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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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Addressing The Shiur Gender Gap

One of the interesting phenomenon over the years is the proliferation of shiurim on Tisha B’Av. In our Shul, in addition to some live shiurim, we show both Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation videos. To handle the crowd we show the videos in 2 different locations in the Shul simultaneously. About 400 people view these videos, with a breakdown of approximately 300 women and 100 men. This gender gap also exists for the shiurim that are not halacha or Gemora oriented.

Three possible explanation for this gap are:
1. When men go out to learn it will be for Daf Yomi or to learn with a chavrusa.
2. Women are more drawn to lecture/inspiration shiurim than men and perhaps gain more from these types of shiurum.
3. Women do not have enough opportunities to learn, so they take full advantage when shiurim are given.

Most likely it’s a combination of factors.

An obvious takeaway from this is to schedule more shiurim for women. In our Shul this has been addressed by creating a women’s shiur committee under the direction of the Rebbetzin and the Rabbi. Many of the shiurim are schedule on Shabbos afternoon when more women have the opportunity to attend. To address the cost issue, many of the shiurim are given by women and local Rebbeim who are willing to give shiurim for free.

In our Kew Gardens Hills community there are also a number of regular shiurim organized in local homes. Bigger events are held in the Shuls and we are fortunate to host a number of them in our Shul during the course of the year. Thank God that lots of good work is being done to addressing this growing need.

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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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The National Holiday Minyan Schedule

For those who get compensated for them, national holidays are 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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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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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 personable 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 officers for a Shul is not easy, so thanks to all those who have served, and hopes for those who haven’t to seriously consider getting more involved.

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

Torah Musings has a blog post on Synagogue Dues which might lead to confusion, so I want to discuss some Shul Financing basic principles. 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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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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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.

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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.