultimately is the one who let it go by. Yes, the defenceman should have done his job, but the goalie’s responsibility is ‘The Puck Stops Here’.

It’s the same with the Shul President. Even if your budget is in the black, with a great Rav, and solid people in key roles behind you, there will be some shots on goal that you’ll have to handle. They can’t be anticipated, and there’s sometimes a significant difference between a save and a flub. The truth is most of the flubs are not season enders, but it takes strength and commitment to be in the net night and day for two years.

I tip my hat to both the outgoing and incoming president for accepting the responsibility of the position. The upside is that although it looks like a long season, I don’t know of any president who regretted it after their term of service ended. It’s pretty clear that along with the responsibility comes tremendous satisfaction and merit for the tens of thousands of minutes of davening, learning and chesed that takes place in the Shul each year under your reign. Yasher Koach!

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Summertime Davening Blues

Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do
But there ain’t no cure for the summertime davening blues

My weekday Shacharis minyan davens the post Shemoneh Esrai portions a tad too fast for me. My solution was to focus on all the other things I love about the minyan and to daven at least once a week at the slower Yeshiva minyan, conveniently housed in the same building. Given that I had a chasanah and a late l’chaim last night, today was the slow davening day.

The summertime, when the Yeshiva is out of session, is an even greater treat because the large Beis Medrash is hosting about 20-30 men, and there is no concern about taking somebody’s regular seat. Although the total davening time is usually the Yeshiva standard 50 minutes from Hodu, it seems a little slower to me in the summer.

This morning, a friend of mine, who has a great Nusach, davened from the Amud and it took 60 minutes from Hodu. When he walked over to say good morning, I was about to tell him how much I appreciated his fine slow davening. Before I could get the words out, a senior yeshiva resident mentioned that the davening was 10 minutes longer than usual and needed to be sped up in the future. My friend handled the criticism with calmness and excellence and earnestly asked for suggestions on where he should speed up.

After that conversation ended, I mentioned to my friend that although I understood the need for speed limits, I really appreciated his davening this morning. Although it ended on a little bit of a blue note, and it is unlikely that it’ll happen again, I am thankful that this particular summer day got off to such a great slow start.

Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do
But there ain’t no cure for the summertime davening blues

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Increasing Our Love of Our Fellow Jews During the Nine Days

Sitting in the comfort of our communities, we can sometimes lose touch of how seriously the Jewish People are currently being challenged. Marriage law changes are a frontal attack on our deeply held beliefs and the unfathomable strengthening of Iran, one the world’s most active state sponsors of terrorism, threatens the lives of Jews in Israel and around the world.

There are three things we are taught to do in such times. Increase our Torah learning, work on improving our davening, and increasing our chesed and love of our fellow Jews. Our Shuls provide an avenue for all three, but let’s focus on our love our fellow Jews, since that is one of the primary callings during the Nine Days.

One of the most practical pieces of advices I’ve ever heard regarding increasing our love of our fellow Jews comes from Rebbetzin Tzipporah Heller. She advises that whenever we meet or greet somebody, we should ask ourselves two questions: “How can I give to this person?” and “What can I learn from this person?”

Giving is not limited to physical things, it includes advice, showing you care by inquiring about the other’s welfare, and offering words of encouragement. Learning from others includes not just subject-matter information but appreciating insights offered from their unique vantage point.

The more we give and learn from others, the more we will love them and connect to them. In addition to the personal happiness generated from such connections, this also creates the unity that is necessary to fulfill our purpose in this world. The solution to our problems lies not in the hands of the nations of the world, but in the efforts we put in to increase our love, and eradicate any disdain we have for our fellow Jews.

Let us hope that we collectively rise to the occasion, so that we can all merit witnessing the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash in our lifetimes.

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Ruach in the Mountains at Camp Dina

My daughter is working at Camp Dina in the Poconos this summer and my son-in-law is driving the younger kids of the staff to Camp Dora Golding, the companion boys camp. I was very happy that they got away, but there was a tinge of sadness because I would barely see my grandson. When the text came in that we could come up for Shabbos I was overjoyed and excited about some new Shul experiences.

Since we ate our meals in the cabin, we didn’t experience the renowned girl’s camp dining room ruach. Fortunately, it did spilled over into the 20 member male staff and spouse minyan. It began with a spirited all-hands-on-board Chatzi-Carlebach Kabbalos Shabbos. Everybody sang and it rocked the dual purpose shul and music room.

Shacharis had a lazy summer day start, and when I asked what time was Boruchu, I was kindheartedly informed, “whenever we get to it”. The Baalei Tefillah for both Shacharis and Mussaf were excellent. It was fascinating that they had so many good Baalei Tefillah among the 20 males. Those who read the Torah were all well prepared. Unfortunately, the camp Rabbi did not give a drasha, but I spent some great time talking to him about his Kiruv Shul experiences in Irvine, California.

The kiddush after davening was amazing. The shnapps were good, and I’m not a big herring fan, but the ruach carried on. There were a number of spirited zemiros sung during the take it slow kiddush. And to top it off, there were a few Dvar Torahs. Everybody was very friendly. It was great Shabbos morning.

I was prepared for a great Shul experience with a focus on connection, and the Ruach in the Mountain Minyans truly exceeded even my optimistic expectations.

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The Simplicity of Monsey Minyanim

I spent last Shabbos in Monsey and two of the minyanim in which I davened were in houses. One was a neighbor on the block of my host who had a little trouble walking the few blocks to the closest Shul. The other was a regular Shabbos morning minyan convening in a converted basement.

There were no rabbis, no presidents, no boards, no dues and no rules. There were just 10+ people joining together to daven with a minyan. And it worked fine. The only thing stopping me from connecting to Hashem were my own concentration limitations.

I love my Shul with its wonderful Rabbi, chevra, chesed focus, Torah learning and growth opportunities, but it’s nice to get back to experience the simplicity of a Shul and to re-focus on the Shul’s primary purpose, which is connection to Hashem through davening with a minyan.

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In Defense of the Latecomers

I walked into the Neitz minyan this morning, about 10 minutes before the 5:02am Brochos start time, and the seating Gabbai gave me a thumbs up indicating I was one of the first ten. I was surprised because I’ll often get a good-hearted tsk tsk you’re late finger wave if I get there 10 minutes before the start. It’s one of the things I love about this minyan and it certainly recalibrates the definition of coming late.

On a recent Shabbos, I was involved in a discussion with a friend about coming late. We’ve established two times which have merited lamination on the chazzan’s shtender, 8:37am for the first Kaddish and 8:55am for Borochu. I sometimes find myself in the role of defending the sanctity of those times but my friend had a different take:

“If people don’t want to miss the first Kaddish – they should get here by the 8:30am start time”. – he argued.

“It’s not so easy for people to get here at the start” – I replied.

“If the saying or responding to Kaddish is so important to them, they can get here early” – he retorted.

We went back and forth and I finally put forth this point – “I want to give my teenager the max time to sleep, and I can say brochos at home, but I want to be at the minyan to reply to Kaddish, so that’s why the 8:37 time is sacrosanct to me.”

His silence indicated that he was at least considering this point.

The on-timers vs latecomers also comes up regarding seating:
“If people want their seats, they should come on time”
or “Let’s try to accommodate latecomers by saving their seats – if possible”.

I hear both sides of the argument, but at this point I try to accommodate the latecomers, both for the chesed mileage points earned and because they are the majority.

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Preventing a Shabbos of Brocha from Space and Time Overflow

Unlike the 700 member, 10-15 aliyos mega-service at the YI of Woodmere, our Shul typically has about 100 men, 7+1 aliyos, and a 8:30-10:45 davening, with a drasha, on Shabbos. So it was with a little trepidation that we prepared for what was coined the “Shabbos of Brocha”. It started with a graduation kiddush and Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger from LA as our Scholar-in-Residence. Then we added an Aufruf. Then a Shalom Zucker. And finally it was topped off by the brisim of twins.

We were filled with joy, but we were also concerned for an overflow into the space and time continuums. How crowded would it be with all the guests and how long would the davening be with the extra Scholar in Residence drasha, the Rav’s drasha for the aufruf, and the two brisim.

On the space frontier, we enlisted a few more seat gabbaim, prepared the hallways with extra folding chairs, and sent a heads up email to the membership, reiterating our no-makom-kavua policy for simchas. We also advised people to get their early, if possible. As it turned out, seating was not an issue. Some members davened elsewhere. In addition, the Bris guests did not realize the first bris would be before Mussaf and the second bris after davening, and many came after davening was over, unfortunately missing one of the brisim.

On the time continuum, Rabbi Stulberger made great use of the 8-10 minutes he was allotted for his drasha. The davening was sped up slightly. There were only 2 extra aliyos. The misheberachs were said quickly and the gabbaim were on there toes to preventing any unnecessary schlepping. And they succeeded! We were enjoying cholent and kugel at the kiddush by about 11:30 am.

As a member said afterwards, it was like preparing for Hurricane Gloria and it never came. Nonetheless everyone agreed that it’s always wise to make sure you have a big enough cup to handle all your brochos.

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Young Israel of Woodmere – Growth Culture Shuls Comes in All Sizes

I’ve written about The Rise of The Growth Culture Shul in the past, but the Young Israel of Woodmere is an example of a large growth culture Shul with many lessons to be learned.

It wasn’t always that way. In a must-read short article from 2007, THE SILENT REVOLUTION: How One Shul Put an End to Talking During Tefillah, Rabbi Danny Frankel (no relation) describes how the Young Israel of Woodmere transformed itself from a culture of non-stop talking to one where hundreds of people have worked on and improved their understanding and practice of prayer.

I was talking to a Baalei Teshuva friend who was a little frustrated with the talking in his Shul. I explained that it is easy for a BT who comes to davening as a mature adult and takes it serious from the start. But many people were exposed to davening when they were younger in Shuls where talking was the norm. Those habits are much harder to break. But the YI of Woodmere did just that, on a grand scale.

Highlights of their effort include:
– Getting a signed commitment for decorum from more than 1,000 members
– Streamlining the davening by 15-30 minutes each Shabbos
– Increasing the coordination and effectiveness of the Gabbaim
– Providing more education on Tefillah, the parsha and the haftorah

It hasn’t stopped there. They’ve have recently announced that Rabbi Shay Schachter has recently joined the Shul and will be starting a new, comprehensive Bais Medrash program. This in addition to an already strong education program headed by their rabbinic team.

When a Shul builds a growth culture it creates a flourishing community regardless of the size. Yasher Koach to the Young Israel of Woodmere!

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Shul Choice

Last week we discussed the unbundling of Shuls and I said that it was unfortunate that so many people were choosing their Shul services a la carte and not davening and supporting a fuller service Shul. In the comments, a reader wrote:

“I understand that there is a benefit to having a one-stop-shop, and knowing that all your needs can be adequately met in one place. But there is also a benefit to being able to go to multiple places and have each individual need being met in an above-adequate manner.”

I think this comment highlights one problem with increased Shul choice, and that is the decision becomes focused primarily on what’s best for the individual. Beyond the financial considerations, Shuls need people to meet the chesed needs of the community. Shuls need people to be a positive influence on others. Shuls need people for friendship and a sense of comradeship.

Perhaps if in addition to the question of “What Shul(s) are best for my needs?”, we asked “In what Shul can I be of most service?”. Where can I help people? Where can I inspire others to grow? Where can I be of service to my community? Maybe there is a downside to Shul choice after all?

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The Great Shul Unbundling

To paraphrase Wikipedia: Unbundling is used to describe how technology and expectations are affecting older institutions (education, broadcasting, newspapers, games, shopping, etc.) by “breaking up the packages they once offered, providing particular parts of them at a scale and cost unmatchable by the old order. “Unbundling has been called “the great disruptor”.

For Shuls the traditional bundle included:
1) a place to daven
2) a place to learn
3) a place for social activity
4) access to a Rabbi for halachic and life consultation

The rise of the young married, yeshivish and hashkama minyanim highlights how nowadays many people are getting their services ala carte and for free. People can get no frills davening, a Daf Yomi shiur, social time with friends and access to a Rav without incurring the higher dues and additional rules that come with the traditional Shul bundle.

I personally think there’s tremendous value in belonging to a Shul because of the closer relationship with the Rabbi, the chesed and middos development opportunities and the positive spiritual influence of friends. Unfortunately many people are coming to a different conclusion and are pursuing more non-membership options resulting from the great Shul Unbundling.

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Making Things Right

One of the advantages of being involved in the day to day operations of a Shul is that it gives you the opportunity to develop a better understanding of people. One of the lessons that I’ve learned is that people want to make things right. People want to do what’s good for the Shul and what’s good for other people.

Despite these good intentions, people sometimes get upset and have disagreements. The main reason for disagreements is that people see each issue through their own lens which is shaped by their personality, experience and the roles they play. So despite the common desire to do what’s good and right, each person has a differing view of what is right in each situation.

One path to reducing disagreements is to try to see things from the other person’s perspective. This is often possible when you’re are third party observer, but when you’re more involved in the issue it becomes difficult. And even if you do see the other person’s perspective, you might still think your view is the correct one.

Perhaps a more practical solution is to understand that people are generally coming from a good place although they may disagree on any given issue. Even though you may feel slighted in a given situation, try not to take it personally as that’s usually not the person’s intent. People are good and the more we can get back to that anchoring perspective the better we’ll be at making things right.

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The Death and Life of the Shabbos Drasha

I was at the Torah UMesorah Convention this past Shabbos and I listened to about 10 Drashas over Shabbos. Although the attendance at the Drashas was respectful, many of the attendees opted out of most of them. The Shabbos Drasha, which has been an integral part of the Shul growth experience over the decades is under attack.

Two common sources of blame for its demise are shorter attention spans and the appeal of shorter yeshivish-like minyanim. In many larger Shuls this has lead to a situation where the main sanctuary is empty on Shabbos as people opt for the shorter drasha-less minyanim. As it turned out, one Rabbi who actually turned around his Shul’s main minyan with his amazing drashas was at the convention, Rabbi Eytan Feiner. But the reality is that most Rabbaim don’t have Rabbi Feiner’s oratory flair, but that isn’t really what the drasha is about anyway.

The drasha is about relationships. The relationship between a teacher and a student. The relationship between the parsha and its relevance to our growth. The relationship between a Rav, who aspires to inspiration and teaching without preaching, and his congregants. It’s about hitting singles week by week in a generation that loves the long ball.

The drasha is for us. Prepared by one caring Rav who has the difficult task of giving one talk to 50-500 people with varying spiritual needs and interests. In our communities, no one is there for us like our Rebbeim. And the drashas are the spiritual arms that he uses to reach out, to comfort, and to draw us closer to Hashem and His Torah. Let’s not make the mistake of opting out of this wonderful spiritual tool. Please regularly attend your Rav’s drashas, for the benefit of all of us.

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Finding Shul Officers: Beg, Buy or Recycle

Easy-to-Enlist Officer Candidates in Short Supply
Experience and discussions with people in Shuls indicates that about 20% of your member families will be continuously active in running the Shul. If your Shul has 100 member families, you will have approximately 20 active families to fill 4 officer positions: president, vice president, treasury and secretary. After a few years you will run out of easy-to-enlist officer candidates. What do you do then?

Beg
The first method to fill your officer slots is to ask people who have not been active to get more involved. A certain amount of people will respond positively if asked by the right person, at the right time, in the right way. Many will say no. We can’t blame them. People are very busy with their jobs and family and it’s not an easy exercise to determine how to allocate one’s “free” time. You may achieve more success in this avenue if the members of the selection/begging committee were officers themselves at some point. I would also recommend putting some thought into how to respectfully ask the potential officer.

Buy
If you’re not successful on the beg, anther options is to buy. One type of buying involves offering officers some sort of financial incentive such as reduced membership. The problem with this is the importance of community service is diminished and the question of why some people receive incentives and some don’t is explicitly or implicitly raised. Another type of buying is outsourcing secretarial, financial functions and making those officer positions directorial rather than operational.

Recycle
Another option to fill your open slots is to recycle past officers. It’s not uncommon for a past treasurer or secretary to accept a post as vice-president or president. Another variation is when a person accepts a position year after year. As I mentioned in a previous post, our Shul has 4 treasurers, and 3 of them are perennials.

The biggest recycling question is whether to recycle presidents. On one hand, the President can be a very demanding job and asking them to do it more than once requires thought and discussion. On the other hand, the set of managerial, leadership and personality traits necessary for an effective president are hard to find, so the pool of candidates is even smaller than the pool for the other officer positions.

Finding Shul Officers is not easy, so thanks to all those who have served, and hopes for those who haven’t to seriously consider getting more involved.

First Published Nov 20, 2013

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Appreciating Fast Minyanim

In a previous post, I discussed the Matzah Minyan which allegedly finishes an entire weekday Shacharis is 18 minutes. After reading the article, a friend made some good points about faster davening, which I would like to discuss along with a few points of my own.

Everybody approaches davening in a unique way. I started davening when I was in my twenties and I took it seriously from the start. Even though I’ve worked hard on improving over the years, I still have so far to go in terms of my pronunciation, concentration and understanding. It’s a lifelong pursuit.

People who started davening before their Bar Mitzvah established patterns when they were young. These patterns can be hard to change. Some worked on it more seriously in their late teens and 20s, some in midlife, and some even later. Between the different starting points and different rates of change, we have a wide range of davening speeds and styles, but it’s probably safe to say that we all can improve in this area.

Those committed to a daily minyan have made a serious commitment to their davening. Not everyone takes the trouble to daven every day with a minyan and those that do realize that it will positively affect their davening. It’s no small thing, no matter how fast the minyan or the daveners.

