Shuls Out for Summer

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

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

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

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

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

The best thing about Shul being out for Summer is our hearts growing fonder when we return in full force in Elul.


Messages From A Tzedakah Collector

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Shul Dinner – Beyond Fundraising

I’ve wrote in the past about “Running a Successful Shul Dinner” (http://www.shulpolitics.com/2013/04/24/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 or free pass, and to try to accommodate members who might not attend because of financial considerations. Generally, the committee sets 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.


Pardon Me, But You’re In My Seat

Many of us have faced at least one of these problems on a Shabbos morning:
-We’re guests in a Shul and we want to avoid taking somebody else’s seat
-We walk into our own Shul and somebody is sitting in our seat or our friend’s seat.

A Person Should Have a Fixed Seat for Prayer
We learn the requirement for a fixed place for prayer from Avraham who went to the same place to pray on a regular basis. The Shulchan Aruch (Halachos of Prayer 90:19) says that one should have a fixed Shul and a fixed place within that Shul to pray where possible. Within 6-8 feet of your seat is considered your fixed place.

The Shul Guarantees The Seat

Most people who daven regularly at a Shul want a fixed seat for both practical reasons and to satisfy the halacha. If there’s a membership charge, paying that charge usually guarantees a regular seat. When there’s no charge there’s often an understanding between the Rabbi and the Shul-regulars, that they will get a seat. A person who supports his Shul with his money or his attendance should be able to count on the Shul to provide him with his seat. Some Shuls have a seating Gabbai to fulfill this function.

No Formal Shul Process

In many Shuls, there’s no seating Gabbai and the members deal with the seating conflicts themselves. It can get tricky because we don’t want to embarrass somebody by asking them to move to a different seat. Although most people don’t want to take somebody else’s seat, people often get embarrassed when you ask them to move, even if they don’t show it. When there are Simchas like Bar Mitzvahs, many Shuls wave the fixed seat right to accommodate the expected guests of the Baal Simcha.

What to Do

-The first suggestion is to try to get to shul early or on time so nobody takes your seat.
-If someone is in your seat for whatever reason, take a seat within eight feet of yours and don’t ask the person to move. One caveat is that people can sometimes detect during the course of davening, that they’re in someone else’s seat and this can also be a source of embarrassment.
-Even if you can’t find a close seat, foregoing this halacha for this davening is better then embarrassing someone.
-Sometimes friends will protect each other’s seats, but that doesn’t really solve the embarrassment issue.
-If it’s known that a person is insistent on his seat and he might really embarrass the person that is sitting in it, it might make sense for another person to find the guest a different seat to minimize or eliminate the embarrassment.
-Try to direct a guest to an unoccupied seat before they get comfortable to avoid this problem.

Members have rights to their regular seats, but not at the cost of embarrassing guests. Try to be sensitive to both parties when resolving seating conflicts.


The Complexities of Complaints

In a post regarding the difference between a Minyan and a Tzibbur, I wrote: “A minyan is a place for davening, while a tzibbur is a place for people. … One of the main thing that distinguishes a minyan from a tzibbur are the complaints. … In a Tzibbur the members are the group and therefore they have a right to express their opinion, which are often perceived by the leadership as complaints. ”

The person who usually receives the most complaints is the President. Depending on their job, family and life situations, some Presidents spend more time in the Shul than others. If a President is in the Shul less often he will probably receive less complaints, because there is a whole class of minor complaints that people will make in person, but will not pick up the phone to pursue. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Let’s take a quick look at the complexities of complaints.

Less complaints are good because there will be less situations which can become major disagreements. In addition, each complaint is a challenge for the President, since he has to dignify each complaint and respond with respect to the complaining member – which sometimes can be challenging. Thirdly, many issues can’t be rectified because there are usually a number of factors why a given Shul Operation is administered in a certain way.

The first benefit of more complaints is that when people feel their voice is heard, they feel more connected to the Shul. Increased Shul connection benefits both the individual and the Shul. From a spiritual perspective, complaints give the administration the opportunity to increase their peace, love and understanding capabilities, and it’s a lot more difficult to Love Your Neighbor as Yourself when you’re being challenged on some issue. And lastly, if people don’t feel that they can express their complaints, resentments build.

If you didn’t like this post, please feel free to send your complaints my way.


Your Shul is an Awesome Place

I still remember last year hoping and praying that Governor Cuomo would allow our Shuls to reopen for Shavuos. And our prayers were answered. We had very limited size minyanim, outdoor minyanim, indoor minyanim, signup sheets, very short davening. Many Shuls around the world had similiar scenarios. Rabbis, gabbaim, officers and members have been working for well over a year to accomodate the varying needs of our Shuls as the face of Covid has changed.

I’ve heard from multiple sources that some people aren’t so anxious to return to their Shuls. They like the smaller, faster, seemingly safer, more personable, makeshift minyanim that were formed out of neccessity. That’s understandable. Covid forced us to change our Shul going experience and many have not yet returned to normal.

For those of us who are beginning to unmask to normalcy, it’s a good time to look around and see what an awesome place your Shul is. Look at your fellow members. Look at your Rav. Look at your officers and adminstrators. Listen to the davening. Listen to the leining. Do some learning. And every once in a while, look to Hashem and thank Him for placing you in such an awesome place.

Chag Sameach


Decision Making and Shul Structures

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 and how they govern.

Democratic Shuls
In Democratic shuls, such as Young Israel and OU shuls, 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.

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.

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.

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.

Although the decision making process is a little stickier in Democratic Shuls, because of the involvement of more people, I think it is the best structure. More say means more involvement, and more involvement means that the members will get more out of their Shul experience. The major issue is that the authority of the Rabbi may be diminished in a democratic structure. However, a good Rabbi will have a strong influence on the important decisions and a well developed membership will look to their Rabbi for guidance. Unfortunately, I think the days of the Democratic Shul are numbered as people are prefering smaller Shuls which are primarily financed and governed by a smaller group of people.


Shul Choice

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

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

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

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


Sefirah Counter – A Triumph of Low Tech

It wasn’t meant to become a fixture. In fact, when our Sefirah counter first hit the top of the Chazzan’s shtender, it was intended as a message to the administration: “Please get an electronic Shul Board ASAP”. The issue was that mispallim couldn’t always hear the Rabbi’s counting of the Omer, so we needed a way to inform them of the current count. A well meaning member devised a solution consiting of a lucite stand and 49 plain white pages numbered from 1 to 49 in a 400pt Arial font.