How fast the davening should be in a given minyan filled with a wide range of preferences is not a simple decision. The rule of thumb is probably that it should be as fast as it was yesterday. Hopefully we can find a way to collectively work on improving, but until then the slower daveners can come early and leave late and figure out the proper pace in order to start the Shemoneh Esrai with the Shliach Tzibbur. We’re all in this together and that’s the point that makes us a Tzibbur.

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Speeches Are The Best Part of the Shul Dinner

The Shul Dinner is a great event: a celebration of your Shul; a night out with friends; some decent food; and a chance to enjoy some speeches. Sometimes I have trouble enjoying the speeches, but when I focus on the following points, it’s easier.

My Rav pointed out that the speeches are the main part of the dinner. We often take our Shuls for granted and don’t focus on how central they are in our lives. Unlike any institution, only the Shul is the place where we learn, daven, and do chesed, the three pillars on which the world stands. The Shul focused parts of the speeches help us appreciate the centrality of those activities and the Shul’s role regarding them.

Being thankful is a trait we all need to improve and the speeches contain thanks for those who keep the Shul running. We may find it difficult to personally thank those who serve, but we can be thankful in our hearts when we hear their roles mentioned. We don’t usually need help spotting imperfections, but we do need help from the speeches to focus on the goodness of those who serve.

Although looking for kavod is not a good trait, giving others kavod is a positive trait we need to improve. Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner zt”l points out that giving kavod to others helps us to properly give kavod to Hashem. The thanks to the honorees gives them the kavod they deserve. Our paying attention to their praise allows us to partake of this noble activity from the comfort of our seats.

The last component is the speeches of the honorees. Most of us are not entertaining or gifted public speakers. However, the honorees want to take this opportunity to share. To share some Torah. Share some thoughts. Share a part of themselves. When we get past the length or delivery, we get a glimpse and a connection to the heart that they’re exposing and sharing.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not easy to love the speeches more than the shmorg, but I think this closer look makes it obvious that the speeches benefit us spiritually, and that’s why they’re the main part of the dinner.

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Davening Down Time and AFAHP

Davening down time are the periods in the service when you’re not actively davening, such as taking out the Torah, Kaddish, and the repetition of Shemoneh Esrai. These are the times when boredom sets in and inappropriate behaviors like texting and talking will increase.

Another consequence of davening down time is the birth of AFAHP. It has become an admirable trait in many weekday minyanim for the Sheliach Tzibbur (Shatz) to repeat the Shemoneh Esrai as fast as humanly possible (AFAHP) without making mistakes. Some people are quite good at this, while it creates a general expectation on every Shatz to daven faster. Although many people support this practice with cries of Tirchei D’ Tzibbur, I think our current average speed is over the limit intended by Chazal.

Another effect of AFAHP is the perpetuation of the mentality of getting out of Shul as soon as possible. In its extreme form, this has led to the creation of the matzah minyan which allegedly finishes an entire weekday Shacharis is 18 minutes. This devalues the experience of davening in Shul, which is quite unfortunate given the fact that minyan-goers put in considerable time and effort to daven with a minyan. Shouldn’t we be looking to increase the benefits of this experience rather than trying to getting out of there as soon as possible.

One suggestion is to calculate a range of how long the repetition should take and publicize it. For a weekday mincha the formula is:
Repetition Time = Total Allotted Time – Silent Shemoneh – 4-7 minutes (for Ashrei, Tachanun, Aleinu and Kaddishes).
A part of this exercise includes increasing our appreciation of our God-facing activities like being in Shul, and possibly lengthening the total allotted time.

Another idea is to productively use our davening down time as stated in the Shulchan Aruch 124:4 – “When the Shatz repeats the Shemoneh Esrai, the congregation should be silent and apply their minds to the blessings made by the Shatz and respond Amen to them”. If we look in the siddur and follow along we can greatly increase the connection to Hashem that davening can enable.

Davening with a minyan is a tremendous opportunity for collective spiritual growth, especially if we do it with a little less speed, a little more care and a little more consciousness.

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Software is Eating Davening

In 2011, Marc Andreesen, one of the world’s top tech investors, penned a piece in the the WSJ titled “Why Software Is Eating The World”. The thesis is that cheap computing, combined with massive connectivity, and billions holding a powerful pocket-size computer, will change how business is done in almost every industry. Business and government will spend billions of dollars trying to connect with us on our smart phones on a regular basis.

Most of us have already been effected by this change as we check our emails, texts and social messages many times a day. And as I recently told my Rav, it will only get worse as more and more of our daily and business lives with require the use of our smartphones.

One specific area of concern is smartphone use in Shuls. Although most people in my neighborhood successfully silence their smartphones during the silent Shomoneh Esrai, it’s very tempting to sneak a peak to see if a notification of interest has arrived during davening down times. An increase in this seemingly harmless activity leads to more distraction in our extremely difficult task of focused davening.

In our troubled times we need tefillah to keep connected to Hashem, to strengthen our emunah and to request help for our troubles. Increasing our distractability is not the direction that makes sense. I think we need a set of sensible guidelines to prevent software from eating davening. Stay tuned.

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Pesach, People and Prayers

A number of years ago, a friend bought us a big mural for our Succah that depicted the approach to the Beis HaMikdash during Yom Tov. That image, coupled with my recent tunnel tour and stay in the Old City, paints a picture in my mind of what it will be like when we all gather in Yerushalayim during the Yom Tovim when the Beis HaMikdash is rebuilt. We will have an amazing opportunity for collective spiritual growth.

We needn’t wait for Moshiach to experience some of this. In fact the Ramban writes at the end of Parshas Bo:”And the purpose of raising our voices in prayer and the purpose of Shuls and the merit of communal prayer is that people should have a place where they can gather and acknowledge that G-d created them and caused them to be and they can publicize this and declare before Him, “We are your creations”.

Every Yom Tov we have the opportunity to experience this growth and particularly on Pesach with its multitude of Hallels. If we can put a little bit of focus into our recitation of Hallel, including the half-Hallels of Chol HaMoed, we can benefit greatly from the Yom Tov, even absent the Beis HaMikdash.

Another major part of Yom Tov is the unity that comes from being with our fellow Jews. On the Yom Tovim millions of Jews will gather together in Yerushalayim. The resulting unity is another key component of growth. We can get a taste of this unity in our Shuls on Yom Tov with all our fellow members and their guests.

Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner, zt”l, who I had the privilege to learn from for a number of years, said that “All of life is a challenge of not being distracted from the greatness that we can be”. Yom Tov gives us special opportunity to focus on our people and our prayers and thereby grow in our collective greatness.

Chag Kosher V’Someach

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A Tale of Two Minutes

In a recent post, titled Positively Powerful Prayer, I mentioned my short speech at the end of my 11th month of Aveilus. In that speech I encouraged the members of my weekday Naitz minyan to tell the Gabbai that they agreed with his proposition to start our davening two minutes early to be able to say Berachos and Pesukei D’Zimra a little slower.

As it turned out a number of members did speak to the Gabbai and the decision was made to extend the davening by two minutes. I knew from my Shul experience that the nays usually speak louder and active encouragement was needed to get the yays to speak.

The date for the new davening times was set for the 2nd of Nissan or Sunday, March 22nd. It was the day before the Yahrzeit of my father, which I initially thought was on the Monday, the 3rd of Nissan. However, this past Shabbos, the Gabbai Shlishi in my Shabbos Shul, EH, told me that the Shul database had my father’s Yahrzeit listed as Moatzae Shabbos, the 2nd of Nissan.

I checked with my Rav and he informed me that if the burial (kevurah) is 2 or more Hebrew calendar days after the death, then the Yahrzeit in the first year is on the day of burial. If the burial is 1 hebrew calendar day or less within the death, then the first Yahrzeit is on the day of the death. Since the burial in my case was 1 Hebrew calendar day, the first Yahrzeit was on the 2nd of Nisan.

I informed the Naitz minyan Gabbai that I had made a mistake and my father’s Yahrzeit was on Sunday. He said the Amud was mine. After davening, the Gabbai said it was fitting that I davened from the Amud on the first day of our 2 minute extended davening. He mentioned that he had wanted to extend the times, but he was encouraged to propose the move as a result of discussions we had on improving the davening in our minyan. He also mentioned how my appeal to members resulted in a number of people telling the Gabbai they approved of the proposal.

It’s only 2 minutes, but it does make a difference. And that difference will be felt by the approximately 20 people who come on time each day. It comes to over 12,000 minutes of extra davening a year and some of that merit will accrue to my father as a result of my involvement in the davening in his memory. It’s encouraging to see Hashem’s hand helping our efforts to increase the spiritual sensitivity of our Shuls.

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Defining Davening Up

“Defining deviancy down” was the title of an 1993 essay by New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in which he warned against accepting lower standards of behavior as normative.

Unfortunately we see this trend in spiritual activities in our community such as davening. We have accepted the fact that we generally don’t focus on what were saying during davening. It’s reached the point where many don’t even try for the halachically required focus during the Shema and first paragraph of Shemoneh Esrai.

Just like Senator Moynihan fought against this trend, so can we can. Focus during davening is possible and many people I know have worked hard to improve their davening. There are also minyanim that have lengthened their weekday Shacharis over the years so they can daven with a little more focus, even though most people need to get to work in the morning.

These individuals and minyanim have heeded the call for the need to increase emunah in our times. It’s become clear to them that we need to focus more on Hashem during davening, in order to increase our emunah in the remaining moments of our lives.

We can define davening up by focusing more when we daven! We can define davening up by asking our Rebbeim and Gabbaim to make the davening a little slower! And if enough of us heed this cry we can positively and practically have an amazing effect on our entire spiritual world.

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I Found The Perfect Minyan

I didn’t really expect to find the perfect minyan on my recent business trip to the National Association of Jewish Day Schools. My weekday minyan davens at Neitz. We daven at a good pace. It’s extremely quiet, and because it’s Neitz, the majority of us are literally on the same page throughout the davening.

At about 6:45 am, I went to the lobby and climbed the staircase lodged between the Starbucks and the Avis Rental Car to get to the 7 am Shacharis. The first nice surprise was that it looked like this first minyan would be unified. It was great to see that Achdus trumped the convenience and practically of a minyan factory, often present at other large Jewish Conventions.

As I scouted out for a good seat, I realized that we would be starting Shomoneh Esrai close to Neitz and sure enough the Gabbai soon announced that we would try to hit Neitz at about 7:17. So far so good. However, the 17 minutes from start to Neitz was much shorter than the 24 minutes I was used to So I had to quickly arrive at a strategy of speed and skip so I could comfortably say the Shema and start with the Tzibbur at Neitz.

It was a good minyan, and then I realized it was a great minyan. There was nothing in the time or the speed that was preventing me from davening a focused Pesukei D’Zimra, Shema and Shemoneh Esrai. The only limitation was mine, and Hashem was granting another opportunity to face it. Here was another opportunity to connect to Hashem, right here, right now – no excuses!

I had finally found the perfect minyan and I’m hoping I’ll be able to find it again within me.

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The Transformation of Shaloch Manos

Purim is a day for fostering unity. The sages instituted a number of mitzvos towards that goal including charity to at least two poor people (matanos levyonim), a gift to at least 1 friend (shaloch manos), and a festive meal (seudos purim) with family and friends. The gift should consist of two portions of significant food items. Since funds are usually limited, most halachic authorities say that charity for the poor takes precedence over gifts to friends.

Shaloch Manos has certainly changed over the years with the addition of poems, themes and more elaborate gifts. I think that a case can be made that this mitzvah is a healthy outlet for those with the creativity needs, the time and the money to carry this out. However, it does create a pressure, which was not what Chazal intended.

Another area of change is that people give many more Shaloch Manos than the one gift that halacha requires. This creates FOLO, Fear Of Leaving Out. Since we are giving out so many, we are afraid that someone will be offended if we leave them out. Shuls and other organizations have addressed FOLO anxiety by creating Shaloch Manos giving programs whereby you give to a number of people in one fell swoop.

A typical Shaloch Manos program for a Shul with 100 members charges $3.00 for each member to whom you want to send. For $125 you can send to all the members in the Shul. A reciprocity option sometimes exists to automatically send to people who send to you, which is another FOLO reliever. Each member receives the same Shaloch Manos basket with a list of the people who sent to them. With the baskets costing about $25 each, and a 60%-70% participant rate, this 100 member Shul would make between $4,000 – $6,000.

I’m an Avel this year, so I can return to the days of yore because I’m only giving one Shaloch Manos. I’m going to try and make it a significant for the recipient.

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Accepting the Unacceptable

It’s a typical Shabbos morning, but since there’s a Simcha there are more guests than normal. After finishing their Shemoneh Esrai, two guests close to you start to converse about politics and continue through most of the repetition. You’re upset at their unacceptable behavior in this normally quiet Shul, but you don’t saying anything because they’re guests.

What if one of the talkers was a very close friend who you respected greatly? The talking behavior would still be incorrect, but it would probably be a little less unacceptable. Maybe on other occasions our own behavior is deemed unacceptable in the eyes of others. Certainly we wouldn’t appreciate their condemnation in such a situation.

We had a case in Shul recently where someone exhibited what was deemed unacceptable behavior by some members. The Rav was asked if the incorrect behavior could be pointed out in a nice way. The Rav replied that unless the corrector was very close to the person, he would probably not accept the correction and therefore it shouldn’t be pointed out.

In the perfect Shul, everybody would behave acceptably all the time. But most Shuls are not perfect. If we want to collectively improve, the first step is to deepen our respect for each others and practice accepting the unacceptable. It is only then can we turn harsh rebuke into warmly received advice and create the better world for which we yearn.

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Positively Powerful Prayer

I davened my last Shacharis of my aveilis on Wednesday. My 11 months of saying Kaddish is over on Shabbos, and my Rav said that we should not daven from the Amud in the 12th month. Since the minyan where I daven Shacharis does not allow aveilim to daven on Rosh Chodesh, Wednesday was my last one.

The beginning months were difficult, due to my inexperience, the pressure to daven faster and make more mistakes, and the many corrections that were offered. But, as I entered the final month, the mistakes, corrections and time pressures decreased and it gave me the opportunity to appreciate and understand the collective needs of the Tzibbur.

I think the Tzibbur and Gabbaim were a little surprised when I paused before Aleinu on Wednesday, asked for quiet, and gave a 20 second farewell speech. I explained this was my last time at the Amud and I praised the Tzibbur for their strong Amens and responses during Kedusha and Kaddish. I then thanked them for their sensitivity when making corrections. And finally I thanked them for encouraging or tolerating the speed of my davening. I also endorsed a suggestion made by the Gabbai to add two minutes to the beginning of davening for Berachos and Pesukei D’Zimra.

Davening is a very difficult and a very personal endeavor. I think most observant Jews want to improve their davening, but we’re all following different paths to get there. It’s pretty amazing that we actually daven together 3 times a day. Our differences will inevitably lead to conflicts, but reflection leads to an appreciation of the positively powerful prayer of the Tzibbur.

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In Praise of Shul Families

There are some aspects of a successful Shul that are easy to quantify, such as a balanced budget, a reasonably paced davening, and Shul attendance. There are other aspects that are harder to precisely measure, but add even more value, such as a great Rabbi, a cohesive membership, and solid Shul families.

A Shul family is one in which the entire family participates, contributes and cares deeply about the Shul. They are active in the care and feeding of the Shul, they come regularly on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and they participate in Shul activites.

And perhaps the most interesting dynamic is how we experience the growth of their children. They are not immediate family or relatives, but we get a front row seat as they progress from Adon Olam, to Bar Mitzvah, to personable teenager, and G-d willing, to the Chuppah and beyond. We share in their Simchas, we watch them grow, we enjoy their company, and because they’re not involved in the day-to-day stuff, we don’t have conflicts with them. It’s a little like grand-parenting, lots of nachas, without the difficult parts.

This post coincides with the simcha of the S family. They typify a solid Shul family, who is liked by all, not just because of what they give, but because of who they are. It’s important to appreciate how we benefit from various aspects of the Shul, and when it comes to Shul families we need to recognize how by just being who they are, they add so much to our lives.

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Why Your Shul Should “Do the Daf”

Although the primary purpose of Shuls is a place of prayer, opportunities for learning and chesed should be constantly sought after. The most widely implemented program in the learning play book is Daf Yomi or “Doing the Daf” as it’s known in common parlance.

The two major benefits of Daf Yomi are:
1) It creates an obligation to learn Gemora everyday. As we all know – the Daf waits for no man.
2) It creates a chevra Shas. A group of people who are bound by their common pursuit of learning Gemora.

It’s a very good idea for your Shul to provide a Daf Yomi shiur. The common objections to this suggestion are:
a) We don’t have anybody to give it
b) People won’t come
c) Daf Yomi is too fast

With the advent of Art Scroll a person can spend about 60-90 minutes preparing a decent Daf. Certainly there are higher levels of preparation and higher level shiurim, but giving an Art Scroll based Daf will allow you to achieve the two major benefits described above. To encourage someone to undertake that task, tell them that spending the time to prepare and give the shiur will provide them with tremendous benefits. It’s common knowledge that the giver of the Daf benefits a magnitude greater than the receivers.

Beginnings are hard, and beginning a Daf Yomi is no different. The minimum about of people required is 2, one to give and one to be on the receiving end. Find those two people and in time it will grow. Even if it doesn’t, the two people learning will benefit greatly.

Many people complain about the amount of material that has to be covered in the 45-60 minutes usually allocated to the Daf. And they are right. It’s a lot of material for that amount of time. But the reality is that the Daf has reached the tipping point and it is currently the standard bearer of Gemora learning. That doesn’t mean you can’t give other types of shiurim, but the Daf should be a standard in your Shul. The 100,000 – 300,000 people who celebrated at the completion of the last cycle have spoken.

One last point is that you should make a siyum after each Masechta. It helps people recognize their accomplishment and it provides a social venue to celebrate the learning of Torah. You need a minyan to say the Kaddish, but you don’t need a minyan to make a celebrate with a siyum. We need encouragement for the good things we do and a siyum is a great opportunity.

Mazal Tov to all those who just finished Yevamos and for those who are still on the sidelines, it’s not too late to join in for Kesuvos.

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Building a Strong Sisterhood

In Torah Observant Shuls the roles of men and women are different in terms of participation in davening. Specifically the men and women sections are separate and women don’t lead the davening, read from the Torah or take other active roles in the service. Most women come to Shul on Rosh Hoshana, Yom Kippur, Purim, many come on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and very few come to the weekday services. In most Torah Observant Shuls, men are more active in learning activities and in the financial and day to day operations of the Shul. (Note: there is a wide variance in what form this takes depending on the community and the Shul.)

In light of these differences, a Sisterhood, Women’s Auxiliary or Women’s League is often created to address their specific needs and to give them opportunities to plan and run activities important to them. One of the first issues that arises is how the Sisterhood activities are financed. The alternatives are allocating a portion of the Shul budget or running fundraising activities specifically for the Sisterhood. The benefits of fundraising is that it provides autonomy, while the downside is that profitable fundraisers must be identified and implemented.

Another area of interest is what type of activities will the Sisterhood focus on. Much of that depends on what the Shul is already providing. Activities might include shiurim for women, women’s only social events and children’s events. In Shuls where the Sisterhood has formidable fundraising abilities, activities might also include improving areas of the Shul with special concern to women.

One last area is the degree of autonomy. My experience is that a high degree autonomy is preferred with coordination and support from the Shul Administration being provided when needed. If there is a separate significant budget, it is important to define the fiduciary responsibilities and financial procedures of the administration of the Sisterhood.

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The Problem of Shul Beis Medrification

Having organized a nightly community Beis Medrash and having directed the Torah programming in my Shul for the last 10 years, it’s seems strange that I’m actually writing about the problems of Beis Medrification. However it’s a big problem and if we don’t approach it wisely we’ll weaken our communities in the noble pursuit of increasing Torah learning. Let me explain.

We’ve all benefited greatly from the strengthening of our Yeshivos over the past decades. More people are learning more Torah at a higher level than we’ve seen in centuries. We’ve all benefited with stronger teachers, Rabbis and communities. The Roshei Yeshivos have accomplished this by continuously stressing the importance of learning. For those who are in the Yeshiva, this is the message they need to hear.

Beyond the four walls of Yeshiva learning, we face a different set of challenges. We have to make a living, educate our children, care for our elderly parents, and run the communal institutions necessary for healthy communities. For these tasks, the local Rabbi is the one who answers our halachic questions, guides us, inspires us and strengthens us during the inevitable crises we will face. Besides providing the critical functions of prayer and community, Shuls provide the financial and organizational structure that enable Rabbeim to perform their functions most effectively.

When Shuls become Beis-Medrified, their members view them primarily as a place to fulfill the mitzvos of davening and learning. They’re less involved in the organizational, communal and financial aspects of the Shul. As a result, the Shul struggles to provide the Rabbi with the resources to do his job. This is the primary problem of Beis Medrification, it moves our Shuls away from being from effective full functioning, Rabbi supporting structures.

Originally Posted 8/30/2012

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Transforming Seating Problems into Chesed Opportunities

Despite having a pretty good awareness of the issues involved in Shul seating on Shabbos, we discovered we still had some issues. Not all guests were being accommodated in an optimal fashion. Instead of entering a denial phase, we embarked on a simple plan to deal with the issue.

The Shul now has four seating Gabbais, two on each side of the Shul. When a guest comes into a section, the Gabbai performs a quick visual check for an available seat and then welcomes and escorts the guest to the seat. When the proper attention is given during the first 30 minutes of davening it works beautifully. Those involved are willing to sacrifice some part of the first 30 minutes of davening to accommodate the guests.

This past Shabbos, a simcha brought a higher number of guests to the Shul. The high level appreciation shown by the guests as they were escorted to their seats illustrates that this proactive seating process is superior to a passive, let the guests sit where they want approach. One of the Gabbais mentioned that this Chesed felt so right.

On one level, this was a small change which was enacted with little fanfare. But on another level it transformed the occasional seating problem into a situation with multiple Chesed opportunities every Shabbos. Shuls were built for these types of positive transformations.

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Ten Great Things About Praying At the Kotel

Greetings from the Holy Land. Here are 10 great things about praying at the kotel.

1. There are minyanim around the clock.

2. You’re standing right near the awesomeness of the Har Habayis.

3. The feeling of achdus as a result of davening with so many different types of Jews is palpable.

4. There are so many serious daveners around to inspire us to take our tefillah higher.

5. There is an elevated feeling of holiness there.

6. The silent Shomoneh Esrai for Mincha/Maariv is around 9 minutes, compared to about 6 minute silent Shomoneh Esrai in the states.

7. It’s much easier to observe the halacha of picturing yourself in the Holy of Holies.

8. People don’t pressure the Baal Tefillah to go faster or slower.

9. People are helpful and accommodating.

10. It’s easier learn how to get past distractions and focus on your davening.

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Time, Space and Soul at the Kotel

On previous trip to Eretz Yisroel, I had the good fortune to rent an apartment in Kfar David in Mamilla, very close to the Jaffa Gate. I davened almost every Tefillah at the Kotel.

Davening at the Kotel is amazing because it’s a Minyan factory and you get to join together with all types of Jews from the four corners of the world. However, I do find it distracting at Shacharis, between the people collecting Tzedakah and the simultaneous Minyanim going on at a somewhat loud volume.

On my first Shacharis I went to the Vasikin minyan, which is at sunrise and is the best time to Daven according to the Shulchan Aruch. So here I was, at the best place-the Kotel, at the best time-sunrise, and with a great collection of Jewish souls from around the world. And to top it all off, since it was Vasikin every Minyan starts Shemoneh Esrai at the same time and the entire Kotel would be quiet together.

So I stepped into Shemoneh Esrai anticipating the sweet sound of silence, but unfortunately perfection was not to be found. There was one individual who was davening very loudly well into our Shemoneh Esrai. So there were 300 souls with the opportunity to join in Tefillah at the perfect time at the perfect place, but one person was out of step.

I decided to write three endings to this piece:

1) How does Hashem judge this situation. On the one hand the person was davening to Hashem in sincerity, but at the same time he was disturbing many other people in a situation where total quiet was a possibility.

2) I need to work more on my davening. If I really worked on it, I could daven anywhere without being distracted. Perhaps wanting or needing silence is really a deficiency in my davening.

3) We’re in Golus and even if we’re at the perfect place and the perfect time, it’s our souls that need correcting. That begins with me working on caring about this unknown individual as much before the Shemoneh Esrai as after. He’s a great Yid who made the same journey I did to daven at the perfect place and the perfect time. Even if he was mistaken in this one act, I make plenty of mistakes myself and I hope people judge me favorably.

So at the end of the day, maybe it was better that there was no silence. After all time, place and silence are external and davening is an internal act. And becoming a little more forgiving from this incident is probably more important than finding the perfect Time, Space and Soul at the Kotel.

Originally published here on February 2010

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Paying it Forward With Aunt Sadie’s Couch

As you probably know, “pay it forward” refers to repaying a good deed by doing one for someone else. Aunt Sadie’s Couch is a reference to our pews which are described in this post titled The Shul on Shabbos – Weekday Beis Medrash Solution.

Here’s a brief recap. When we moved into our new Shul building in 1998, we had not come to a final decision on whether to have pew style seating or tables. At that time a Shul in Jackson Heights was downsizing and they offered us about 25 heavy wood pews ranging in size from 8′ to 16′. A board member warned it would be like “Aunt Sadie’s hand me down couch” and we would never get rid of them.

Fast forward to 2009 when we purchased a combination of tables and Lavi pews for our men’s section and we were ready to get rid of part of Aunt Sadie’s couch. A new Bucharian Shul in the neighborhood was opening and somehow we connected and they took about 15 pews with the remaining 10 being used in the women’s section.

Fast forward to 2014 when new chairs for the women’s section were purchased. We were finally ready to remove the remainder of Aunt Sadie’s couch. As it turned out the Bucharian Shul was having their own seating discussions and they could not come to a definitive decision to take the remaining pews. Two weeks ago they finally decided to take them and we moved them out of our Shul.

In reality, Aunt Sadie’s couch (the pews) served us well and saved us money at a time when we didn’t have that much. On top of that we were able to pay it forward by giving the pews to the new Bucharian Shul. All those involved felt good that the couch would be getting some more use and was not destined for the dump.

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Praise and Thanks For Our Shuls on Chanukah

In the Al hanissim addition on Chanukah we say “they established these eight days to thank and praise Your great name”! It’s a holiday of thankful prayer to Hashem, specifically full Hallel for 8 days.

Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss points out that “the prayer prescription of Chanukah is unique! Unlike all the other festivals, when we feverishly petition Hashem for our needs (i.e., Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for our very lives, Succoth for water, Pesach for the crops, Shavuos for the trees), on Chanukah we put the emphasis on saying “Thank You!”—”l’hodos u’l’hallel”! A time of unselfish expression of gratitude to our creator!”

And the primary place of our praise and thanks is in the Shul. As the Ramban at the end of Parshas Bo writes “And the purpose of raising our voices in prayer and the purpose of Shuls and the merit of communal prayer is that people should have a place where they can gather and acknowledge that G-d created them and caused them to be and they can publicize this and declare before Him, “We are your creations”.

So it’s an appropriate time to step back from identifying and resolving the issues we confront here regularly and to focus on the unqualified praise and thanks that every Shul deserves.

Definitionally, praise is the expression of approval or admiration for someone or something, while thanks is the gratitude we express when something was done for our benefit.

Every Shul deserves praise. And by Shul I mean both those who run it and those who come to daven. We often take it for granted, but it’s no small thing to have a group come together on an daily or weekly basis to praise, thank and petition Hashem. Every person who comes to daven adds to the collective prayer experience. And those who keep the Shul running are to be praised for establishing and maintaining a place of prayer.

Thanks is often harder than praise, because at its root it’s an admission that we need someone else to provide us with that being provided. Giving thanks challenges our self-sufficiency and that’s one of the underlying reason many people have trouble expressing thanks. But if you allow yourself a moment of vulnerability you will clearly see that despite your neighborhood’s Shul options, the Shul you davened at this week, and last week, and the week before was the one that provided you with the lights, seats, Sefer Torah and service that enabled you to gather with a group of like minded Jews to pray. It’s the one that deserves your thanks.

Although the praise and thanks of Chanukah is primarily directed to Hashem, Hashem want us to improve our abilities in this area and to express praise and thanks in our day to day living. That’s why this a great time to allocate some of our thoughts to the praise and thanks of our Shuls on Chanukah.

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Timing Tefillah

Davening is such an individual matter. Some people will daven their silent Shemoneh Esrai in 2 minutes and others will take 9 minutes or more. Most Shacharis Minyanin are end-time focused so the time for the silent Shemoneh Esrai is somewhat constrained, but at Minchah and Maariv there is a little more leeway.

There are basically three options for choosing Silent Shomoneh Esrai Times at Mincha and Maariv:
– have an official time range
– have an unofficial time range
– have no set times and hope people will wisely use their discretion

I haven’t found many Shuls with an official time range. This is probably because it puts too much pressure on the Baal Tefillah and puts too much power into the hands of the mispallim, to give a “Nu Nu” when the official time expires. The benefits of an official time range is that everybody knows the performance requirements and everybody is on the same page.

Many Shuls have an unofficial time range. The reason this usually works is that the total length of the minyan is generally known and the Baal Tefillah usually keeps within that range. There is some wiggle room if the Baalei Tefillah isn’t aware of the timing or doesn’t meet the performance requirements. The downsides are that there could be a 2-5 minute variation from one day to the next and the Baal Tefillah will sometimes daven fast and wait or daven too slow and have to speed up because they miscalculated.

Some places have no set rules. In fact one place I know of explicitly states that it is a slow davening minyan, although exactly what that means is not defined. These places are an oasis for slow davening Baalei Tefillah, but can be difficult for the mispallim. I remember a 26 minute Mincha, which is considerably longer than the slow and respectable 15-18 minute minyan that we usually find there.

An additional problem can arise when the Rabbi of the Shul is davening. In some places, it is a common etiquette to wait for the Rabbi to finish their Shemoneh Esrai and then to start the repetition (or the Kaddish at Maariv) when he steps back (if there are enough people finished). In those situations, the Baal Tefillah can daven their silent Shemoneh Esrai on the fast side, so as not to be caught flat-footed. However if one wants to make every Tefillah count, then that’s not always a great alternative. Perhaps a minimum time for the silent Shemoneh Esrai would make sense in these situation, but I haven’t seen it enacted yet.

Some people sigh when they read a post about Timing Tefillah, but our service to Hashem and our consideration for others often intersects at a place called Shul Politics.

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Addressing the Needs of the Young Marrieds

It’s a story that you hear repeatedly. Back in the day if you came 5 minutes after davening started, you couldn’t get a seat in the 400+ main minyan. But now it’s less than half full and the young marrieds minyan is just as big, but they don’t want to daven in the main minyan.

Many of the young marrieds grew up in the main minyan and it didn’t excite them.Now they want a minyan:
– that’s about 2 hours from start to finish
– has a very short or possibly no drasha
– has no misheberachs
– has no announcements (or they’re very short)
– has a kiddush after davening
– is filled with their friends
– is a place where they set the rules

It’s not really an unreasonable request list. And there are many minyanim in the larger community that fill this bill. Unfortunately, when meeting these demands, many Shuls can no longer fill their large main minyanim.

One solution to this is to find a dynamic Rabbi or assistant Rabbi, steeped in Torah knowledge, who understands the trials and tribulation of the younger generation. This Rabbi also has the capacity to pasken, teach, guide or inspire. It’s not an easy find, especially given that many Shuls have serious financial pressures facing them due to the decreasing membership.

Another solution is to create an environment from which the younger generation will want to belong, because of the clear benefits. This can take the form of a Growth Culture Shul.

Another possibility is a new model called a Chesed Culture, where many of the Shul members (not just a selected few) are regularly having others for meals, helping each other with jobs, shidduchim, housing, chinuch issues and the little things like plumbers, electricians, babysitters, etc.

An architectural solution would involved restructuring the Shul to handle a number of smaller minyanim. In many cases this would not be possible due to structural or financial concerns.

Unfortunately it seems that many large Shuls in this situation are working on returning back to the days of yore. I think this is very unlikely and the boards of these Shuls need to address the concerns of the next generation. Looking forward instead of back is the direction in which the next steps need to be made.

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The Rise of The Growth Culture Shul

The Shul Transformation
You don’t have to be a CTS (certified trend spotter) to notice that the Shul landscape in the larger Jewish communities has changed over the past 20 years. The major observation is the trend from larger Shuls to smaller Shuls. The smaller Shuls take three forms: Shteibel Shuls which are usually warm, Yeshivish Shuls with their quiet no frills davening and individual Torah learning, and the Growth Culture Shul which I’ll describe in this article.

The Growth Culture Shul
Although all types of Shuls have growth oriented individuals, The Growth Culture Shul consciously works on creating an environment where people have opportunities in the domains of Torah, Davening and Chesed. The tremendous benefit of such a Shul is that entire families absorb this orientation because it provides multiple avenues of Torah growth. It encourages increased connection to both Hashem and our fellow Jews.

The Rabbi and Lay Leadership
Growth orientation is a slam dunk for the Rabbi, because his mission statement is encouraging the spiritual growth of his congregants, but he must work with the lay leadership to create the culture of growth. As my Rav has said, a person over time is more influenced by what his neighbor in Shul is doing than by what the Rabbi is advising in his speeches. We more naturally compare ourselves to our peers then to our Rebbeim who we rightly put on a higher pedestal. So a culture of growth is the key to increasing the spiritual aspirations of the membership.

Growing the Culture
It should be clear that a growth culture is not achieved through pronouncement in a drasha or at a Shul membership meeting, but by gradual implementation of the programming and processes that create such a culture. I’ll be discussing each area in more detail in upcoming posts, but briefly it involves providing a multitude of Torah learning opportunities, creating a strong chesed committee, improving dignity, inspiration and concentration in davening and creating a community and camaraderie among the members while simultaneously balancing Tzinus concerns.

Summary
The Growth Culture Shul takes more effort to create than the Shteibel or Yeshiva minyanim but it yields much greater benefits to the entire membership and their families. It’s built over time by creating an environment where the vast majority of the membership is working on growing in the three domains of Torah, Davening and Chesed. We’ll discuss each domain in detail in upcoming posts.

Originally Published 4/25/20121

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The Customer Segments of Your Shul

I’m co-teaching a class on Software and Startups for high schoolers which includes a few sessions on the Business Model Canvas. The Business Model Canvas identifies 9 building blocks which define how an organization operates.

One of those building blocks are Customer Segments, which defines the different groups of people that your Shul serves. On the first cut we would say that includes men, women and children who have different needs. A closer look might reveal that you men’s group might be divided into men who are teenagers, single adults, young marrieds, have larger families, have grown children, and retirees.

Different segments often need different services, such as minyanim, shiurim, group activities, social services, etc… As a Shul you have to determine when it merits to address specific needs of a segment and whether you have the manpower and financial resources to address them.

In our Shul we recently added a weekly shiur and Shacharis targeted for men in their 20s and early 30s. In this case, the Key Resources powering the project were the Rabbi and some of the young men. Maggidei shiur were recruited, the members of the segment were encouraged, and the shiur/minyan has gotten off to a great start.

It’s important to continual review whether your Customer Segment’s needs are being addressed and any steps that can be taken to provide better services when necessary.