It seemed a little silly at first. So low tech! It actually requires that the numbers be manually changed every day! So we looked for a high tech display board. But this one was too hard to read. And this one was too visually loud. And we couldn’t find the one which was just right. So the next year, and for many years after, we pulled out the lucite stand and the folder of numbers and we survived with our low tech solution.

Not only did we survive, but the solution has actually thrived. It works quite well and we’re quite fond of it. A few falls has cracked the lucite base, but nobody is calling for a new one. It fits the character of the solution. We’ve even considered auctioning off the right to change the number. Another proposal was to have the numbers decorated by our play group.

But at the end of the day we’re purist, and we’ll continue with our simple and perfect low-tech solution to a common problem.


A Whole Lotta Hallel

There are lots of Hallels to be read and sang over the next week or so. Here are some notes from Maharal: Emerging Patterns by Yaakov Rosenblatt on Hallel.

Give Praise Servants of Hashem from this time forth and forever more
Despite Hashem’s loftiness, He is still intimately involved with the life of man and continually bestows goodness through kindness, judgment or mercy.
He raise the needy from the dust is through judgment because the poor should be provided for.
To seat them with the nobles, nobles of His people is through kindness because although raising the poor out of poverty is just, elevating them to sit with nobles is an act of kindness.
He transforms the barren women into a joyful mother of children is an act of mercy since this women is not capable and therefore is not in the realm of judgment, nor is it kindness since children are not above and beyond human needs, rather it is mercy because even though this woman is unable to have children naturally, Hashem still allows her to conceive and bear children.

When Yisroel Went of out of Egypt, the House of Yaakov from a people of a Strange Language
After praising Hashem for His kindness through normal realms, we now praise Hashem for the miracles that transcend nature.
The sea saw and fled, the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like young sheep – water takes the shape of its container and the Earth is shaped by man. When Hashem acts and gives form and definition to all creation it is natural that the sea fled and the mountains skipped.
Hashem turned the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of waters – when Hashem is the force, even a rock is shaped effortlessly.

Not to us Hashem, but to Your Name Give Glory
This Psalm says the reason that Hashem performs miracles for the Jews is to give recognition to His name, His love and His truth. Only Hashem deserves this recognition and not things like idols which clearly have no power and are weaker than man. Man’s powers are listed in decreasing importance: speech, sight, hearing, smell, feeling, walking, and making sounds.

Hashem will Bless our Remembrance: He will Bless the House of Yisrael
Hashem will Bless our Remembrance requests that the lasting impact we will have on others and the world will be a blessing.
The Dead cannot praise Hashem, nor can any who go down into silence shows that only when the human body and the world are functioning properly can they “sing” the praises of Hashem. King David says allow us to live, allow us to thrive, so our very existence can proclaim your glory.

I love Hashem Who Hears my Voice and my Supplications
You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. King David thanks Hashem for saving his soul which represents the spiritual, the eyes which are the connection between the spiritual and the physical because they do not actively enter the world, but monitor it for the mind/soul to process, and the feet which represent the physical. Tears represent a loss of part of the soul.

How can I repay Hashem for all His kindness to me?
I will carry the cup that You have filled with salvation, and call upon the name of Hashem – A cup that is filled represents ones meaningful accomplishments and we think Hashem for the ability to act in meaningful ways.
I will carry …in my arms to show the cup that you filled precedes me and proclaims your greatness
I will pay my vows to Hashem in the Presence of all His People to use every opportunity to proclaim the greatness of Hashem and to publicly honor Hashem’s glory

Give Thanks to Hashem for He is Good
Thanks also mean to concede, so to the extent that a person recognizes and acknowledges the Hashem has given him everything is the extent to which he will thank Him. Different groups: humanity, Jews, Kohanim and G-d fearing people, have experienced different benefits and will therefore thank Hashem differently.

Out of My Distress I called upon Hashem
There are three levels of hatred, basic dislike (all the nations) because of economic, cultural or military threats, dislike due to differences in values which only the Jews hold (they surrounded me) and deep seated hatred (they surrounded me like bees) due to the subconscious understanding that the success of the nations is dependent on the Jew’s failure. If we act according to our spiritual potential the world’s event will be centralized around us for our benefit. If we do not, we are punished and the the nations are successful.

O praise Hashem all you Nations
Hallelukah combines a word of praise with Hashem’s name and is used to praise the miraculous because the only the one who created the worlds (Heh – this world, Yud – the next) can suspend the rules to perform miracles when he sees fit.


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.


The Politics of Passover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Missing an Opportunity

People come to Shul on Shabbos morning for one of the following main reasons: 1) The Davening; 2) The Rabbi; 3) The Socialization.

Some attribute the spectacular rise of Covid backyard minyans, to the fact that socialization is the main driver for many, and the backyard minyanim provide a better socialization venue. They’re like Shteibels on steroids, where the participants make the rules.

I personally value the socialization aspect of our Shuls very highly, and long for the days when we can gather for a kiddush, Shalosh Seudos and public shiurim. However, I think we have unfortunately missed an opportunity for serious spiritual growth through improved davening.

Remember our renewed commitments to davening as we prayed alone in our homes for 10 Covid weeks? And now that we’re back, what happened? Yes, we have to deal with the whos, wheres and how longs of social distanced davening. But when we’ve stepped into that first brocha of Shemoneh Esrai, what’s our excuse? Maybe it’s only me, but I suspect others have also not taken full advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

It’s not too late. We can still show Hashem how much we appreciate the return to our Shuls.
You give Hashem your attention for 7 minutes, and He’ll give you the world.

Cross posted at Beyond BT.


Covid Created Purim Opportunities

We are taught that “All Hashem does is for the good”, and this includes Covid. Let’s look at how that might apply to Purim.

Shaloch Manos
We are obligated to give two foods to one person. These foods gifts should be significant, but because we often choose to go wide instead of deep, we find ourselves giving a lot of smaller insignificant gifts to more people. This year Covid recommendations suggest cutting down on the number of gifts we give, so we can give use our Shaloch Manos funds for something significant. One year I gave a half-platter of Sushi and a bottle of Scotch to someone and it really made the impact that was intended with Shaloch Manos.

Megillah Reading
The absence of Hashem’s name in the Megillah teaches us that even when it’s not obvious, Hashem is the guardian of the Jewish People. However, Jewish Unity is a prerequisite for our ultimate salvation. We see that crucial unity develop in the Megillah. When you’re in Shul for the reading, look around and appreciate all your fellow Covid weary Jews, who have come together to publicize and recognize Hashem’s hidden miracles. Despite our differences, we are family!