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In and Out of Sync

When you’re saying Kaddish, you develop a camaraderieship with the other people in your regular minyanim who are also saying Kaddish. Part of this fellowship revolves around the fact that you will be saying Kaddish together on a regular basis for the next few months. The ideal is for the group saying Kaddish to synchronize, primarily so that people don’t have a question of when to answer Amen. But also because it sounds much better when the Kaddish is synchronized.

The person leading the davening has the right to set the pace, but in the two main places that I daven, we have established a set cadence and speed at which we usually say Kaddish. It works pretty well, except when it doesn’t. Problems arise when a regular Kaddish sayer doesn’t stay in sync, or when a non-regular doesn’t keep in sync.

There are a few reasons people don’t keep in sync:
1) They don’t realize that it is preferable to keep in sync
2) They don’t realize that the minyan has an established speed and cadence
3) They would prefer that people sync with them, instead of them trying to sync with the others
4) They’re not able to keep in sync

Some Shuls have the custom that everybody gathers in the center of the Shul when the group Kaddishes are said. This increases the awareness that synchronization is important and it also increases the probability that decent synchronization will be achieved. Other Shuls don’t have this custom and they’re hoping synchronization can be achieved without it.

The question is what to do when people are out of sync. If they will be saying Kaddish regularly with the group, then it probably makes sense to give it a few more times to see if they start to synchronize. If they don’t, then a decision has to made whether anybody should approach them to try to rectify the situation. If it’s thought that the person is capable and would be willing to keep in sync, then either the Gabbai or one of the Kaddish sayers should probably approach them with the proper correction sensitivities.

If a person is not a regular then it’s a little more difficult to correct it on the spot. I had that situation the other day when I was leading the davening and saying Kaddish at the established speed and a newcomer was saying it much faster then the rest of us. In this situation I increased my volume and was able to clue him in to the fact that we had set slower pace and he did get in sync. On another recent occasion the out-of-sync’er just did his own thing through out the Kaddish. My Rav said that the leader of the minyan has the right to try to assert control and set the pace, but if he isn’t able to do so, there’s not much that can be done.

In the total scheme of Shul issues, an out of sync Kaddish is not such a big deal. However, it’s good when it’s in sync, and in many situations that can be achieved with a little sensitivity and effort.

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Three Business Types and How They Get Shul Things Done

A small business owner, a lawyer, and a manager walk into a social hall and see that Shalosh Seudos has not been cleaned up…

The small business owner knows that the buck stops here, so he makes a public request for volunteers, and when few show up, he does it himself.

The lawyer calls for a membership meeting to propose that all members are required to help in Shul chores.

The manager goes to a few members, explains the problem and asks them to make a small time commitment to help clean up.

Although each of these means may be successful in the effort to get shul things done, the manager has accomplished much more. The members who do volunteer are doing a chesed for the Shul as opposed to a requirement in the lawyer’s scenario, or often not doing anything in the case of the small business owner. In addition, when people contribute their time to the Shul they feel more connected, and as a result get much more out of their Shul experience.

The difficulty with recruiting volunteers is that you have to make the time to ask people, come up with the appropriate pitch, deal with rejection, and sometimes perform chesed-based arm-twisting. A motivation to get over these hurdles is to know that when you meet with success, you will have performed a much greater deed.

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Improving Our Shul Maps By Choosing Connection Over Estrangement

The father of general semantics, Alford Korzybski stated, “A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness”. What this means is that our perception of reality is not reality itself but our own version of it, or our “map”.

This message was brought home last week in a short introductory speech at our Shul’s Simcha Beis HaShoeva. I made a positive statement about the Shul, and a friend questioned that statement. I explained that my statement reflected my experience, and I was sorry that his differed and he didn’t share my positive views regarding this issue.

Later in the week, I re-read a piece that I had seen a number of times by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe z”tl about connection and estrangement. Here is an excerpt from Sara Yocheved Rigler’s take on the topic:

According to Rabbi Wolbe, there are two parallel universes: the World of Connection and the World of Estrangement. These are two completely separate worlds. The World of Connection is characterized by love, joy, tranquility, optimism, harmony, generosity, faith in God, etc., while the World of Estrangement is characterized by animosity, anger, resentment, anxiety, sadness, criticism, worry, fear, etc. When we are feeling critical, we cannot feel love.

Although a person can flip from one world to the other very quickly, no one can be in both worlds at the same time, just as when looking at a Rubin vase, one can see either the white vase or the two black profiles facing each other, but not both simultaneously. Human beings are neurologically wired so that we cannot see the vase and the profiles at the same time. Human beings are spiritually wired so that we cannot be in the World of Connection and the World of Estrangement at the same time. When we are feeling joy, we cannot feel fear. When we are feeling critical, we cannot feel love. When we are feeling resentful, we cannot feel tranquil.

Making worthwhile changes to a Shul takes time and effort, but we can change our individual Shul experience at each moment by choosing connection over estrangement. We enter the world of estrangement by criticizing, getting angry, speaking loshon hora or judging negatively. However, we can choose to enter the world of connection by giving a smile, giving a hug, giving a compliment, giving emotional support, giving thanks, giving the benefit of the doubt, or forgiving.

This does not mean that we take a Pollyanna position and ignore things that need attention. Nor does it discount the difficulty when we are wronged. But the more we internalize the benefits of choosing connection over estrangement, the more we will improve our experience of both the Shul and its members.

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The Hoshanos Conundrum

I’ve written in the past on the joyous celebration of Succos in our Shuls. Our Shul does however have one ongoing problem on Succos, and that is the Hoshanos Conundrum.

As you know there is a custom to circle around the Shul bimah on the days of Succos, except for Shabbos. During the circle a different Hoshana prayer is read with the congregation repeating after the Baal Tefillah. It is preferred that a full circle is made. Our problem is that because of the number of people in Shul on the Yom Tov days, we’ve run out of prayer, before we have completed the circle.

These are some of the solutions we have tried:
-Coaching people on the need to keep walking.
-Making two concentric circles.
-Splitting the Shul into two groups, each taking a turn.

Although Shul logistic problems are usually solvable, none of the solutions have worked very well. In truth it’s a relatively harmless problem and it gives us a safe place to direct our kibbutizing energy. So although I’ll follow the Gabbai’s new instructions this year, it won’t be so bad if we don’t solve the Hoshanos Conundrum this year.

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Recalibrating Din and Chesed on Yom Kippur

We are taught that Hashem wanted to initially create the world with Din. When He saw that man would not survive such exacting judgment, He created the world with Din and Chesed. Hashem is constantly balancing these two forces for our benefit.

Shuls also have to balance Din and Chesed.

We need to collect outstanding balances for financial stability, while at the same time we need to be sensitive to the financial situations of our members.

We need to get volunteers to keep things running. At the same time we need to understand that not everybody will be able (or willing) to give of their time for Shul activities.

We need a proper davening, that starts, proceeds and ends at the scheduled times. On the other hand, we can be kind to the Baalei Tefilah and not drive them to distraction with an exactitude attitude.

My experience over the years is that in thought and conversation, Shuls lean a little heavy on the Din pedal. In deed however, the Chesed side usually comes through.

Just like we would like Hashem to go lighter on the Din pedal on Yom Kippur, perhaps it’s also a time that we can recalibrate a little more to the Chesed side in thought and conversation.

Let’s lead with Chesed. I think our Shuls we be better for it.

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Shul Teshuva

The Sefaria Project’s translation of the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuva – Chapter 3 – Halacha 1 says:

Each and every person has merits and sins. A person whose merits are greater than their sins is righteous; and a person whose sins are greater than their merits is wicked; half and half, in-between. And the same is true of a country, if the merits of all its citizens are greater than their sins, that nation is righteous, and if their sins are greater than their merits they are wicked; and also for the whole world.

We see that a person, a country, and the world all have a three-books status (righteous, wicked, in-between). I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that a Shul also has a three-books status. Let’s assume for the sake of this post that most Shuls are in-betweeners. What should Shuls do to merit a better judgment?

For individuals, the primary path at this time of the year is Teshuva, with its regret, resolve and confession components. In the case of collectives like countries and Shuls it’s not exactly clear how collective Teshuva is achieved, but as Rosh Hoshana approaches we can at least individually resolve to make our Shuls better places. Here are three ideas to marinate as we approach the Day of Judgment.

1. Do kindness.
Shuls afford tremendous opportunities for Chesed. You might not be playing a large Tzedekah role, or cooking meals for a family, but most of us can go to that Shalom Zachar. Or attend the Bris Ceremony. Or pay that Shivah visit. We can commit to stifling the thoughts of, “I’m not so close to them” or “I don’t have time for that”, which prevent us from doing these mitzvos.

2. Let it go.
In Shul life people will let us down. Whether it’s a lack of support, a careless comment or a more grievous offense. And we’ll sometimes be hurt, angered or embarrassed. Those are normal reactions. What we can perhaps control is how fast we let it go. We can commit to working on the trait of being easier to appease.

3. Appreciate the good.
Taking things for granted is a common problem, especially when it comes to utilities like the electricity, plumbing and minyan services. Davening is expected to run smoothly and when it doesn’t, we want answers, explanations and rectifications. If we take a deeper look and see the financial, organizational and operational support behind the davening, the greater appreciation achieved will decrease negativity, and increase our happiness.

At this time of year in which Hashem is closest to us, it might make sense to put some Shul Teshuva on our to-do list.

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Connection Before Correction

Readers of this site know that this is my year of living dangerous, as I have taken the amud on a regular basis for the first time in my life. I’m getting better at davening, but not being a great reader, I make mistakes in pronunciation, especially when I rush or feel pressured. Because we pasken that exact pronunciation is not required, on-the-spot corrections are not necessary. Some of my closer friends have pointed out some consistent errors, and since they showed care and compassion, it wasn’t too painful.

What’s interesting about davening Shacharis is that the brochos are often the first sounds coming out of your mouth. On a recent trip to the Amud, those first words revealed a post-nasal drip driven horse-ness which was not a good sign for the upcoming 50 minute Shacharis. In addition I made some pronunciation mistakes right off that bat. I got through it, but it was a stressful Shacharis.

After davening I was going to get my coffee for my daily dose of the daf, and I saw an acquaintance who is not a regular minyan member, rush out after me. I knew what was coming and before he said anything, I said “Don’t correct me”. He was taken off guard and he said he just wanted to wish me words of consolation. I said thank you and then he asked, “Can I correct you?”. I politely told him no and said that he should speak to the Gabbai, which was the procedure that had been established to handle corrections.

The next day he was there again, and I motioned to him to step outside and I asked him to please not look for corrections. He told me he has been correcting people for years and this was the first time anybody objected. I tried to explain how this was still difficult for me and how correction usually required a closer relationship than we had. He would have none of it and he insisted that his corrections were the right thing. I decided not to daven from the amud that day.

After davening, I related the incident to a friend for a specific reason, without mentioning names. He shook his head knowingly, and told me the corrector had corrected him in the past and he was upset by it. He did not say anything, because he didn’t want to get into it with the corrector.

We all find ourselves in potentially correction situations including shushing, seating conflicts, meetings and other situations. It’s easy to forget the connection before correction rule. Even if we have a good relationship, we have to be sure the person will accept the correction and will not be insulted by it. It’s difficult, but with more awareness I think we can all improve here.

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The Chesed Behind Answering Amen

The halachic importance of answering Amen can not be minimized. The folks at Halachipedia compiled a number of sources to inform us:

Chazal viewed the recitation of Amen very highly. In fact, Chazal tell us that responding Amen is of greater significance than reciting the Beracha. The failure to recite Amen is considered a gross transgression, while responding Amen with great concentration opens the gates of Gan Eden.

In addition to the man-to-God aspect in the answering of Amen, I’d like to discuss a man-to-man aspect.

When you’re davening from the Amud, it’s very lonely, except for the imaginary man on your right shoulder telling you to go faster, and the one on your left insisting that you slow down. Unfortunately neither of those voices provides much comfort. But when you hear the Tzibbur collectively answer Amen, you feel that something tangible has been accomplished with your brocha, or with your Kaddish.

This goes beyond the great z’chus for a deceased relative if you’re an Aval. When the Tzibbur answers Amen to each Brocha, we are bringing awareness of Hashem and His presence into the world. And that’s the reason why we we’re davening, in fact that’s the reason we were created. What could be better than that?

One of the wonderful things about my morning minyan of about 30 daveners, is the fact that we have a very high Amen rate. I would say it’s 90% or higher. When you hear that chorus, each brocha takes on a new meaning. You feel transformed from a sometimes-less-than-perfect reader, to a catalyst for collective spiritual growth. And that’s something that can really make your morning.

There’s tremendous power in the Amen. If you haven’t been motivated by the Chazals on the subject, please think about the tremendous chesed your are doing for the Baal Tefillah, as you make it clear that he’s not just today’s daily reader, rather he is a part of an important service to God.

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I Love My Seat

I’ve written before on how fortunate I feel to have so many close friends in my Shul. Nonetheless, today is a little bit of a blue day, because at 6:00 AM this morning, a flight took off from La Guardia to Fort Lauderdale. And on that flight was one of my closest friends, TG, who was taking the last leg of his year long move to East Boca.

I don’t want this to be a dinner-like salute to him and his wonderful wife, who is a close friend of my wife, but I do want to share two thoughts which are consistent with the themes of Shul Politics.

What is wonderful about friends, and people in general, is that each one of them is a world on to themselves. A unique combination of body, heart, mind and soul shaped by years of experience. As a result, we develop different relations with each friend, often based on our shared interests. TG is my unofficial (and unpaid) growth coach. He’s the only person who will approach me in Shul with a fist pumping “Growth Baby Growth” greeting. We also share a love of the 7 Habits, NLP, Mystical Judaism, Mussar and anything that will move us, the Shul, or the community in a growth direction.

The second thought has to do with emotions. As you may have noticed, men can be a little reserved when it comes to baring their emotions. Our Shul is a little above average here, in that hugs are quite common and there is a great camaraderie, but verbal male emotional bonding still mostly follows societal norms.

When TG first came to the Shul, he wanted to sit in my section, but there was no room for him and his sons, so I pointed out some other seating options, and I told him which I thought was the best choice. He took my suggestion and every so often he would tell me “I love my seat” and I would tell him “I’m glad to hear that”. But in reality, he didn’t need to keep on telling me that, he was really expressing something much deeper.

And now that he has moved and I won’t be hearing the “I love my seat” refrain any longer, I want to give him my real response, “TG – “I love you too.”.

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Appreciating the Colors of Your Tzibbur

In his sefer, the Ten Terms for Tefillah, Rav Shimshon Dovid Pinchus zt”l, discusses the virtues of davening with the Tzibbur:

“Some mouths produce pearls in prayer, while other mouths bring out flashes of fire and untold precious jewels. The number of hues that come out from the prayers of Yisrael is endless…In any event, from all of them together is woven and embroidered a magnificent and beautiful crown for the head of G-d, may he be blessed…”

I was thinking along these lines in a different context a few weeks ago when attending a Bar Mitzvah on Shabbos morning at another Shul. It was a great minyan, quiet, serious, with many friends of mine in attendance, a Shul at which I felt very comfortable. It was however missing one crucial ingredient, it was missing the colors of my Shul, that I’ve come to love.

Every person has infinite depth and complexity, but in our guarded society, we often see only the surface-level grey. It’s through our repeated conversations, interactions and yes, conflicts, that we get to see the different colors of each person. I’ll be the first to admit that it can sometimes be exasperating, but when I’m able to take a third person view, I get a glimpse of each person’s unique colors.

Although my focus here is usually on trying to understand and resolve the inherent conflicts in the Shul environment it’s important to step back on a regular basis to observe and celebrate the colors of your Tzibbur.

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Naitz Waits for No Man

It must have been 15 years ago. The davening in my morning minyan was a little fast for me. To make matters worse, the davening speed difference often left me in a situation where I davened faster to keep up, only to find myself waiting for the Baal Tefillah to finish the Shema. We already had a fixed pace for Pesukei D’Zimra, so I suggested to the Rabbi, that we add some additional split times, before and after the Shema. The Rabbi told me that such an enactment would drive the Baalei Tefillah crazy.

Here I am 15 years later, davening from the Amud as an Avel for the first time in my life at a Nusach Sefard Naitz minyan. The first rule of a Naitz minyan is that you have to start Shemoneh Esrai after sunrise. Although poskim have said that there is at least a one minute allowance here, many Naitz-goers want to get as close as possible. If you start 10 seconds late, you start to enter the danger zone.

To try to hit the Naitz time as close as possible, we have a rule of thumb to hit Tehilas 30 seconds before sunrise. There’s another rule to start Emes V’Yateziv two minutes before sunrise.

From the beginning of Berachos, there is a set four minutes to Rabbi Yishmael, five minutes to Hodu and 16 minutes to Borechu, with a consistent pace for Pesukei D’Zimra on the way to Borechu. There’s also a suggested limit of 7 minutes for the private Shomoneh Esrai, 6 minutes for Chazra HaShas and 50 minutes from start to finish. So here is what the suggested splits would look like if Naitz was at 6:24 am.

Start: 6:00
Rabbi Yishmael: 6:04
Hodu: 6:05
Borechu: 6:16
Emes V’Atziv: 6:22
Tehilas: 6:23:30
Naitz: 6:24
Chazaras HaShatz: 6:31
Viduy: 6:37
Finished: 6:50

Now I understand what my Rabbi meant when he said it would drive the Baal Tefillah crazy. To tell you the truth, it does get easier as time goes by. Besides the minyan is the slowest non-Yeshiva minyan in town. The people take their davening seriously. And if you’re not davening from the Amud, it’s a real pleasure.

Postscript: It could be worse. Here is an article about the time pressures at other Vasikin Minyanim.