Purim Seudah
Our goal is to Serve Hashem With Joy. If we’re not feeling the joy, then our service is lacking. Unfortunately the scourge of Covid has been a downer this year and it might also reduce the number of guests at our Seudah. The key is to focus on the people who are at our Seudah. How much we love them and how happy we are to be together with them. And how fortunate we are to be able to serve Hashem together by having a joyous time.

Covid creates opportunities for us to re-focus on all that we have and do. Let’s take advantage of it.
Chag Purim Sameach!


The Connections of Purim

Happiness is a feeling of completion. When a person feels like they’re missing something, and then they get out of their lacking situation, they’re happy. The missing something can be a new house, a car, a vacation, or even that piece of chocolate that you want now.

A deeper sense of happiness is when we feel the completion with what we already have. That’s the happiness that comes from being with family, being with a loved one, or sitting in the Shul that you love.

The deepest level of happiness comes totally from within, it comes from a sense of being, not from having. It’s when we sense our own innate existence and we connect our existence to all of existence, and to the Creator of all existence. That’s the ultimate feeling of completion and happiness and it’s not dependent on anything we have or don’t have.

It’s hard to connect to our being, because in our world we are so focused on what we have, what we want, what we don’t have. The Purim story opens with the King of Persia throwing a massive 180 day party for all the people. The purpose of the party was to usher in a new world order of “having”, to replace a world of “being”. This is the world we live in today, one focused on “having” and not “being”.

On one level, the triumph of the Purim story is the defeat of the genocide promoting anti-Semite, Haman. The deeper victory is the fact that the Jews reconnected to a life of “being” and connecting to the Creator. As you know, G-d’s name is not written once in the entire Megillah, because His presence was not obviously manifested in the world. We live in that same world, where it’s often difficult to sense G-d’s presence and generate the joy of connecting to G-d, the source of all existence.

So when we hear the Megillah on Purim, we can connect to a deeper happiness. The Megillah helps us understand that there are no coincidences, only a Creator who is directing the crazy events in the world and in our lives, for our ultimate benefit. That ultimate benefit will come when we can connect to our own existence, and connect to the innate existence of others, and collectively connect to The Source of all existence. That is the ultimate happiness and completion, and we can all take a collective step in that direction in Shul next week.

Chag Someach – Happy Purim


The Joy of Loving Your Shul

The Gemara in Taanis (29a) teaches us that Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’simcha, when Adar begins we increase our happiness. Rashi comments that “Purim and Pesach were days of miracles for Yisrael” and therefore Adar and Nisan are joyous months. Let’s take a brief dive into the Torah concept of happiness so that we can maximize our joy during this wondeful time.

The Maharal in his commentary to Mishna 6.1 in Avos teaches that happiness flows from completion just as grief is the result of loss and deficiency. Happiness takes many forms. When we crave a favorite food, attaining it creates a sense of completeness, and generates happiness. Much of our lives is composed of wanting things, getting them, and achieving a small dose of happiness as a result. When we do the right thing in a difficult situation, we feel more complete in the use of our strengths and capabilities, and this generates happiness. When we feel connected to friends and family through the emotion we call love, we feel more complete and happy. The Chovos HaLevovos, the Mesillas Yesharim and the Rambam teach that love of Hashem generates the highest sense of completion and therefore the greatest pleasure and happiness.

The higher levels of happiness take more time and effort to attain, are deeper, and are high Torah priorities. “Loving Hashem” and “Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself” are two cornerstone mitzvos. When we appreciate the miracles that Hashem did for us on Purim and Pesach, we deepen our connection and love of Him, which increases our sense of completion and our happiness.

With regard to our Shul, we can appreciate that we are bound together in a common history, heritage and mission to bring Hashem’s presence into the world. If we consistently focus on this, we can feel the resulting sense of completion and happiness. Initially, it might not generate the same happiness as a Kiddush after davening. However, it we persist, and focus on the thoughts of connection and completion, we can acheive the Joy of Loving our Shul.


The Connection Power of the Kiddush

It’s no secret that a major part of Torah Judaism involves Bein Adam L’Chaveiro. Regarding the negative commandments, we need to avoid Lashon Hara, embarassing people, insulting people, taking revenge, holding a grudge, hating in our heart, etc… For the positive commandments, we need to give good advice, find people jobs, apartments, shidduchim, help them grow, and love our neighbors as ourselves, etc…

Our busy weekday lives often minimize our face to face contacts, but thankfully we have Shabbos, a time for God, family, and friends. The positive trend towards reducing conversation in Shul during davening, leaves the kiddush as the major time to build connection.

The food at the kiddush is the vessel over which we connect and too much focus on the food will reduce the positive social interaction. Three variables effect the connection-building capabilities: the number of people; whether it is sitting our standing; and whether it is in the Shul/social hall or in somebodies’ home.
– The more people at the kiddush, the more difficult it is to have a deeper and longer conversation.
– A sit down kiddush creates better connections than a standing one.
– A kiddush in a house is more intimate and connection building than one in the Shul/Social Hall.

The large stand up kiddush in the Shul is at the lower end of the connection-building scale, while a private sit-down kiddush in somebodies’ home creates a high-connection environment. Unfortunately, the sit-down kiddush in somebodies home is usually not a Shul event, it does not scale to Shul size, and it can create an air of exclusivity. The most practical alternative is a sit down kiddush in the Shul. If you scale down the menu to cracker, cookies, chips, dips and drinks, the sit down kiddush becomes more achievable.

Whatever the form, kiddushim are an important social component of your Shul. We hope and pray that the end of Covid will come soon and the Shul Kiddush in all its formats will return.


The Cure for Covid Condensed Congregations

Even before Covid, Shuls were downsizing due to Shtiebelization. Covid drove more downsizing, distancing and davening at dizzying speeds. A friend told me that he can get out of bed at 9:30 am, go to the next door davening tent, and be finished with Shabbos Morning davening by about 10:30 am, with a grab and go kiddush to boot. Perhaps there was a pent-up demand for such davening and Covid just paved the way.

Fortunately the famous Ramban at the end of Parsha Bo revealed the vaccine for this situation. He teaches us that the plagues showed the world that G-d is the source of all existence, who knows all, oversees all, is all powerful, shows favor to the Jews, and communicates to us through prophecy. The purpose of all the commandments is that we should believe in G-d and acknowledge to Him that He created us.

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

So the cure for Covid Condensed Congregations is to focus on the purpose of our Shuls and think about Hashem, our creator, as we pray and perform the many mitzvos of Shabbos morning. I think we’re all capable of thinking about Hashem a few times each Shabbos. As we succeed, the spiritual pleasure we experience surely exceeds the pleasure from a shortened faster davening.

Hashem provide the vaccine for spiritual malaise during Yetizias Mitzrayim. Shabbos morning we all have an appointment to get inoculated.


Passive and Active Spiritual Coaching

In the personal affairs market, life coaching has not reached it’s potential, but in the upper echelons of corporate America it is alive and kicking. In well run larger corporations, the higher level executives contribute greatly to the company’s success, so they invest in coaching for their top people. A friend who worked in a Fortune 50 company had a coach to help him improve in various areas of his life. It’s an extremely valuable service and it’s unfortunate that most of us don’t have access to such help.

There is one area where we do have coaches, in the spiritual dimension of our lives. In yeshivos and seminaries, the Rebbeim and teachers serve that role. When we leave those havens, our Shul Rebbeim serve as spiritual coaches through their drashos and their personal guidance. An underutilized avenue of valuable spiritual coaching is also available from our fellow Shul members. This coaching takes two forms passive and active.

Passive spiritual coaching occurs when someone sets a positive example for his friend or neighbor. In our Shul, certain members felt the local Yeshivos would be a better place to daven. My Rav felt that the effect members have on each other is important and often overlooked. The words and behavior of a Rav or a full time Yeshiva student are to some degree discounted, because they’re living more spiritually focused lives than the working person who spends much time in secular pursuits. However when a person sees a friend or neighbor in similar life circumstance, spending that extra 30 minutes learning, taking on another chesed or working on his davening, it makes a impact. Over time, these impacts foster growth.

Active spiritual coaching, although not as common, can take the form of a Mussar Vaad, or an agreement among friends to help one another. However, most people that I know are reticent to give direct spiritual advice to someone else. In a recent play-listed shiur, Rabbi Yosef Viener, Rav of Kehilas Shaar Shamayim, Monsey. states that we each have a continuing obligation to help our friends and neighbors grow. How we do that depends on the situation. In another shiur, Making Sense of the Final Exile – Part 1, Rabbi Viener related a story of a Shul member phoning his friend every morning for months at 5:30 am, to attend the pre-Shacharis Daf Yomi shiur. The called member was appreciative and hopeful that some day he would heed the call and wake up early to attend.

Individually and as a community, we benefit from peer-to-peer spiritual coaching. The forms that this takes will differ from Shul to Shul and member to member. As growth oriented Shuls continue to mature, we’ll hopefully see many more successful models.


Covid and The Problem of No-Frills Davening

With the rise of Covid, No-Frills Davening is becoming the norm. No-Frills davening the phenomena where people join and/or attend Shuls on Shabbos for davening alone. What could be wrong with that? Shuls are built as places to daven. To answer this question we have to take a step back to look at the goals of Judaism.

The goals of Judaism are to create three types of connection:
1) the connection of our body and soul
2) a connection to Hashem
3) connections of ourselves with other people

Body and soul connection is achieved by learning and following the Torah’s prescription of how to act, feel and think from a spiritual perspective as we navigate our lives in this physical world. Connection to Hashem is achieved through serving Him via the mitzvos and through prayer. Connection to others is achieved by diminishing and overcoming our self-centered perspective and helping, seeing the good, speaking well of, and giving honor to our fellow Jews.

Although the Shul is a place where we connect to Hashem via prayers, it is also a place where we connect to our fellow Jews. Connecting to people requires us to go beyond the comfort zone of our family and close friends, and dealing with people who are not such close friends, who have different views than us, who might sometimes rub us the wrong way. And it takes work because we have to put aside our self-centeredness to accommodate the perspectives, needs, and personalities of others. Many people don’t enjoy this and therefore seek a no-frills, no-conflict, no-accommodation-required environment. But if we are to grow as individuals and collectively as a community and a people we need to get our hands dirty and constructively deal with these differences and conflicts.

The world is becoming a much more polarized place and as inhabitants we are affected by this division. The Torah gives us the prescription to eliminate polarization and that is through connection. Hashgacha has placed us in Shuls where we have the challenge and opportunity to do the real work of creating connections and a true unity. No-Frills Davening is harmful because it keeps us in our comfort zone and prevents us from creating the connections which are a major component of our purpose in the world. When Covid makes a retreat, we must strive hard to get back to relationship building in our Shuls.

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Shuls at their Best – A Shlishi to Remember

The following story occurred 22 years ago and Eugene calls me every year to relive the joy of that moment. It highlights some of the heights a Shul can reach.

It was the beginning of December 1998 and the Shul was in the midst of a fantastic Simcha streak. Since we moved in to the new building in August, almost every Shabbos had a Mazel Tov, whether it be a new baby, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, an engagement, an Aufruf or a Wedding. It was a great time to be a member.

As I left for Daf Yomi, my wife asked me if there was anything special going on in Shul this Shabbos. I told her, “Not this week”. As I arrived at Shul, I saw Eugene leaving the Shul with a big smile on his face. I asked him what he was doing at Shul an hour early. He told me he had to take a walk and get some exercise as per Doctor’s orders.

Davening proceeded nicely at its normal pace. After the Kohen Aliyah, Chaim K was called up as a Chassan in honor of his recent marriage to Esther G. Then came a Shlishi to remember.

The Gabbai called up HaChasan Yerucham Avraham Ben Yehuda Tuvia. HaChasan? Everybody looked at each other asking the same question, “Did you know?” But nobody knew.

During the course of the Aliyah it was confirmed, Eugene was a Chasan. He had managed to keep it a secret from everybody. A tremendous feeling of joy overcame us. After the Misheberach, somebody grabbed my hand and said let’s dance. In just a few seconds, we were all circling the Bimah singing Siman Tov and Mazel Tov. It was a sight to behold.

The feelings of joy continued through the rest of davening. The entire Shul was giddy. After davening, everybody was anxious to share the good news with whomever they could find. Somebody remarked that this was one of the top ten moments in our Shul history. We’ll be having a contest as to what the other nine events were. In any case, this was right up there.


The Cell Phone of Zos Chanukah

It was Zos Chanukah and many people in our minyan were prepared for the more propitious davening that the Chassidic seforim discuss. As Neitz arrived, we stepped into Shemoneh Esrai in unison, each of us prepared to address Hashem with our own praise, personal requests and thanks. However, Hashem had a different Avodah in mind.