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Is NuNu a Four Letter Word?

One of the most misunderstood utterances in Shuls is that of NuNu. It is often used by someone who feels that there is an unnecessary delay in the service. Even those of us who wouldn’t utter NuNu, may have had those thoughts running through our mind on some occasion.

On the benefit of the doubt side, the person saying NuNu thinks that there is a correction that needs to be made. It’s often during a part of the davening where he thinks that talking is not permitted, so he says NuNu instead to avoid a possible violation of halacha. Whether it is better or worse halachically, is beyond the scope of this post.

In some ways, NuNu-ing is very similar to the shusher discussed in the “Is Shushing Worse Then Talking in Shul” post. In both cases the person may be right, however the mode of expression is disruptive. I think the NuNu can be more offensive than the Shush.

Another problem is the reason is not always obvious to the target as illustrated by an incident that recently happened to me. I was davening from the Amud in a Neitz (sunrise) minyan and I had looked at the wrong day on the calendar so I had the wrong Neitz time. A friend who was helping me through the Neitz rookie stage, saw that I was on a pace that would exceed the acceptable Neitz margin of error, so he NuNu’ed me to try and correct the situation. Since I had the wrong time and thought I was on target I couldn’t decipher the meaning of his NuNu and I was late in the start of Shemoneh Esrai.

Chronic NuNu-ers should probably be approached by the Gabbai with the suggestion that the NuNu-er come to the Gabbai to point out problems and he would try to correct them.

In summary, the NuNu-er is very possibly coming from a good place, wanting to make things right, and we should try to view him in that light. On the other hand we should probably try to find other means to communicate if we feel there are corrections to be made.

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Judging Fast Daveners Favorably

By Todd Greenwald

Growing up my family davened at an orthodox shul, although we were more traditional. Every Motzae Yom Kippur, the shul asked the same person to daven maariv. Why? Because he was fast!! Back then it was great. After I became frum it bothered me greatly. We should be davening that first maariv after Yom Kippur slowly with much concentration. One Yom Kippur I remarked to my father how it bothered me. He related the following story about this gentleman:

“It was D-Day and this gentleman was off the boat and in the water approaching the beach. People from his platoon were being killed all around him. As he was moving to shore he prayed to Hashem and said, G-d if you get me out of here alive, I will go to shul every day for the rest of my life. My father told me that the man was true to his word and attends shul everyday.”

I was amazed at such an extraordinary feat. I wondered how Hashem received this man’s T’fillos as he fulfilled his daily obligation for close to 60 years. Whether he davened fast or slow, he lived up to his commitment until he recently passed away. I remember meeting him once in shul on a summer vacation and asked after his well being. He informed me that he had cancer and the chemo was rough but he still pushed himself to go to shul.

May we always judge people favorably and be inspired by this man’s remarkable commitment.

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Are Shuls Democratic?

A reader recently wrote in inquiring about the norms in regards to Shul elections, and if I had any data/research.

I first told him to take a look at some Shul bylaws:

Here is the most relevant paragraph:

1. Each year, after Pesach but before Shavuos, an election meeting shall be held. At least four weeks prior to the election meeting, the President shall appoint a nominating committee of five members and designate a chairman. The nominating committee shall prepare a slate of officers and directors for recommendation to the membership at the election meeting. The committee shall mail the recommended slate to the membership at least two weeks prior to the election meeting. Additional nominations may be made at the election meeting.

It’s also important to understand the different types of Shuls and where the authority lies in each on of them.

Even in what I called Democratic Shuls in that post, there are still centers of power. In general, these centers are involved in the Shul for the long term, and are usually insuring the ongoing financial viability of the Shul. This was covered in a post called the Kitchen Cabinet.

As for data/research, in our neighborhood there are about 35 Shuls that operate on Shabbos.

Of these 35 Shuls, I would estimate that only about 5 even have a president and an elected board. In the other 30, a Rabbi and a Gabbai (or small group of people) watch over the finances and goings on.

In the Shuls which do have elections, they use a process like that described in the bylaws above, but in reality the Kitchen Cabinet probably has much more influence in selecting the slate.

As a whole, Shuls are not so democratic and are driven by the most involved members.

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Slower Davening and Tircha De-Tzibura

After discussing some Shul situations with my Rav, I was marinating an article on Tircha De-Tzibura. I Googled the term to get the best transliteration, and lo and behold an excellent article was recently published named The Halachic Principles of Tircha De-Tzibura. Please go read it, I’ll wait till you come back.

Conceptually, Tircha De-Tzibura is any unnecessary delay in the service. The question than becomes what is an unnecessary delay. Let’s say that in a given Shul, Mincha usually takes between 10 and 13 minutes, and the person who wants to daven from the Amud will take 15 minutes. Should he forgo the Amud to prevent Tircha De-Tzibura. My Rav says that in this case you should not daven as you can see from the halacha that even small time delays are considered significant in this context. So the Nu, Nu choir does have a halachic leg to stand on.

One problem is that the time usually taken in a given Shul for Shacharis, Mincha and Maariv is not always so clearly defined and/or publicized. The best thing to do in those situations is to ask the Gabbai for his understanding of the time parameters, and if you can’t abide by them, then you should’t take the Amud.

Another situation. What if the you’re in the Shul where Mincha takes between 10 and 13 minutes and your capable of davening fast. Do you have an obligation to minimize the time or are you ok as long as you’re under 13 minutes? In this situation my Rav felt that there was no halachic obligation to minimize your time.

From one perspective davening is often a game of minutes, and if you want to avoid the delay of game flags you need to know how long the 30 second clock is set for and how long it takes you to daven from the Amud. If in doubt, it might be best to sit it out.

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The Pressures and Joys of the Rabbinic First Family

Although there are less paparazzi, the children of the Rabbi and Rebbetzin share many similarities with the children in the White House. In some ways it’s harder because observant Jewish communities are more close-knit than their secular counterparts, so the kids are more in the public eye.

My daughter has a close friend who is a Rabbi’s daughter and she related that it wasn’t always easy growing up in that environment. There’s a pressure to come to Shul every Shabbos with the Rebbetzin, even though womens on-time attendance is not normative in our communities on Shabbos. In Shul, you have to behave well, dress well and daven well on an ongoing basis. Like the Rebbetzin, you usually have to be available for conversation after Shul.

Although sons have the same davening pressures, men’s dress is less of an issue and boys have a wider range of acceptable behavior. Sons can even get away with coming in late, although there certainly will be members who will give them a joking hard time about this. If they have good voices, they will probably be pressured to daven from the Amud more than the average member. The son-in-laws have the additional pressure of being thrust into this public eye with out much runway to get comfortable with the situation.

From the member’s point of view, it’s great watching the kids grow up, from the bris, to the cute stage, through the bar/bat mitzvah, and on to the Chupah, Chasanah and parenthood. My observation is that many members have special relationships with the Rabbi and Rebbetzin’s kids because of these shared joyous experiences. In our Shul, one of the sons is the Rabbi’s gabbai, further enhancing the building of tight relationships.

And then there are the really special occasions, like the one that occurred this week, when the Rabbi and Rebbetzin’s son and daughter-in-law were blessed with the birth of healthy triplets (2 girls and 1 boy). With a shared excitement, joy and gratitude the entire Shul wishes the entire First Family a tremendous Mazal Tov on this wondrous occasion.

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How Shul Members Are More Inspiring Than the Rabbi

Sometimes members decide that they would be better served by davening in a Yeshiva. I spoke to my Rabbi about this and he pointed out that these members are missing an important ingredient of serving Hashem, and that is the influence they have on others. In many ways the Shul Members Are More Inspiring Than the Rabbi. When the Rabbi exhibits dedication to chesed, learning, or davening, the thought which goes through many minds is “Of course that’s what the Rabbi does, after all he is the Rabbi, but I’m just an average working person”. But when a fellow member exhibits dedication to spiritual pursuits, the thought turns to “If he is working on his learning, chesed or davening, perhaps so should I”.

Over the years I have been inspired by many fellow members. One member was a master of chesed. I remember that he would always lend his car, especially to older Rabbis who were in America collecting for various needs. It really inspired me and over the years and I asked myself, “Shouldn’t I at least try to follow his lead?”.

Another member spends hours and hours learning Torah, even though he commutes to work daily, like the rest of his. He does read secular information, but he limits his time on the Internet and uses it more constructively in learning. If the Shul is open, there is a good chance you’ll find him inside learning. I recently was sitting in the lobby waiting for the Chuppah at a wedding, since I am in my year of aveilus. He walked in and I asked him why he was checking out various rooms. He said he wanted to see if the hall had a Beis Medrash. After greeting the Father of the Kallah, he left the hall to look for a Williamsburg Beis Medrash to learn for the hour and a half until the beginning of the first dance. I had to ask myself “What efforts am I making to increase my learning time?”.

Then there’s the weekday minyan member who is always working on his davening. He’s constantly reading and sharing Torah ideas about davening. He works on a daily basis to increase his concentration and his love and fear of Hashem, which is expressed in the davening. He freely admits davening is difficult and that is why he works at it. The question that leaves me is “Am I working hard enough to improve in this area?”.

And there are many more inspiring examples of Communal Chesed, Shalom Bayis, being a good friend, giving Tzedakah,… Look around, pay attention, get inspired and remember that you’re positive behaviors can be an inspiration for others.

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There Will Be Conflicts in Shul – Our Job is to Resolve Them

I was talking to my Rav recently and he pointed out the obvious fact that when 10 people get together there will be conflicts. Most will be small and easily resolvable, but on occasion a bigger one will come our way. People have rights, people have interests and people have opinions and sometimes those rights, interests and opinions lead to machlokes.

When machlokes does occur, it’s important to keep in mind that our goal is to eliminate (or minimize) the machlokes. Our sense of justice leads us in the direction of siding with the party more in the right, but restoring peace is a higher priority than judging the situation.

A second thing to keep in mind is that not all conflicts will be resolved overnight or even in a few days. It’s up to the Shul administration to devise and pursue a strategy to resolve the conflict. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to go to plan B and sometime C, D and E. It can be frustrating and tiring, but the administration must be proactive, and not avoid their obligation to try and restore peace.

One final point that’s worth noting is that Shabbos morning is a poor time to try and resolve a conflict, even though that’s the time when a conflict is most likely to occur. For one thing, there’s not much time given that the davening is proceeding. Secondly it makes the conflict more public and therefore more damaging.

Conflicts in Shul are not fun, but here are three consolations in conflict resolution:
1) There are ample growth opportunities
2) It’s one of our main missions in our man to man relationships
3) The resulting peace and quiet tastes so good

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Unsafe at any Speed – Davening from the Amud

My father passed away on the 2nd day of Nissan (April 2nd), so I have been in Aveilus for a little over 2 months. Prior to that I had never davened from the Amud (led the service). In this post, we’ll look at one of the trickier parts of davening from the Amud, going at the right speed.

What makes davening speed tricky is that in any given minyan, there will be people who prefer a slower davening and those who like their prayer a little faster. In addition, not everybody has the ability to daven fast, so it may be difficult for a person to meet the minyan’s speed requirement.

I think I’m getting faster, but currently I daven about 1-3 minutes slower than the average Mincha or Maariv in my neighborhood. In my own Shul, I’ll take the amud and the members seem to be willing to put up with my minor speed deficiency. Another consideration that comes in to play here, and at any minyan where the Shul’s Rabbi is davening, is to make sure that you finish your silent Shemoneh Esrai before, or concurrently, with the Rabbi. I daven faster in these situations because I don’t want to see the Rav taking 3 steps back, while I’m still in Shema Koleinu.

Shacharis is more difficult because people have to get to work, so there’s more of a pressure to go faster. I daven weekdays at a Neitz minyan which is currently starting at 5:00 AM and ending on Tuesdays Wednesdays and Fridays at 5:45 AM. Nonetheless there are people at that time who still want the Baal Tefilah to go as fast as possible. This minyan also has a number of “take-it-very-seriously” daveners, so there is a contingent of “go slower”s. I haven’t davened from the amud there yet, but I plan to in the upcoming months.

I should point out that nobody has said anything to me about the speed of my davening, nor have I heard anybody utter a “Nu”. If anything people, have encouraged me to daven from the Amud. Nevertheless, I do feel that when davening from the amud one should try to daven at a speed that’s acceptable to the majority.

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The Embattled Mi-Shebeirach

It’s a simple prayer, used in a variety of situations. Its goal is to ask Hashem to pour some more beracha (blessing) on the government, on the soldiers, on the sick, on a family member, or a friend. What could be wrong with that? Yet this wonderful prayer meant to invoke goodness and blessing has been in the center of much discussion.

Let’s focus on the Mi-Shebeirach that an Oleh (one called up to the Torah) can say for others. Here’s the Art Scroll translation:
“The One who blessed our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, may he bless (names inserted here), that the (name of the Oleh) will contribute charity on their behalf.”

What could be bad? The Shul can raise a little more money, and some more people become the subject of a request for increase blessing. The problem comes in because it’s an “extra” prayer which lengthens the davening. I’m sure many have witnessed a proud grandparent inserting over 20 names of his children and grandchildren, in which case it can lengthen the davening for a minute or two or more. And because the rest of the congregation is not praying during the Mi-Shebeirach, the talking levels tends to increase which takes away from the Shul’s decorum.

These are real issues. Davening is hard. Different people have different levels of Shul stamina. There is an (often unstated) understanding of how long the Shabbos morning davening will take. Lengthening that time can be considered a breach of that understanding. It’s a classic Shul Politics situation!

In the more time-conscious minyanim, the Oleh Mi-Shebeirachs are eliminated altogether. In Shuls where they are made, it’s the Rabbi and Gabbai’s job to maintain and increase sensitivity towards the decorum level during that time. On a personal level, one can pick up a sefer or perhaps say some of the prayers which where skipped.

One last suggestion is that we can think about what is being said and what we are trying to accomplish with the Mi-Shebeirach. Perhaps then we can transform it from a “grin and bear it” to a “smile and embrace it” situation.

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Life in the Fast Lein – Is there a Speed Limit?

Much of Shul Politics revolves around resolving conflicting needs among members. Last week I was one of the conflicted parties, but as it turned out, the resolution lay in my court. Let’s take a look at this week’s issue.

As most of you know, there is a halacha in the Shulchan Orach (Section 285) called Shnayim Mikra V’echad Targum, which requires us to read the weekly parsha twice in Hebrew, and once with a translation or explanation. One is allowed to read the Shenayim Mikra along with the Baal Koreh during Torah reading, word by word, and fulfill one’s obligation. Some say that this is Lechatchila (ideal) (Aruch HaShulchan 285:3), while others hold that this is only for Shas HaDachak (when absolutely necessary).

I usually read along very quietly with the Baal Koreh to fulfill one of my reading obligations. This past week was the parsha of the Tochacha (curses) and there is a custom that the Baal Koreh gets that aliyah and he reads faster than normal. As it happened the very talented Baal Koreh was able to read it so fast, with clarity, that I could not keep up and do my Shanyim Mikra during that long Aliyah. It became clear that this was my problem, and the Baalei Koreh had no obligation to slow it down for my Shanyim Mikra needs.

This week, I asked some friends if there should be a leining speed limit. Some felt that as long as the words were pronounced correctly, with the right trope, there was no speed limit. Others felt that there seemed to be a speed, beyond which the leining was not respectful. Another friend pointed out that since there is an aspect of learning involved in the kriah, it seems a person should be able to process that which he hears, and too fast a speed would make that difficult.

I asked my Rav, and he said there definitely was a speed which was too fast. For one thing, the mispallim (shul members) have to be able to follow the leining. Secondly, the person called up for the Aliyah needs to read along quietly with the Baal Koreh. However, there is no need to slow down for the Shnayim Mikra-niks like myself. As to how fast is too fast, that is a judgment call of the Gabbai and the Rav of the Shul.

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The Many Fine Minyanim at Torah Mesorah

I spent this past Shabbos at the Torah Mesorah convention and when 1,800 people gather, an estimated 1,000 of them men, you can be sure there will be more than one minyan. In fact from Friday morning through Sunday morning there were almost continuous minyanim during prime davening times.

If all things are equal, then davening with the biggest minyan is best, because of the concept of b’rov am hadras melech (“in multitudes there is glorification of the king”). However, things are often not equal and davening in a smaller minyan is an acceptable choice for a given service. At the convention, the main minyanim for the weekday davenings was at slower pace, about 50-60 minutes for Shacharis, so many people opted for one of the smaller minyan which were starting in 2 other locations every 20-30 minutes or so.

On Shabbos morning there were three scheduled minyanim, a Neitz Minyan starting at 5:00 am, a Hashkomah Minyan at 6:45 am and the main minyan at 8:00 am. The main minyan had drashas scheduled before Krias HaTorah by Rabbi Dovid Harris (Queens) and Before Mussaf by Rabbi Malkiel Kotler (Lakewood). Although in previous years, I remember a bigger Neitz Minyan, this year there were only about 15-20 people there. My plan was to go to the Hashkomah, make kiddush, go to the drashas in the main minyan, and learno the Daf in the time snippets between the drashas and before lunch.

The Hashkomah minyan was one of the most distinguished ones I’ve ever davened at, primarily because Rabbi Shmuel Kamentzky (Philadelpia) and Rabbi Malkiel Kotler (Lakewood) davened there. The pace was perfect (for me) not too fast and not too slow. There were about 150-180 people davening. All the Aliyah’s were auctioned off, raising a respectful amount of money. And finally there was a well supplied hot kiddush with good drinks, set up on either end of the large conference room in which we davened.

I was speaking to my Rav about my Hashkomah choice and he said that for a given davening, choosing a minyan because you want to learn more or for convenience is not a problem. However, not davening with the regular Shul minyan on a weekly basis raises some other issues, which we will discuss in a future post.

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The Dinner – A Celebration of the Shul

I’ve wrote in the past about “Running a Successful Shul Dinner”, where I focused on the logistics of the event, such as getting an honoree, picking a venue, encouraging member participation, making the event run smoothly. Most organizations can’t afford to overlook the fund raising aspects of the dinner, but there is another very import function of the dinner and that is bringing the members together for a celebration focused on the Shul.

Shuls fill an important role, and like many things in life we sometimes take them for granted. That’s why it’s important to have a night where the focus is on hakaros hatov towards the Shul, its members, and the functions it provides. Our Rabbi pays tribute to the officers, board, committees and other people that are involved in running the Shul. The honorees and other speakers recognize the critical role the Rabbi plays. Hearing the expression of thanks while sitting with your fellow members builds important bonds between the members and the Shul.

Two steps our Shul has made to increase attendance over the years is to give first year members a nice discount, and to try to accommodate members who might not attend because of financial considerations. Generally, the committee members set the minimum to cover the food costs. The benefits of having a larger attendance and giving more people an opportunity to build deeper connections with the Shul, outweighs the decrease in revenue that such policies might bring.

In our speech-averse times, it’s rare to have an event where people want to listen to the speeches, but a well attended Shul dinner breaks the mold. People want to feel good about their Shul, so it’s important to work on getting as many people as practical to attend.

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Rabbis and Doctors in Life and Death

It’s been quite a Nissan for me. My son came home for Pesach from Eretz Yisroel, my father passed away after a long bout with cancer, we spent a wonderful Pesach with all our children by us for the seder, and my daughter gave birth to our first grandson. Besides the emotional whirlwind, the experience gave me a deeper appreciation of the importance of good Rabbis and good doctors.

During my father’s illness, we had to battle the medical system which wanted to brand my father a no-more-treatment hospice patient, while his wishes were to have any relatively benign treatments that would prolong his life. While lamenting about my battles during the shiva, a good doctor friend explained that there are many treatment and non-treatment options available, but you need a good personal doctor to apply the right treatment for each patients particular needs and situation. It’s usually not a simple decision, despite the apparent confidence of the medical staff.

My daughter’s 48 hour birthing experience highlighted the variety of medical intervention available at many stages in the birthing process. The mother with the help of her support people has to navigate decisions balancing pain, comfort, risk and the dictates of medical procedures. Although medicine strives for repeatable “successful” processes, the reality is that each birth presents a unique situation for this mother, with this baby and the particulars of this birth.

My Rabbi had by far the hardest role during these events. The life and death treatment decisions are agonizing and it’s usually not a case of clear cut halacha, but rather hadracha. Burials and shivas are filled with almost daily questions. Birthing over Shabbos has its own set of issues. And a good Rabbi is there for advice, support, comfort and friendship 24 hours a day.

It’s important to find yourself a good primary care physician. It’s even more important to find a good Rabbi who is there for you when you need him.

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The Guest Chazzan From The Rear

It was a wonderful Pesach in Shul, nice davening, good learning and a great time to spend with friends and family. The guests provided us will many wonderful Baalei Tefillah and we all benefited from their inspirational davening. Of course people are not perfect and we were provided with some growth opportunities over the course of Yom Tov.

One growth opportunity occurred when one of the guests, who has a fine voice, added some chazzanus flourish to his davening from the rear of the Shul. Shuls do not usually have rules on how loud you can daven or whether there are chazzanus limitations, so no rules were broken here, it just took away from the Baalei Tefillah leading the service. Of course, nobody said anything, although a few people glanced back to check out the identity of the back-of-the-shul Chazzan.

Personally I tried to recall the To Be or Not To Be Annoyed post I had written and worked on getting over this minor disturbance. At the end of the day I was able to enjoy the Chazaras HaShas and the Hallel of the Chazzan. Later that day I was reading a sefer and the author made the point that challenges give us the opportunity to grow, which gives us a little perspective on issues like this.

Shuls aren’t perfect, people aren’t perfect and we’re not perfect, but by dealing properly with challenges and annoyances we move step by tiny step closer to a more perfect existence.

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Helping a Mourner Who Is Sitting Shiva – From One Who’s Just Been There

My father passed away last week, after a long bout with prostate cancer, and I got up from Shiva on Wednesday. The Chesed from my Shul and community started immediately as the hospital chaplain is a member of my Shul, the Shomer who watched the body was also a member and one of my neighbors did the Tahara or ritual purification. Although most of us can not fill those roles, here are some other things that friends and Shul members did that gave me tremendous amount of comfort.

Going to the Cemetery
The cemetery is often a distance away, so going there to take part in the burial shows a great level of care and support. Most people don’t make the trip so it gave me tremendous consolation to see that friends took the time to help with the burial and to make a minyan at the cemetery.

Paying a Shiva Visit
I only sat shiva for two days inside my community, because I sat the other days with my mother and sister, so I knew it would be difficult for people to make it. I can truly say that every person that passed through the doors gave me consolation and support and I won’t underestimate that value in the future if I’m hemming and hawing about paying a Shiva visit to someone who is not such a close friend.

Help with the Minyan
Some of the excuses I’ve thought up in the past, when not participating in a shiva minyan include: I have to get out early, they probably don’t need me, and it’s harder for me to daven in a Shiva house. They might all be true, but from the mourner’s perspective the added stress of waiting for the 10th man to arrive is hard in these circumstances. If there is anyway to make it to the shiva minyan in the future, I’ll try to do it and I’ll keep in mind that being on time is a helpful element here.

Cutting Slack with the Davening
I’m sure I’m not the only one who hasn’t led the davening very often and is then faced with leading it on a regular basis. It was very helpful that those who davened with me tolerated my nervousness, mispronunciations and sometime slurring of the words. I’m told I’m improving and it really is meaningful that my fellow friends and daveners are cutting me a lot of slack in this area.

Sitting shiva is a difficult time, and I’m thankful to my friends, shul and community members for being there for me. Most of these are “just show up” mitzvos which require a little time from our schedule to provide a lot of support to the one sitting shiva.

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Cutting the Line to Sell Your Chametz

Here’s the scenario: It’s the week before Pesach. Our Rav is a leading Posek and many people, including the kollel and yeshiva students sell their Chametz through him, and ask a shailoh (question) or two in the process. The line can get quite long. In comes a long time Shul member who catches the corner of the Rav’s eye. The Rav waves him to the front of the line to sell his Chametz.

On one hand the Rav has instituted the policy that dues paying Shul members have priority and the privilege to cut the line. If the Rav waves you to the front, it’s an easier choice, you probably go. If you’re not waved on, should you exercise the privilege of cutting the line? My unscientific observation has been that most people do not cut the line.

Is there anything wrong with cutting the line? Probably not. The Rav is paid by the members of the Shul and he tries to give them priority, which makes sense. And it’s not causing potential embarrassment, like telling someone they’re in your seat. It seems like it should be ok to cut, and after all, the Rav himself instituted the policy.

So why don’t most people cut the line? I think they’re a little embarrassed to execute this privilege. The other people on line probably don’t feel great about it, their time is valuable to them. Perhaps there’s a cultural aversion to line cutting in our cross section of Orthodoxy. Many people use the opportunity to open a sefer, shmooze or just spend some down time. Why risk offending other people when there are other options. It’s a small issue, but it’s the small things that collectively define who we are.

While we’re on the issue of selling Chametz, there is a custom to give the Rabbi a tip at this time. In our middle class neighborhood, it seems that the amounts are in the $20 to $100 range, but ask your friends what the norms are by you.

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Monday Morning Gabbai

Most of the questions seem innocent enough: “Why did we stop there in the Torah leining?”, “Why did Sam get Maftir, does he have a Yahrzeit?”, but the art of being a Monday Morning Gabbai (MMG) can start to cross red lines. Of course the second guessing doesn’t wait to Monday or even Sunday. It usually starts right after davening and sometimes it’s done in real time, even with our Twitter and Facebook feeds turned off for Shabbos.

On one hand it’s good for the members to pay attention to the service, and any halachic related question is certainly worth asking. On Parshas Zachor, we have an extra reading after Mussaf for women who couldn’t make it for the Shacharis leining. There was a slight switch in the leining and inquiries as to what happened led to some halachic insights by the Rav.

However some inquiries regarding the Baalei Tefillah and who gets kibbudim, call into question the judgement of the Gabbai. Accountability is normally a healthy thing, but when we’re talking about volunteers, and specifically a job like the Gabbai, which is one of the most difficult in the Shul, we have to be careful, sensitive and appreciative to the person who accepts this role week in and week out. He has to regularly make judgment calls on the spot, and it’s impossible to be perfect, so we need to cut him a little more slack.

We were playing MMG this Shabbos and trying to figure out why a certain protocol was not followed. I’m good friends with the Gabbai and I asked him politely, after davening, what went into the decision. He related the details, which is what we figured, and he even said I could post about it on Shul Politics.

Good Gabbais are hard to come by, so treat yours with the appreciation and respect he deserves.

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Kashrus, Cost and Convenience in Your Shul’s Kitchen

Judaism affords us many opportunities to throw a small party and the trick is to do it without it costing a small fortune. So when you need a little more space for your Simcha, the first place to turn is towards the Shul secretary responsible for booking the Social Hall. You make the call, and the space is available, so the next step is to understand your Shul’s rules regarding bringing in food and using the kitchen.

As we’ve seen in every discussion here, there is always a tension between two or more issues. In this case there is the cost and convenience of bringing in your own food versus the need to insure that a reasonable level of Kashrus is maintained in the kitchen. Let me share the guidelines we’ve established on this issue as a starting point.

1. The sinks and counters in our kitchen are considered Fleishig.

2. You can only use the sinks and counters if you are bringing in food from an approved vendor under the hashgacha of an approved agency like the Vaad of Queens or the OU.

3. You can only bring in home made food if it is a private affair such as a vort, Sheva Berachos or a Shalom Zachor.

4. If home made food is brought in then ONLY the refrigerator can be used. No sink, counters or anything else.

5. No home made hot food can be kept in the kitchen.

These five rules enable us to keep the Kashrus standards of the Shul kitchen at a high level, while still allowing for the use of home food for private events in the Shul.

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Shul Unity Opportunities on Purim

The mitzvos of Purim are designed to promote achdus among Jews. Here are three ways to take advantage of this at your Shul.

Megillah Reading
In some Shuls, more men, women and children are in Shul at the night time Megillah reading then any other day. It’s a wonderful opportunity to publicize the miracle of Hashem’s hand in history with your friends. Our Shul has a small gathering afterwords with food and music to enhance the night even more.

Shaloch Manos
We don’t often send gifts to our friends, so availing ourselves of that opportunity is welcome. Try not to get overwhelmed with sending too much to too many people so that you can focus on the connection that sending and receiving gifts creates. Our Shul runs a Shul Shaloch Manos programs so people can give to more Shul members with greater ease and lower cost.

Purim Seudah
In many smaller Shuls, a collective Purim Seudah is held. The few times that I attended one, it was a lively and simchah filled event. If your Shuls doesn’t have a collective Seudah, it’s a great opportunity to share good food and good beverages with a smaller group of friends.

Purim is a great day to be a Jew and a part of a Jewish community. It’s a day that we can get a little closer to our friends and thank Hashem for the growth opportunities he gives us.

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The Scholar in Residence

Our yearly Scholar in Residence is an event that we have found very beneficial for our Shul. I’ll try to layout some of the issues involved in planning and running a scholar in residence in this post.

The first task is selecting the speaker. We have found that speakers fall into one of two broad categories, inspirational or source based. Although many speakers have both characteristics, they generally can be classified as primarily one or the other. We try to mix it up from year to year since we have a relatively learned Shul and they appreciate both types of speakers.

Since we’re a low-budget organization, we usually pay $1,800 for a scholar for the Shabbos and we’ll add travel expenses if the speaker is coming from out of town. We have found that many people are willing to co-sponsor this event.

Most years our venue is a 45-50 minute Friday Night Shiur, a 20 minute Shabbos Drasha and at 30-40 minute Shalosh Seudos speech. This year we added a 30 minute Sit Down Kiddush shiur after davening and a Melava Malka for a total of five talks. Since we can never predict how many people will come out on Friday Night and Moatza’ei Shabbos, we try to have those talks in people’s homes so that even if we get only 20-30 people, it’s respectable. We usually work with the Scholar to decide on the topics for the talks.

We try to find a comfortable house for the Scholar to stay, with the meals hosted by the Rabbi and Rebbetzin on Shabbos and the education chairman on Friday night to help make the logistics go more smoothly. We try to escort the Scholar to all of the minyanim and all the speaking venues, although many of them prefer to find their own way, once they’re comfortable with the neighborhood.

With solid support from many members for the hosting and food setup, we’ve had great logistic success for these events. The members always express much appreciation and we think it’s an integral program for Shul success.

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Violating the “Aisle Rule” in the Holy Land

It was a Neitz (sunrise) minyan in the Old City. I was the second person to arrive in a Shul which had about 250 seats, for a weekday Neitz minyan of what would be 50 people. A random selection would give me about an 80% probability of not taking someone else’s regular seat. Unfortunately I made the decision to try to select a good seat and I violated one of the cardinal rules of seating in a strange place, the “Aisle Rule”.

The “Aisle Rule” says that you should not choose an aisle seat when you’re a guest in a Shul. I thought of the rule when I was a guest for Shabbos in the 5 Towns on Long Island. When walking into the Shul on Friday Night, my host said we can sit anywhere because there were no fixed seats on Friday Nights, except for the aisle seats, because the more involved members sat in the aisle seats. Having been involved in assigning seats two times in my Shul, I could verify that people definitely preferred aisle seats and when you’re a guest, it makes sense not to take a more preferred seat.

So why did I violate the “aisle rule” on this Tuesday morning in the Old City? Because like most people who violate the rule, I wanted a more comfortable aisle seat. Right after putting on my Tallis and Tefillin a man walked in the Shul and as he got closer it became clear I was sitting in his seat. I asked “Is this your seat?”. He nodded yes. I asked “Where is an available seat?” and he pointed to the aisle seat in front of him. He was very nice about it and I was not in the least bit offended.

Then I made my second mistake and instead of taking the seat he pointed to, I moved back a few rows to a different aisle seat and sure enough, that turned out to be somebody else’s seat. So I moved again, this time to a mid-row seat and everything was fine. It wasn’t embarrassing, just a little disrupting having to move twice at an early Shacharis. I have no complaints about the Shul or it’s regular daveners, and I have only myself to blame for violating my own rule.

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Sharing the Joy: Your Shul and Your Wedding

The wedding of your children is one of life’s most joyous occasions and I’ve had the good fortune to experience this twice over the past 4 years with two of my daughters. It’s a wondrous celebration and you only want to share the joy, but resource limitations force most people to make some hard choices.

Soon after the engagement is announced, the search for a hall begins, requiring an estimated guest count. After tabulating family, neighbors and other must-invites, attention turns to the Shul list and the unenviable selection task. Your closest friends and those you don’t really know are easy decisions, it’s the middle group that’s difficult. If you’ve been invited to a previous simcha, the reciprocity rule usually kicks in, and for the rest of the members you need to make your choices, and hope those that you couldn’t invite will understand the financial realities behind your decision.

About a month before the simcha, the invitations usually go out. Many of your invitees will not be prompt in their response and then you have to decide if, and whom, you’re going to call for followup. A day or two before the wedding comes the last prep task, seating and creating the table cards. For family, neighbors and some friends, we assigned specific tables, but for the Shul members on the men’s side, we assigned them all to the same table number, let them choose their own seats in that table pool. I wanted to do that for the ladies, but the idea was vetoed.

The day of the wedding itself is indescribably exciting. If your friends enjoy good beverages, you might want to be involved in the selection even though it’s traditionally the role of the groom’s side. You’ll be preoccupied at the Chuppah, so you might want to ask a friend to take some snaps of the ceremony, so you can relive the event before the photographer’s proofs arrive.

The 25-30 minute first dance usually begins (in the New York area), 3 hours after the beginning of Kabbolas HaPanim (aka the shmorg), and is one the centerpieces of the wedding, so you’ll want to make the most of it. After the initial dancing with the chosson, close family and Rebbeim, the breakaway Shul dance circle will form. Most of your friends will want to share a short dance with you, but most won’t initiate it, so reach for their hand and pull them into the center. Try to make each dance short, so that you can include as many people as possible. Pace yourself, because if you’re not in shape, 25 minutes of fast dancing can take it’s toll.

You should be aware that most of your Shul friends will leave after the meal and not stay for the second dance, which is meant for the friends of the Chosson and Kallah. It’s an amazing night, so enjoy and share the joy.

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Is a Blogging Rabbi Good For Your Shul?

I’ve tried to write here based on my Shul experiences, my analysis of those experiences, and discussions with my Rav, fellow Shul members and people from other Shuls. In my circles we talk about this stuff a lot because we like our Shul and we want to constantly improve. Even with that intent, it’s easy to fall into a trap where a web site and an opinion makes you an insta-pundit. It is with that introduction that I would like to address the question in the title of the post.

A recent article by Rabbi Michoel Green on Ner L’Elef titled: 4 Compelling Reasons Why Every Rabbi and Educator Should Blog made the case that blogging for Rabbis was important to:
1. Become a more effective communicator
2. Build a following
3. Enhance the identity of your non-profits by sharing experiences
4. Engage your congregants or students

For non-profits, a blogging Rabbi, teacher or executive might make sense, because non-profits usually need to continuously extend their reach, and successful thoughtful blogging can be a good way to do that. However for a Rabbi of a Shul, I think the decision to blog needs more careful consideration.