A few seconds into Shemoneh Esrai, a phone went off. It was a nice piano concerto type of ring, however the timing was awful. It stopped, and a few seconds later it continued. This repeated during the Shemoneh Esrai until the owner grabbed his belongings from a chair and removed them from the Beis Medrash.

What had happened was that a guest had put his things on a chair and put on his talis and tefillin. The seating Gabbai found him a better seat in the corner and he left his things, including the phone, on the chair. When the phone went off the guest wasn’t sure if he was allowed to interrupt his Shemoneh Esrai and walk in front of people to get his phone to turn it off. (Most people with whom I spoke thought that he should have gone to the phone and shut it off.)

In terms of the Shul, the Avodah was overwhelmingly positive. Not a NU was heard in the entire Tzibbur. There was no after-davening reminder by the Gabbai to turn off your phones, which could have led to further embarrassment. The guest offered to apologize and ask for mechila from the Tzibbur, but the Gabbai said it was not necessary. And a post-minyan halachic discussion ensued on what was the correct response.

Zos Chanukah – This is Chanukah – serving Hashem with all our kochos.


Praise and Thanks For Our Shuls on Chanukah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In Defense of the Latecomers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Searching All Over for Inspirational Prayer

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

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

A second source of inspiration has unfortunately arrived and that is the Covid crisis. Shuls across the world are saying extra Tehillim. However, this is one source of inspiration that we hope will vanish.

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

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


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.


Confessions of a Shul Covid Politician

Most people cringe at the thought of politics and politicians, but if you wikipedia the word, you will find that politics is the process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The Covid crisis has tested the capabilities of Shul Politicians the world over. So I just wanted to share some challenges we are currently facing. Our particular Shul is a membership organization, with active Officers, a Board of Directors, and a Rabbi who leads and guides us.

Shul politicians want the approval of their members. At the core, that’s our raison d’etre – making our members happy. With regard to Covid, we need to develop constantly changing policies and procedures in response to the changing environment. The process involves trying to arrive at a consensus after discussing the issues with the members, officers, board and Rabbi. In the case of Covid, it’s often hard to reach a complete consensus, but with much input and discussion, it’s possible to develop policies that are safe, in the spirit of the law, and provide members with the services they need and expect.

After the policies are formulated and communicated, Shul Politicians are looking for the cooperation of the members. Cooperation sometimes morphs into compliance, and people sometimes need to be told to cover their nose, keep 6 feet distanced, and to attend a non preferred minyan location. It’s natural for people to focus on their own interests, and the Shul Politician must remember that it’s their job to nudge people into cooperation and compliance when necessary.

The payoff of these efforts for the Shul Politician is that every minyan, especially on Shabbos, is a mini-victory. In our Shul, our members are cooperative and appreciative, and that sweetens the efforts even more. May Hashem give us the continued strength to deal with this situation and bring us quickly to the days of yore, when seating, talking and funding were our primary concerns.


Great Rabbis Understand the Purpose of Shuls

Rabbis around the world are making amazing efforts to keep their shuls safe and functioning. Making multiple minyan. Streamlining the davening. Adhering to covid-safety guidelines. Stressing the importance of davening as a Tzibbur.

That’s because great Rabbis understand the purpose of Shuls. The Ramban explains the purpose in his Torah Commentary at the end of Parsha Bo:

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

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

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

A powerful statement. When we gather and daven in Shul we’re directly fulfilling the purpose of creation. Certainly puts things in a clarifying perspective. Thanks to all the Rabbis for all their efforts on our behalf.

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Yom Kippur – Forgiving Others When We’re Slighted

I was Googling for a web-based description of the origins of Avinu Malkeinu when I came across Rabbi Micha Berger’s great discussion of the trait of ma’avir al midosav – forgiving others when we are slighted:

“Rabbi Eliezer once went before the ark [as chazan on a fast day enacted because of a drought] and recited twenty-four berakhos and was not answered. Rabbi Aqiva went [as chazan] after him and said, “Avinu malkeinu — our Father, our King, we have no king other than You! Our Father, our King – for Your sake have compassion for us!” and it started raining. “The rabbis started speaking negatively [about Rabbi Eliezer]. A Heavenly voice emerged and declared, “It is not because this one [Rabbi Akiva] is greater than that one [Rabbi Eliezer], but because this one is ma’avir al midosav and this one is not ma’avir al midosav.” – Ta’anis 25b

Rav Yisrael Salanter (Or Yisrael #28) elaborates. If being a ma’avir al midosav is so important, wouldn’t that mean that Rabbi Aqiva was greater than Rabbi Eliezer after all? Rather, there are two equally valid approaches to serving Hashem. Rabbi Aqiva, being from Beis Hillel, was ma’avir al midosav. Rabbi Eliezer was a member of Beis Shammai (Tosafos Shabbos 130b), and therefore insisted upon strict justice (Shabbos 31a). Both approaches are equally valid, and until the ruling that we are to follow Beis Hillel, both Rabbi Aqiva’s and Rabbi Eliezer’s approaches were equal paths to holiness. However, at a time when we can’t withstand the scrutiny of strict justice, it’s Rabbi Aqiva’s approach that is more appropriate.”

Rabbi Akiva, the most prominent Baal Teshuva of all time, teaches us the lesson that rings in our ears throughout all of Yom Kippur – we need to favor forgiveness over demands for justice. We start Kol Nidre by offering forgiveness for all Jews (BT, FFB and Non-Frum) as we join together in a day of prayer. We end with a resounding Avinu Malkenu asking Hashem to forgive us, even though by strict justice – we don’t really deserve it.

A number of years ago, my Rav, Rabbi Welcher, stressed the need for understanding and unity on Yom Kippur. So, it was very appropriate and moving that during Neilah, five non-religious Jews walked into the Shul. A few, who had multiple body piercings, came towards my section and they were quickly given Art Scroll Machzorim. As we screamed for mercy they joined us, and nobody gave them a second look. They were Jews who had summed up the awesome courage to walk into an Orthodox Shul and join their brothers in prayer. We welcomed them with open arms.

The message of forgiveness and understanding is the message that Baalei Teshuva know all so well. One of the most recurrent themes on the BeyondTeshuva.com web site is that BTs often feel like they don’t fit in. We plead to our fellow Frum Jews: Please treat us with mercy. Please don’t judge us. Please don’t make us feel small. Please accept us as who we are, and where we want to go.

Since we know this teaching all so well, we are well-positioned to teach it by example, as we show forgiveness and understanding to our non-frum friends and relatives, our talk-in-shul neighbors and all the Jews greater than us in Torah, Tefillah or Gemillas Chasadim. It’s hardest to live this teaching when we’re slighted and put upon, but that was the greatness of our teacher Rabbi Akiva – and that is the greatness we can each achieve as we internalize this message.


Tapping into the Awe

I used to go away with my family to a Rosh Hoshana retreat where a few of the Rabbis would audibly cry during the “Who will live and who will die” portions of Unesanneh Tokef. Since I wasn’t able to reach their levels of fear, the crying made me a little uncomfortable. People have told me they also feel uncomfortable if the Baal Tefillah is davening from a crying/fear perspective.

Rabbi Bentzion Shafier of the Shmuz, in the first audio of his free 9 part series on the Lost Art of Teshuva, asks how is it that we are not in total fear, given that it is the Day of Judgement, which has extremely important implications. He answers that since we don’t see the immediate affect of the Rosh Hashanah Judgement, its implications do not affect us strongly emotionally. Please listen to the audio to hear Rabbi Shafier’s remedies for this situation.

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh, starts us on a path to another remedy:

On Yom HaDin, there are two kinds of yirah: yiras haonesh (fear of punishment) and yiras haromemus (fear of Hashem’s greatness). The first kind of fear is possible even from a human king, but the second kind of yirah is only possible toward Hashem. On Rosh HaShanah, the kind of yirah to have – the way of Chassidus – is to have yiras haromemeus, fear of Hashem’s greatness; that Yom HaDin is not simply to fear punishment, but to be afraid of being distanced from closeness to Hashem. With Chassidus, the person isn’t being afraid of the judgment of Yom HaDin, but of the fear of not being close to Hashem.

The closeness to Hashem on Rosh HaShanah that everyone can grasp is that Hashem exists. All of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah are days of closeness to Hashem, but Rosh HaShanah is the climax of this closeness – because now, a person is standing before the King in judgment; not because the person is afraid of the judgment, but because a person feels such a closeness to Hashem during judgment.

This Rosh Hoshanah, when you hear the crying, let it remind of you of Hashem’s awesomeness. He is the King of the entire world and the fate of everything and everyone is in His hands. When we’re focused on how awesome Hashem is, we can yearn for, and be thankful, that we can have a relationship with Hashem, in all his awesomeness. We can use the lower fear, to tap into the higher awe, and take the next step towards increasing our connection and love for Hashem. It transforms the crying into a whole new light.


A New Normal That Truly Rocks

It’s inspiring to envision the thousands of people who are reentering their Shuls with a renewed committment. They’re not talking during davening. They’re turning off their cell phones. They’re working hard on increasing their kavanna while saying their prayers.

This renewal was born in the weeks that we spent davening alone. Even if there were some aspects of davening alone that we might have enjoyed, we still longed to go back to Shul. And when that longing was fulfilled, we did our part and stepped up our game.

There’s also feeling of renewed connection with our fellow daveners. We’re still in small minyanim, where each person counts even more. We look around and we see the same faces each day. This is our minyan. We’re truly a Tzibbur. As the minyanim get larger, we’ll take this connection with us.

I don’t know why Hashem brought Covid-19. What I do know, is that so many people in Klal Yisroel are using the new norm, to go beyond their old norms. For Klal Yisroel, our new normal truly rocks.


The “Start the Connection” Movement

There have been many worthwhile Shul focused movements that have come out of the Coronavirus: “Stop the Talking”, “Stop the Cell Phones”, and “Stop Talking to Your Friends Before Davening”. They all make sense after all, since nobody wants talking or cell phones going off during Shemoneh Esrai. But maybe after putting our lives on stop for so long, we need a different kind of movement. I’d like to offer an alternative, which I called the “Start the Connection” movement.

“Start the Connection” has two components, connecting to people and connecting to Hashem. When you enter your Shul focus on the fact that you’re here to connect. The first connection is to your fellow daveners. Smile at them. Your mask may cover your mouth, but they will detect the smile in your eyes. And the smile will enhance your connection towards them.

After the smile, ask someone how they’re doing. Or ask them how their day was. Listen to their response. Perhaps ask a follow up question. Feel and show your concern for them. It means a lot to people, especially after the isolation we’ve been experiencing for so many months.

If your minhag is never to talk in Shul, try to catch somebody before they enter. If your Shul is trying to impose new beyond-the-halacha prohibitions, speak to your Rav. Tell him you truly want to deepen your connections to your fellow Jews. Ask him whether the positive commandment of trying to Love Your Fellow Jew might possibly outweigh a newly imposed prohibition. Be prepared to lose this battle, but continue to try increasing your love and connection for your fellow Jew.

The connection to Hashem component has more inherent difficulties. We know our kavanna is probably not where we want it to be, and now the minyan is probably shorter and faster. The key here is to “start” the connection. Start small. During the Shema and during the first Brocha of Shemoneh Esrai, think about Hashem when you say His name. Think that He is the source of all existence, and that He is the master of all.

The “Start the Connection” movement has two simple suggestions: 1) Improving your connection to people when you see them, 2) Improving your connection to Hashem when you say His name. Please join us.


A Taste of Belonging

When you live in a town with many Shuls, and many people, it’s understandable to think that the Shuls don’t really need me, so I’ll just choose what works best for me. Perhaps this is a contributing factor to the continuing diminishment of the importance of Shuls in our lives. Or perhaps in the larger communities, we’ve always had only 10% to 20% who were strongly committed to their Shuls.

Covid-19 has certainly changed the dynamics. For many weeks we were Shuls of one, so if you didn’t show up, there was no davening (haha). And with the partial return of our minyanim, we are Shuls, or driveways, of ten. With these smaller counts, everybody is needed to make the minyan. In my neighborhood, people have stepped up to the plate, and are making and keeping their commitment to their minyanim.

Perhaps being needed will create a sense of belonging, and when we make a fuller Shul return, people will look for opportunities to belong, and become more committed and involved. Or perhaps we’ll go back to our old norms, and we won’t ask what we can do for our Shul, rather we’ll ask what has our Shul done for us lately.

I’m not sure whether we’ll see permanent changes, but at least we can enjoy the increased commitment in our current situation, and the increased achdus that it brings in its wake.