If we’re talking about posting transcripts or recordings of the Rabbi’s shiurim, I think it makes sense in many cases and I’ve been doing that since 2005 on our Shul’s blog. I would add the caveat that halacha and hashkafa often need to be personalized for your particular Shul, and it might not always be appropriate to post that which is not intended for a wider audience.

When it comes to opinion or punditry, I think that blogging can be detrimental for the Shul because:
1. It can distract the Rabbi from his primary responsibility of addressing the specifics needs of his Shul members
2. It puts the Rabbi in the unenviable position of writing on topics on which he might not have sufficiently retrieved and analyzed all the relevant information
3. In extreme cases, it can make a Rabbi distort the Torah to support his opinion

A question that comes up, is what if the congregants want to hear the Rabbi’s opinion on the latest newsworthy topics? For that I would suggest something less formal like our extremely popular “Ask the Rav” session, which we hold at Shalosh Seudos, where our Rabbi answers (almost) any question the congregation poses.

Let me just end with the always implied but not always stated caveat: “This is how I see the issue based on my experience. Your Shul’s mileage might vary.”

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Personalized Psak and Guidance – The Rabbi Relationship Requirement

On my recent stays in the Old City and Ramat Beit Shemesh, I discovered that many of my friends living there don’t have a close relationship with a Rabbi. This is a trend in the United States as well, due in part to the Shteibilzation of Shuls, the multi-minyan big Shul structures, and the fact that a single Rabbi is hard pressed to serve more that 200-250 learned members who ask a significant amount of questions and requests for advice.

In a recent shiur for Kollel students on Taharas HaMishpacha, my Rav mentioned that some people like to ask their questions in this area anonymously. He respects their desire for privacy, but at the same time he pointed out that an anonymous questioner can only get a textbook response. The halacha runs the gamut from pressing situations, leniencies, normative halacha and various degrees of stringencies, and often a one-size-fits all psak is not optimal.

Beyond Psak, a Rabbi who knows and cares about a family, can give advice and guidance on the many difficult issues that arise regarding health care, senior care, schooling, chinuch, shidduchim and parnassah, to name a few. A Rav once mentioned that he felt that providing guidance and advice was a more important part of the Rabbinate then providing Psak.

My friends in Eretz Yisroel and here, without a close Rabbi relationship, feel handicapped by it. I think we need to provide new structures to enable relationships between Rabbis and lay people. The current Shul structures are not serving many people’s needs.

Let me throw out the idea of a family paying about $360 to a virtual Shul which allows him to get email responses to quick questions and phone or in-person meetings for guidance, advice and questions when needed. Can this work? Will people pay? Can we match up people with appropriate Rebbeim?

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Clarity at the Kotel – Getting Shuls Right

A Trip to Israel
I just got back from a trip to visit my son in Israel, where we had the good fortune to rent a small apartment in David’s Village, right across from the Mamilla Mall outside the Jaffa Gate. Although it can be a little disconcerting moving from the spiritually charged Kotel, to the high-fashion materialistically minded mall, the take-out coffee and gluten-free rolls at Aroma, now with a wonderful hechsher, helped ease the pain.

I davened as much as possible at the Kotel, except for a few sunrise Shacharis(es) at the magnificent Hurva Synagogue. Davening at the Kotel provided some clarity on three issues regarding Shuls:
1. The essence of a Shul is the davening
2. The Shemoneh Esrai start is the time that counts
3. Connecting to Hashem is our unifying principle

The essence of a Shul is the davening
When you’re at the Kotel, with the continuous minyanim, it becomes clear that the essential purpose of a congregation is to daven together to Hashem. This is what the Beis HaMikdash itself was all about and our shuls are our current day substitute. Although Shuls, primarily outside of Israel, perform many communal functions, at its core, a Shul is a place to pray.

The Shemoneh Esrai start is the time that counts
As many readers of this site know, starting Shemoneh Esrai at sunrise is the best time. Inside the tunnel at the Kotel, there were at least 4 minyanim, davening at different paces, volumes and nusachim. However when sunrise comes the entire place gets quiet as everybody starts Shemoneh Esrai together. Although Shuls often discuss when to start, when to finish, and how fast to go, we see that the essential time is when we start Shemoneh Esrai together, whether it’s at sunrise or not. If you want to daven slower you can come earlier or stay later, but davening with the Tzibbur, means starting Shemoneh Esrai together.

Connecting to Hashem is our unifying principle
Minyanim are continuously forming at the Kotel. It begins with a call for Mincha or Maariv and when 10 men have gathered, the sound of Ashrei, Shir Hamalos or Borechu is heard. When gathering the men, nobody cares what they do, peyos or not, or the covering on the head. When 10 men gather to pray to Hashem, at the holiest place in the world, that’s all that matters.

To me, this is the greatest clarity lesson, collectively connecting to Hashem is what truly unifies us, and helps us, the Jewish people, accomplish our worldly mission.

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Dilemmas of Air Travel Davening

I’m in the Holy Land and I’ll post about the amazing the Shuls and minyanim there in future weeks. Today I’ll discuss air travel davening dilemmas .

It started in JFK International at the gate. Our flight was for 6:00 pm and I saw a Mincha minyan at the gate with tentative plans for a right-after-sunset, Maariv. However, because boarding began, the Maariv never got off the ground. So I was faced with the classic plane davening dilemma, with a minyan or at you seat.

Among Ashkenazi poskim, the default seems to be to daven by yourself at your seat, so as not to disturb the crew or the passengers. However in this particular situation, I asked a steward if we could make a minyan in the middle galley. I said if it’s a problem, we wouldn’t do it. He said if we would wait until after dinner and didn’t block the aisle we could daven with aminyan. It worked out we and we made the Maariv with a minyan, despite a little turbulence during Shemoneh Esrai.

Shacharis on the plane was complicated by putting on Talis and Tefillin in a small space, and by the fact that there was a small time window starting from about 1:30 AM New York time within which to daven Shacharis. (If you’re travelling, you can go to myzmanim.comto see the davening times for your flight.) I decided to daven alone at my seat, but later in the flight there was a Shacharis minyan on the plane. It looked like it was uneventful and not disturbing to the passengers.

If you usually try to daven with a minyan, road trips can be a challenge. You need to carefully evaluate the situation to decided when to go it alone.

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The Mixed Shul Kiddush – Navigating Changing Circumstances

As I’ve mentioned previously, Shul Politics is the art of arriving at a set of rules, customs and standards to serve the spiritual and social needs of its members. Depending on the governing structure, those rules will be set by the Rabbi, the membership or both. The rules, customs and standards differ from Shul to Shul across communities, and also within the same Shul over time.

One fascinating area where this plays out is in the mixed Shul kiddush. Thirty years ago, the mixed kiddush was the overwhelming norm among Orthodox Shuls. However, with the change in spiritual sensitivities over the years, some Shuls and members are less comfortable with them now. New Shuls can set the standards appropriate for their membership, whereas existing Shuls have to be much more careful on how they navigate change.

In Queens, the mixed Shul Kiddush is the norm, but there are a few Shuls that have separate Kiddushes. In our Shul, about 15 years ago, some members who were making a Kiddush for a simcha, wanted it to be separate. It caused a bit of skirmish, but the Shul, under guidance from the Rav, agreed that members making a private Kiddush, could choose to make it separate. Our Shul-sponsored Kiddushes are mixed but for the most part the men are socializing with the men and the women with the women.

In a Kiruv Shul, a mixed Kiddush is a no-brainer, while in a Shul serving a Yeshivish membership it will rarely be found these days. In cross-generational heterogeneous Shuls, its a little more complicated, but if it’s done with intelligence and consideration for membership sensitivities a working solution can usually be found.

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Youth Groups, Kids and Responsible Parents

A Shul Politics reader recently asked what I thought about “youth groups during shul and the kids playing sports like dodge ball and such rather than Shabbos morning appropriate activities”. I think it’s a great Shul Politics issue because it requires one to balance the needs of parents with active kids, with the rest of the membership. Like most issues, there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution, and it is dependent on the makeup and governance of your particular Shul.

Our Shul encourages parents to bring their children on Shabbos morning and we have youth groups in our social hall, with paid leaders, for children under Bar and Bat Mitzvah age. On Friday nights and before the groups start, some of the boys play dodge ball and such in the Social Hall. It works out well, and my experience has taught me that these activities do not negatively effect the spiritual development of the children.

For Shalosh Seudos, many of the kids come early to help set up, which is a nice introduction to communal chesed. During Shalosh Seudos, when the men are in the social hall, the kids play outside or in the lobby. Sometimes this gets out of hand, and a responsible adult goes up to calm it down.

One issue that comes up, is when a member, who is not an officer and is not responsible for youth activities, disciplines a child or talks to a parent about their child. This almost never turns out well, but unfortunately it’s hard to stop some parents when they see a real or imagined Shul decorum violation. In these cases, it’s important for the president to talk to the disciplining member and to strongly encourage him not to rebuke children or their parents, but rather to bring it to the attention of the president or another officer.

Another important factor for successful coexistence between the kids and the davening members, is for parents to be responsible for their children. This means knowing where they are, what they are doing, and being ready and willing to step in, if the child needs discipline. When the parent does not act when necessary, it can create a difficult situation in which the president may need to step in.

I think we have found a good balance on this issue, but I was recently informed that there are parents who want their children to be able to be as active as they wish, without supervision, so they daven in another communal institution which has no groups and no supervision. If the building can handle that and it doesn’t interfere with the davening, Kol HaKavod.

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A Shul Grows in East Boca

Boca Raton, Florida is one of the fastest growing Jewish and Orthodox communities in the United States. According to a recent article in Hamodia, the first Orthodox Shul opened there in 1983 and today there are over 1,000 Shomer Shabbos families. The biggest Shul is the Boca Raton Synagogue, with 700 families and according to their Shul beliefs and History web page, former Rabbi Kenneth Brander, now at Yeshiva University was instrumental in Boca’s growth. Rabbi Brander has been succeeded by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg who goes beyond his Rabbinic leadership duties with an insightful weekly blog column.

Last summer, a family I am close with, moved to a smaller community outside of Boca proper, where Rabbi Yaakov Gibber is the Rabbi of Shaarei Tefillah. My friend is very happy with the community and attributes it’s marked warmth to the fact that the residents are transplants from other communities and don’t have much extended family so they form close connections with their neighbors.

Last fall, another close family announced they were moving to East Boca which is 7 miles to the east of Boca proper. The East Boca community was established 7 years ago when Rabbi Shimon Feder and 5 other alumni families of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Queens founded the Jewish Education Center which is primarily involved in teaching Torah to unaffiliated Jews. Rabbi Feder is the son-in-law of a long time friend from my Shul, so he regularly updates me on the exciting thing going on down there.

A few years ago, Rabbi Noach Light, another musmach from Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim was appointed as the first Rav of Congregation Yagdil Torah of East Boca. I’ve known Rabbi Light for many years and last week I had the pleasure of driving him home from a vort in Passaic to Queens. I mentioned a growth project I was working on which is focused on improving kavanna during Tefilla, and he told me that the entire community of 25 families in East Boca is focused on continual growth in Tefilla and all aspects of Yiddishkeit. Along with the tremendous outreach activities, East Boca is taking the Growth Culture Shul to the next level, with an entire Growth Culture Community.

I miss my friends very much, but I’m excited to hear how they’re growing, and to learn how to apply their continual growth culture to Shuls and communities in other parts of the country.

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To Be or Not To Be Annoyed

For men, davening is a social event, meaning you have to do it with other people. Although you can pick your minyan, you can’t pick all the people who will be in it, so there will be times where there’s the potential to get annoyed. We’ve talked about some of the major annoyances like talking, cell phones, and seating conflicts. And there’s the minor annoyances like the guy davening a little to loud during Shemoneh Esrai, or randomly raising his voice during the davening.

I think the best option to deal with potential annoyances is to get so involved in your own davening that you don’t really see or hear the annoyances. This is a high level and I’ve seen a few people who seem to be at that level. For the rest of us it’s not an all or nothing deal. To the degree that we get more involved with our own davening, it is to that degree that the annoyances won’t bother us.

An option that I don’t think is correct is dealing with the source of annoyance. You could in theory tell a loud davener to lower the level a little bit. My Rav has said that this is an absolute no-no because you will make the person self-conscious about his davening, which can cause real long term damage to his ability to concentrate. In regard to other annoyances, chances are your potential cure will be worse then the problem, so it’s not a good choice.

So that leaves us in the situation where sometimes we will be annoyed by others. This presents a tremendous opportunity for us to working on liking our fellow Jew more, even in the midst of being annoyed. We can draw on our strengths of seeing the good, giving the benefit of the doubt, and overlooking our assumed right to not be annoyed. Getting over the annoyance using these positive means unifies the tzibur, making all of our prayers more effective.

I’m ready now. Go ahead and annoy me, so I can overlook it and be better.

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Get Yourself a Gan

If there is one piece of advice that I could offer to a Shul, it would be “Get Yourself a Gan”. This is a key component from the Chabad playbook, and when we moved into our new building and started a Gan, about 15 years ago, we saw the beauty of this under appreciated institution.

A primary motivation for opening a Gan is revenue generation. It can be significant and it can help you keep your dues low. Another motivation that was pointed out by a member of our Gan formation committee, is the beauty of providing the first Jewish education experience for our members’ children and for other children in the community. Hearing 3-4 year-olds learning Torah is a balm for the ears and the soul.

Like most valuable things, it’s not a simple matter to establish a Gan. First you have to have an adequate space for the number of classes you wish to house. When we built our building we installed movable partitions for classes in the lower level, but if we had anticipated the Gan’s success, we would have planned for additional space.

A second issue is the membership itself. Only a handful of people are involved with a Shul’s finances, so they tend to see the downside more than the financial upside. I still remember the meeting when we proposed the Gan and a member loudly proclaimed, “What do we know about running a Gan!”. As it turned out, we knew a decent amount, and we were successful pretty much out of the gate. Even after the Gan’s success there were some complaints about the inconveniences of the dual School/Shul usage. But as time went on it became clearer what an asset it was, and the complaints diminished.

Thirdly you have to run the Gan both as an educational institution, dealing with teachers and parents, and as a small business. After a rough start at the beginning, we were fortunate to find an extremely capable director. For the financials, we have a membership executive committee that oversees both tuitions and teacher salaries. Bumps along the way should be expected, but good people can overcome most obstacles.

Not everybody will have the resources or the drive to start and run a Gan, but you should definitely investigate the possibilities.

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A Call for More Rabbinic Collaboration

There are four groups in community affairs in America. In approximate order of their influence, they are:
1) Those most learned in Torah, such as the the heads of the Yeshiva Gedolahs and the Poskim
2) The Principals and Rebbeim of our Torah Institutions
3) The Communal Rabbis of our Shuls
4) The Active Community members who contribute their time and financial resource
5) The Majority of People who live in the communities.

Due to the phenomenal growth of Torah learning in America, the first two groups cited above have had growing influence in our communities. This is good and appropriate, but a side effect is that group 3), Communal Rabbis, have had a decreasing community wide influence. Another reason for the decreasing Rabbinic influence is the lack of a Rabbinic Organization which includes Rabbis from the right wing of our community.

The Rabbis are the ones who the people talk to, and they are most aware of the needs of the community. They are the ones who have worked with their members year after year and have formed the tight bonds. They are on the front lines, with their ears to the street, and the entire community would benefit greatly from a stronger Rabbinic influence.

I’m just an active community member, with a small voice, but I think we need to create a Rabbinic organization, or other vehicle, where the Rabbis can share and discuss the issues our communities face. Sharing communal issues and discussing possible solutions would greatly benefit the vast majority, who need more advice and guidance on the increasingly complex world we live in.

Mechanchim have Torah UMesorah and RAVSAK. Kiruv professionals have AJOP. Lay leaders have the OU and Agudah Conventions. Let’s give our Rabbis a vehicle where they can collaborate. We’ll all benefit greatly.

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Chanukah Politics

Let’s look at some Chanukah scenarios where the needs of the few battle the needs of the many.

Full Hallel and Full Speed Ahead
On Chanukah, our Sages have instituted that we say full Hallel in the Shacharis morning services to praise G-d for the miracles He performed for us. This along with the Torah reading for Chanukah adds a considerable amount of time to the morning service which is already under pressure for those who need to get to work or help get the kids out to school. The response to this tension is usually resolved in a fast Hallel to accommodate the time requirement, but perhaps it would be nice to allocate 30-60 seconds to sing one part of Hallel.

The Dedication of the Menorah
In some Shuls there are Menorahs which were formally dedicated. It sometimes happens that a member on his own purchases a menorah for the Shul, without going through a more formal Shul dedication process. What happens when the Shul decides that they want to replace that Menorah with something nicer. We don’t want to offend the member who performed the original generous act, while at the same time we want a nicer menorah for the Shul.

The Lighting of the Menorah
The lighting of the Menorah is a Shul honor that seems to be less sought after than other kibbudim (honors). Nonetheless somebody has to light. It seems that there are many varying procedures as to how to delegate this honor through the eight days and nights of Chanukah.

Ma’oz Tzur at Maariv
After the Chanukah Menorah lighting at Maariv, some Shuls sing Ma’oz Tzur before praying Maariv. On the one hand there is no obligation to sing Ma’oz Tzur in shul, but on the other perhaps we can view it as a correction for the fast Hallel we probably said at that morning’s Shacharis. There is also not the same time constraints at Maariv as at Shacharis. Nonetheless some of the mispallim (people who daven) would rather skip the Ma’oz Tzur and be finished with davening 5 minutes earlier. If you are in a Shul that does say Ma’oz Tzur, grin and bear it or better yet sing along and join in the praise of Hashem.

Happy Chanukah!