The Avodah of Just Going to Shul

One of the inspirational speakers tells a story about a guy who came to Shul during the week and started to shmooze before he put on his tallis and tefillin. He continued to shmooze with a few different people, and the minyan ended, and he left with everyone. He forgot that he didn’t even daven. It sounds like a crazy story, but I can remember times that I came to Shul preoccupied with a problem. It was difficult to push the problem out of my mind, and what I did during that minyan might just barely be classified as davening.

It sounds incriminating, but if you think about it, just going to Shul is a part of the Avodah. When we had the Beis HaMikdash, men made Aliyas HaRegel and had to journey to the Temple. It was a big thing to just make the journey, and in our times, people who go to Shul regularly are also doing a big thing. Of course it’s important to daven, but we shouldn’t neglect the avodah of just going to Shul.

Now we have been cut off from that aspect of our Avodah and it’s difficult for us. We are longing just to make the journey to Shul. The thought of the power of the journey might be a good one to keep in mind, because when the Shuls open it’s going to be a very different experience, based on the guidelines that have come out. Even on Shabbos, we can expect quick, small, staggered, no-frills minyanim, with a streamlined leining for a total time of less than an hour.

So when any minyan reopens, no matter what its format, savor every step, as we will, G-d willing, once again have the avodah of just going to Shul.


Covid and Connection

Although we’re apart in these Covid times, in some ways we’re more connected. The Maharal in his commentary on Avos (6:1) says that happiness flows from completeness, just as grief is the result of loss and deficiency. One of the things that makes us feel complete is connecting to the people in a community. When I’ve spent Shabbos in an out-of-town community, the degree of connection among the members is palpable. In an out-of-town shul or community each person’s contribution is needed more, leading to a greater sense of connection. This is a great benefit of an out-of-town community.

Connection and happiness can be improved in any community. Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi seforim, teaches that the goal of chesed is to increase our connection to others. There are many opportunities to give in our Shuls, on an institutional or personal level. A member of my morning minyan moves the talis and tefillin from storage to each person’s seat. This act creates an unbelievable bond between him and the members.

In addition to acts of kindness, we can also create connections in our minds and hearts. A few years ago, I was on a small 240 seat plane and there were 11 orthodox Jews who were sitting in the last number of rows. As we took off I observed several of them saying Tehillim and/or Tefillas HaDerech. At that point I felt a strong connection to a group that was collectively acknowledging our Creator. As the Ramban at the end of Parsha Bo writes “the purpose of raising our voices in prayer and the purpose of Shuls and the merit of communal prayer is that people should have a place where they can gather and acknowledge that G-d created them and caused them to be and they can publicize this and declare before Him, ‘We are your creations’”.

Covid-19 is connecting us together through a common crisis. We’re working hard to stay connected through technology. We’re yearning to go back to our Shuls and raise our collective voices in prayers.

Our purpose in life is to connect to G-d and to connect to other people with our thoughts, emotions and actions. In the process, we increase our happiness and more importantly take a step towards that day when “Hashem will be One and His Name will be One”. May the merit of our efforts in this Covid Crisis bring us closer to that day.


The Shul Zoom Boom

It’s been a long haul for us Shul lovers. But we’re making the best out of difficult situation, thanks in part to technology, and particularly Zoom.

Our first use of Zoom was for online Kiddushim. A small group of us joins a Zoom meeting before Shabbos and we share a L’chaim, some words of Torah, and a discussion of the issues of the day. It’s usually about 20 minutes long. It’s not the same as a Shabbos Kiddush, but we look forward to it and it keeps us connected on a weekly basis.

We’ve also had a few Zoom life cycle events. We’ve had a vort, a wedding, and unfortunately there have been levayas and shiva visits. Of course it’s not the same as the in-person equivalents, but it does enable a degree of connect to the baal simcha or aveilah.

Another use of Zoom is for our daily Shacharis minyan. Someone davens, saying every brocha and the beginning and ending of every paragraph out loud. There are no Devarim Shel Kedusha as it is not a halachic minyan. We pace it consistently and many people have found it very helpful for their Kavana.

This cycle of the Daf Yomi has seen two major changes. More people in our Shul are learning the Daf and the OU Daf app (https://alldaf.org/) has been a tremendous additional asset. All of our Shul Daf Yomi shiurim are functioning on Zoom. Despite the availability of the OU Daf resources, people like their shiur leaders and their chaburas, and continue to attend them on Zoom. We’ve also continued all our weekly shiurim, given by members of our shul via Zoom.

Perhaps the most impactful use of Zoom has been our Rav’s online Zoom shiurim. He gives shiurim from Sunday to Thursday at 7:30 p.m. for about 30 minutes. We get very nice attendance and it’s a real chizuk to see many fellow members on a regular basis. At the end of the shiur we unmute everybody and we shmoose for a few minutes with the Rav greeting everybody in attendance. It’s a great experience and I wonder how we’ll use Zoom to supplement the live shiurim when we return.

We anxiously await returning to Shul, but we’re thankful that Hashem has provided us with the Zoom refuah in the face of our quarantine machala.


Love Amidst the Quarantine

We’re not in our Shuls, but we’re in Sefirah, where we’re working on the mitzvos between man and man. The foundational mitzvah between man and man is to “Love our Neighbors as Ourselves”.

A good friend, who runs a Dveikus Foundations WhatsApp group, recently taught that the Sefer Charedim, the author of Yedid Nefesh, and a contemporary of the Ari in Safed, lists eight components of this mitzvah:

1) To praise and compliment people
2) To be concerned about their finances
3) To desire that they get respect and honor
4) To love and have compassion for them
5) To proactively seek out their benefit
6) To be genuinely happy when good things happen to them
7) To be pained when they are in distress
8) To speak calmly to them with love and respect

Eight wonderful opportunities to Love our Neighbors as Ourselves.

This Thursday, many members of our Shul will share in the joy of a well-loved family, as they walk their daughter down the aisle in a quarantine-time wedding. We share their joy, and we feel the pain of their limited celebration. They express their love to us in so many ways, and we return that love in our hearts and in our souls on this day of brocha.

Mazal Tov to the S family. May we continue to share love, simchos, and nachas from all of our children, relatives and friends.


Addressing Our Davening Problem

We’re in a crisis situation. A situation which calls for us to storm the heavens with our prayers. So we step into our Shemoneh Esrai committed to do our best, and before we know it we’ve lost focus. What can we do? The first thing to know is that you’re not alone, almost everybody has the davening problem to some degree. The second thing to know is that we can improve. Here’s a path.