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Strategies for Shul Financial Success – Part 2 – Some Basic Principles

This is part 2 of Strategies for Shul Financial Success. You can read Part 1 here. I think it’s clear to most, that the Orthodox community is moving to smaller Shuls, which need a different financial structure from the big Shuls of the past.

In strong observant Jewish communities like Monsey, Kew Gardens Hills, Passaic, Lakewood, Teaneck, Five Towns and Brooklyn most small to medium size Shuls are not struggling. The financial struggle is occurring mainly among the big Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues who have declining memberships and big budgets.
Take away: most existing Orthodox Shuls should not radically tamper with their existing financial structure.

The Chabad free membership model is based on the fact that most Shluchim are committed to their communities/territories for the long term and they often finance their Shul activities with schools. In the small town Chabad communities, the expenses are lower and the Shul can be financed through the employment of the Shluchim and contributions from a handful of donors.
Take away: don’t emulate the Chabad free membership model unless you’re covering your budget from sources outside of the membership or from a handful of members. Kiruv Shuls need to provide a flexible fee structure with free membership for beginners.

Most of the Shuls starting up today are on the small side, between 30 and 100 families. As I calculated in Back of the Napkin Cost To Run a Shul, the cost of running a 50 member Shul with a $30,000 Rabbi’s salary is about $75,000 or $1,500 per member family.
Take away: your Shul will probably cost between $1,500 and $2,000 per member.

To hire an experienced Rabbi, which is critical for your long term success, you need to pay between $50,000 and $100,000. Even the young brilliant amazing personable Rabbi, that you do hire for $20,000 – $30,000, will probably not stay with you at that salary for more than 3-5 years. This is one of the major problems Shuls face today. As we transition to smaller Shuls with smaller budgets, we can not adequately finance the Rabbis we need to be successful.
Take away: your small Shul structure will probably not be able to finance the Rabbi you need.

The three major sources of income for a Shul are membership dues, High Holiday seats and an Annual Dinner or Melava Malka. Mi she-beirakhs and facility rentals are secondary sources. Any shortfalls will need to be made up by donations from wealthier members. Your actual fee structure should be based on a budget spreadsheet which has been critically reviewed by a few wealthier Shul members.
Take away: create a budget and have it reviewed by a few wealthier members of your Shul

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Dear Jack, I Was the One Who Said “You’re in My Seat”

Dear Jack,

I read your article on the OU’s website titled, You’re in My Seat, and I would like to apologize for being one of the five people who asked you to change your seat. I was one of the people who asked you nicely, but I should have immediately found you an available seat.

In a previous Shul where I davened, in which there were a lot of non-observant guests, we would never ask a person to move to an available seat, because of the possibility of causing offense. But here, we assume observant guests know that Shuls often have fixed seats and that our guests will ask someone for help in finding an available seat. Clearly, that was a mistake and I will try to make our members aware that they should be proactive and always help guests find an available seat.

Although you pointed to the halacha of Makom Kavua as a possible reason we asked you to move, it’s not the only reason we have fixed seats in our Shul. Most of us work pretty hard during the week and Shabbos morning is our refuge where we can sit peacefully, daven, learn, and listen to the drasha. As you’ve seen it can be quite disconcerting to have to find a seat each Shabbos, so we’ve contributed our time and money to keep our Shul running, enabling each of to have a seat we can call our own. From my experience, a regular Shabbos seat is close to a basic human need for observant Jews who daven with a minyan every Shabbos.

Although you suggest that we get there on time if we want our regular seat, our membership, in consideration of our individual situations, voted to give us the rights to our seats until Borechu. Even with that right, I would have gladly sat in another seat. However for various personal situations I usually can’t get to Shul earlier than Borechu, and because I have a desirable aisle seat, I would in fact never get to sit in my regular seat.

All the above notwithstanding, I want to apology on behalf of the Shul for this incident. If you can remember and publicize the good guest rule, “to ask for an available seat”, and we can remember the good host rule, “to immediately find an available seat for our guests”, we hopefully can both make our Shuls and communities, a better place.

With Apologies
Mike

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Addressing the Distractions of Our Phones in Our Shuls and Prayers

“All of life is a challenge of not being distracted from the greatness that we are” – Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner zt”l

Last week, we discussed some of the issues regarding mobile phone usage in Shuls. In this post we’ll look at some obstacles and strategies.

I think the obstacles can be broken down as:
1) Davening is hard, so we accept minimal personal performance levels
2) Mobile phones are distracting us at new levels
3) Lack of focus on the activity of prayer, leads to desensitization to the place of prayer
Let’s look at them one by one.

In a prior post titled, Judaism’s Little Secret – It’s Hard to Pray, we discussed some of the reasons davening is hard. As a result of this difficulty, many people set minimal kavanna levels as their personal norm. In some cases it’s the level they reached in high school. To address this, we need our leaders, teachers and lay people to discuss moving towards a growth mindset regard prayer. Briefly this means that we can all improve our concentration levels over time, if we work on it. As we gradually grow, we can improve the effect our prayers have on ourselves and the world around us.

Distractions were not invented in the 20th or 21st centuries, but our technological progress from television to the Internet to mobile phones has elevated them to a new level. When I recently mention to a friend, that a study found that the average person looks at their phone 150 times a day, he replied that 300-500 seems like a more accurate range to him. In addition to its functionality and mobility form factor, the phone is so distracting because it really does talk to us. All these incoming calls, texts and emails are from people and organizations with whom we have some connection and this “personal” attention is addicting and extremely distracting.

At its extremes, these distraction have led to the sad phenomena of half-Shabbos, where teens desecrate the Shabbos to respond to their texting addictions. Luckily, most observant Jews have not crossed that line and the Shabbos does give us a respite from our phone distractions. But we would probably greatly benefit if we put the phone down more often, to pay more attention to the task or person with whom we’re currently connecting. Shutting the phone off during Shacharis, Mincha and Maariv gives us an opportunity to reduce the distractions and it’s a step towards the healthy goal of setting aside the phone for other extended periods during our day.

If our prayer is on half-throttle, then it’s no surprise that the place of prayer is taking a hit. Our communities have made great strides over the years in reducing talking in Shul, but our increasing phone usage shows that perhaps those improvements were more for the benefit of our neighbors than for Hashem and His House. I think the goal here is gradual growth and sensitization to what an awesome place the Shul really is. We understand Shabbos as holiness in time and we most focus on the Shul as our primary remnant of holiness in place.

I think we need education, awareness, commitment and continual growth to address these problems. I don’t think “No phone” signs address the real issues which are improving our prayer, reducing our distracting levels and sensitizing ourselves to the awesomeness of our Shuls. The process starts inside each of us, with a personal commitment and a small step improvement, and then we can start moving collectively to building a Mikdash, where Hashem can dwell.

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Running a Successful Shul Dinner

A Shul Dinner is a wonderful event. The members get together for a wonderful evening together; the Shul is celebrated and strengthened; the service of the honorees is recognized. However it takes a lot of work, and if not for its primary fundraising role, it would probably not be undertaken.

As we’ve discussed previously, even a small 50 member family Shul in a rented space and a part-time Rabbi, can easily cost $75,000 a year or about $1,500 per family. You can’t charge $1,500 per family for membership in a small Shul, so you charge a few hundred for membership, a few hundred for Yomim Noraim seats, hope to raise a few hundred per family at a dinner, and sweat to make up the rest of the budget. The dinner is the key event around which fundraising can take place. Let’s look at four major processes: getting an honoree, picking a venue, encouraging member participation, making the event run smoothly.

Getting members to agree to be honored is not simple. For a small shul of 100 or less active members, getting one couple (or individual) to be honored is fine. In our Shul’s earlier years we would honor 2 couples, but as the years passed we ran short of willing participants, so we usually honor 1 couple now. If we would have had the foresight, we would have honored 1 couple from the beginning.
Some primary reasons people refuse to be honored are:
1) they don’t want to make the financial commitment it implies
2) they don’t want to bother their friends and families
3) they don’t want of feel they deserve the honor
If you set reasonable fundraising goals, you can often overcome objections 1) and 2) by insisting that a big donation or invite list is not expected. Objection 3) sometimes requires the Rabbi to pay a special visit to teach the members about the merit received for accepting the honor for the benefit of the Shul.

After the honorees, comes the venue. Find a few dates that work for the honorees and that don’t present any obvious community conflicts. Call the local halls first, because the less travelling required the better, and it’s always good to do business in your local community where possible. In Queens and Long Island, you can expect to spend between $40 and $60 per person for the caterer and the hall. If you’re a good negotiator, and are willing to tone down the menu, you might bring it home between $30 and $40 per person. Make sure it’s respectable, since you’re asking you members to shell out a few hundred per person, and it’s a let down if they’re served a tired piece of chicken, with some overcooked greasy vegetables.

Next is to decide the participation levels for your journal. Set the dinner attendance cost within the reach of most members, and set the other levels from there. Get a local printer to print your invitations. When putting together your invite list, remember people generally don’t attend or contribute to other Shul’s dinners, so save yourself some postage and printing cost and invite those likely to contribute. Don’t skip on the journal, as it’s a nice touch for the honorees, and it helps you to raise more money with the different journal page rates.

After the invitations go out, comes the ad deadline game. It’s no secret that Jews run a little late when it comes to deadlines, so a liberal amount of Shul announcements and email reminders are usually necessary. Calling members who have not responded is a very wise idea, since people are more likely to respond to a call then to other forms of solicitation. In our Shul we encourage all new members to come, sometimes by reducing their contribution to the catering costs.

Lastly comes the event itself. The goal is to make it respectable for the honorees, enjoyable for the members, build connection to the Shul, all within a reasonable elapsed time. Reasonable timings are 60 minutes for the shmorg or hors d’oeuvres, 60 minutes for the main meal and program, 20 minutes for desert. Throw in a mincha and/or a maariv and some transition time, and your talking 3 hours total. Although in a certain sense, the speeches are the most important part of the dinner, people today seem to have trouble sitting through them. Generally the dinner chairman, the Rabbi, the president, an introduction for the honorees, and the honorees themselves should speak. Inform all parties of the target time for their speech.

You can see there’s a lot of steps, so you need a competent dinner committee, consisting of a dinner chair, a journal chair, and a few other people helping with the planning and execution. It’s helpful if you can get the same people from year to year, because there’s a lot of knowledge that is gained each time a dinner is run. We had our dinner this week and it was a smashing success, due in no small part to our amazing dinner committee.

If you have any questions or thoughts you can leave a comment or email me at [email protected]

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Making Rules To Prevent Digital Shuls

As cell phones have become commonplace, it has become accepted common courtesy to turn your ringer off or to vibrate during davening. Most Shuls strongly discourage talking on the cell during davening. Although some Shuls already have a no-digital-usage policy, many shuls have not yet established policies when it comes to less evasive digital usage.

With regard to reading and writing texts and emails, many Shuls allow it. The neighbor disturbance level is low enough, and many shuls are hesitant to prohibit behaviors which are not clear violations of the halacha. In the Shuls in my neighborhood, the texters are still a small minority, but in the event that a majority of people are texting in Shul on a regular basis, I think many Shuls will conclude that it is an inappropriate behavior and discourage it. Which makes you wonder why it’s not considered inappropriate now.

The next frontier is davening from IPads or other tablet computers. Since the IPad has a bigger screen which your neighbor can see, the potential for distraction is greater. As long as siddur and gemora viewing are the primary activities, most Shuls will probably not set a prohibitive policy. If people use the tablets for other things, I think minynan members will protest about the distraction and Shuls will discourage tablet usage, and perhaps cell phone usage as well.

We’re still early on the personal digital adoption life cycle and as the usage and frequency of usage evolves, it will be interesting to see how Shul policies change. It might make sense to get ahead of the curve and discuss and implement an appropriate digital policy for your Shul, since it’s harder to change behaviors when they’ve become entrenched.

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What’s a Rabbi Worth?

In membership based Shuls, determining the Rabbi’s salary is a significant issue. It’s hard enough to determine the fair salary of a Rabbi who’s attending life cycle events, teaching classes, giving drashos and paskening the occasional shailoh. But when your Rav is functioning as a Moreh Derech, a spiritual guide, for a significant portion of the congregation, it’s very difficult to put a price on that.

How can we put a price on someone who: cares deeply about you and your family; is always available; and constantly assists you in applying the Torah’s wisdom to your life situations, both large and small? You can’t put a price on Torah and spirituality, so where does that leave us?

The obvious answer is for the Shul to pay what it can afford, but that number has some flexibility in it, and is a function of what the members are willing to pay for dues and services. Based on my research, a Rabbi receives anywhere from $200 to $500 per member family. The larger the Shul, the lower the per family rate.

A related problem is when the Rabbi to whom you ask your questions is not the Rabbi of the Shul to which you belong. It seems the primary model for compensating the Rabbi is through the Shul structure. It doesn’t seem to be a normal practice to send a Rabbi a yearly check because he’s your spiritual advisor. I think all Jews need a Moreh Derech, but many, possibly most, don’t have such a person in their life. Perhaps we need to introduce non-Shul based compensation structures so people can connect to spiritual advisors who are paid adequately for their time.

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The Shul on Shabbos – Weekday Beis Medrash Solution

We’ve pointed out in a previous post, that the essential goal of encouraging people to learn in the Shul could have the unintended side effect of downsizing the functionality of our Shuls to drive-thru davening and chavrusa centers. The problem is that the resulting structure is often missing services and does not always accommodate a Rav, who’s role is indispensable for the community.

Our Shul’s solution evolved over time. By sharing it, perhaps it will provide a foundation for others to build a lasting and effective Shul structure. When we were planning our new Shul building 14 years ago, the issue of what type of seating was intensively discussed. We were moving from a High School basement with tables to a beautiful new building. The membership was split between tables and the pew style seating, commonly found in larger Shuls. At the same time a large Shul in Jackson Heights, Queens was moving to a smaller location and they offered us all their pews in exchange for a small donation and coverage of the moving expenses.

We went with the pews as an interim solution because of cost and capacity considerations. This decision was made over the protestations of an active board member, who warned it would be like “Aunt Sadie’s hand me down couch” and we’ll never get rid of them. Over the years the pro-tables contingent tried a few plans to replace the pews with tables. None were successful, largely because some very involved members wanted to keep a Shul feeling in our new building.

Fast forward a few years and we implemented a weekday Community Beis Medrash in the Shul. We wanted to provide a place for people to feel comfortable learning either before or after our weekday 9:30pm Maariv. We also created a number of chaburas, where members would give interactive shiurim to small groups. To accommodate the Beis Medrash, every Motza’ei Shabbos we would flip over some pews to make room for folding tables for learning – certainly not an optimal solution.

This went on for a few years and we would on occasion raise the table issue with our architect-by-profession member who was instrumental in the initial beautiful design of our Shul. One day he came up with a great solution, we would have Lavi type pews in the front of the Shul and tables in the back. The tables are 15 inches wide, forward facing on Shabbos and we double them together to create a Beis Medrash environment during the week.

The solution worked out well because we have the full feel of a Makom Tefillah on Shabbos and a Beis Medrash during the week. People were able to choose whether they preferred to sit at tables or at the extremely comfortable and functional pews. Although I’m minimizing the implementation process, at the end of the day it was a great solution.

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Who’s The Boss? – Shul Types and Authority

Shul Structure Guides Decision Process
The baseline services of every Shul includes communal prayer. So, decisions like seating, prayer leaders, prayer speed, prayer time, Torah readers, and Aliyah recipients will always need to be decided. Beyond that, the scope of the activities and the Shul’s financial and authority structure will guide the decision making process. The following is a general overview of typical shul structures. Of course, there will be exceptions. Please add your disagreements, amplifications and corrections in the comments.

Yeshiva Minyanim
In Yeshiva minyanim, the heads of the Yeshiva make the decisions and run the minyan as an extension of the Yeshiva. It would be a stretch to even call it a Shul. There are few outside activities other than davening. People who daven there make voluntary contributions and expect little input. There is very little politics. Women’s involvement is minimal. The heads of the Yeshiva make all the policy decisions.

Shtiebels and Rabbi-centric Shuls
In Shtiebels and other Rabbi-centric Shuls, the founding Rabbi is the top authority. There are often shiurim for the members, but generally not so many activities beyond that. There is a Gabbai who assists in the day to day affairs. When the Shul assumes a degree of financial responsibility, donors will have some say. Women’s involvement is minimal. The priorities for leading the davening, getting Aliyahs and seating can sometimes be tricky because the Rabbi often chooses not to get involved and there is no formal mechanism to resolve conflicts.

Chabad Shuls

In Chabad shuls, the Rabbi is the top authority. There are usually many activities provided. A Gabbai often assists in the day to day affairs. The financial responsibility is assumed by the Rabbi but big donors will also have some say. Women are usually involved. The priorities for leading the davening, getting Aliyahs and seating are set by the Rabbi and carried out by the Gabbai.

Independent Minyans

In independent minyans a small group of members assume the primary financial responsibility. A place to daven is the primary priority but other activities are sometimes provided. A Rabbi is sometimes hired. The financially responsible members have the primary authority. Women are sometimes involved. Shul policies and roles are sometimes formalized.

Democratic Shuls
In Democratic shuls like Young Israel and OU shuls, for example, the membership assumes the financial responsibility. The Rabbi is paid a salary and is vested with a good deal of authority. There are many activities provided. There is usually a sisterhood that provides additional activities. There are by-laws, procedures, officers, a board of directors, committees and elections. The elections are usually rubber stamps of the election committee’s recommendations. Women are active. Policy decisions are distributed among the Rabbi, the officers, the gabbai, the board or the membership depending on the by-laws or policy. The president has significant responsibility and authority, and longer standing members and significant contributors are sometimes informally vested with more authority than the average member.

As we discuss the issues in the weeks ahead we need to keep these authority and financial structures in mind as they will be a major factor in determining Shul Politics.