Davening is about connecting to Hashem in heart and mind. To connect to Hashem, we have to think about Hashem. A very important time to think about Hashem is when we’re praying and saying His Name. The Shulchan Aruch teaches that when saying the name Hashem, “we should concentrate on the meaning of how it is read, referring to His Lordship, that He is the Master of all.”

The Shulchan Aruch also says that “we should concentrate on (how it is written) the Yud-Hei – that He was, is, and always will be”, but the Mishna Berurah brings down in the name of the Gra, that this second meaning is only required when we say Hashem’s name in the Shema.

Is there any doubt in our mind that Hashem is the Master of all? He has brought the entire world to a standstill before our very eyes! When we say Hashem’s name in the brochos of Shomoneh Esrai, we should think and recognize that Hashem is the Master of all.

Start with the the first Brocha. If you catch yourself wandering in the middle of any brocha, bring yourself back to thinking about Hashem’s name when you conclude the Brocha. Don’t get discouraged when you’re not successful, just keep on making the effort. With repeated step by step effort, you’ll develop the ability to focus on Hashem’s name during davening.

We have to do our stop-the-spread hishtadlus. But more importantly, we have to turn and think about the Master of all in prayer. If not now, when?


The Redemption of Our Shuls

On Pesach we focus on two redemptions, the redemption from Egypt and the future redemption. Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh”, points out that in the redemption from Egypt, we were emotionally redeemed, in that we were able to connect to Hashem with love and fear. On the seder night, we must feel as if we are leaving Egypt now, and emotionally connect to Hashem in gratitude. However, we weren’t totally redeemed, as four fifths of the people died and the wicked son is told “had he been there, he wouldn’t have been redeemed”.

In the future redemption, it will be a more complete redemption, the wicked will be included. This is because we will have achdus in the mind, which is the ability to see how details, and people, are connected and are all one. We will see how the wicked son belongs with us. Rabbi Schwartz points out that this will be achieved through the nullification of our egos, as a person’s self-absorption prevents the revelation of achdus.

We’re at a unique point this Pesach. We’re in exile from our Shuls and we’re davening alone. Many of us are longing to return to daven as a Tzibbur. It’s a great opportunity to take a step towards redemption, by thinking about how we will try to see things from an Achdus perspective when we return. Instead of is wondering whether the davening is too fast/slow for me, we will wrestle with the question of what’s the right speed for our Shul? What’s the right temperature for the Shul? It’s a harder perspective, but it’s the achdus perspective of the future redemption.

Great challenges. Great opportunities. Chag Kosher V’Someach!


What Shul Will We Come Back To?

Hashem has closed our Shuls and we can’t know the exact reason. However, we can think about what we want our Shuls to look like when we come back. Reducing talking about secular subjects and cell phone activity are reasonable suggestions. And it’s also possible that Hashem wants us to try to daven a little better.

Last week we mentioned that the emotional connections that we are seeking to develop during davening are love of Hashem and awe of Hashem. We mentioned that every time we say the word Boruch, which is usually explained as Hashem being the source of blessing, we can appreciate the love that Hashem is showering on us with His gifts in this world. We can then try to direct our love right back at Him.

Let’s take a look at awe. The second of the six constant mitzvos is that we should not believe in any G-d but Him. There is nothing in the world that takes place without Hashem’s authority and we need to subjugate ourselves to His authority. The Mishna Berurah (M.B. 93.2.4) points out that this is sometimes difficult, but we can take a small step.

When we say the word Atah, meaning You, we can envision that we are talking directly to Hashem, the Ultimate Authority. We can realize that he is our Ultimate boss and we need to listen and subjugate ourself to His commands. Each Brocha is an opportunity to try and feel this awe. Perhaps once each day we can feel the awe, when we say Atah.

Spiritual growth is a gradual process and every effort we make, no matter how seemingly small, contributes to that growth. We can use our time davening alone to focus on our love and awe of Hashem when we say Boruch Atah. When our Shuls reopen, we can rededicate them with our improved davening.


Taking a Step Forward after Three Hard Steps Back

It’s a tough time for worldwide Shul goers: no public shiurim, no social contact, no davening with a Tzibbur. However, there is a tremendous opportunity here to take a step to improve our davening. Let me share a practical idea.

Our spiritual purpose in life is to connect to Hashem and to His creations. The collective end point of that process is one world under G-d, with unity, love, peace and happiness for all. We connect to Hashem by thinking about Him, feeling emotionally connected to Him, and doing physical acts of spiritual connection.

Davening contains all three of these components, but the essence of davening is feeling emotionally connected, as we learn in the Gemora in Taanis, “Prayer is the Service of the Heart”. It’s also the hardest component. We can arrive at Shul, say the prayers, and because we are distracted, barely think about Him, much less feel emotionally connected.

The emotional connections that we are seeking to develop during davening are love of Hashem and awe of Hashem. Let’s look at love, which is the feeling of a deep connection. A foundational spiritual thought, and the first of the 6 constant mitzvos, is that there is one G-d who is the cause of all that exists. If we look at the wonderful things in our life, we can appreciate that Hashem caused it, with love for us. We can then start to reciprocally return that love to Him.

Every time we say the word Boruch, which is usually explained as Hashem being the source of blessing, we can appreciate the love that Hashem is showering on us with His gifts in this world. We can then try to direct our love right back at Him. There are 100 opportunities a day to feel this love, and we can try to connect at least once a day, when we say Boruch.

Spiritual growth is a step by step process. Today we have a tremendous opportunity to take one step forward, after having been propelled three hard steps back.


I Miss My Shuls

It’s only been four hours since the proclamation from the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah came out imploring that all public gatherings, including minyanim, be suspended due to the Coronavirus. We have also been directed to not leave the house, unless it’s absolutely necessary. And there is a half-day fast proclaimed for Thursday, March 19th, with the directive that we say the Tefillos for Yom Kippur Kattan (without reciting the 13 middos).

In the preceding weeks, in consultation with leading American Gedolim, we were running sparsely populated safe-distance minyanim, with a slew of precautions. It was definitely a safer space than the supermarket. Now we’ll all be davening Yechidus, with the added pressure to daven with more kavanna in these troublesome times.

I’m missing my two Shuls so much already. The daily contact with the Rav, the amazing people who populate the Shuls, the learning, the growth, the kindness, the unbounded love. Yes, we’ll WhatsApp more, and have Zoomed and Taped Shiurim to close some of the gap, but it’s hard – already.

To make the davening aspect a little easier, it has been suggested by friends to use set times to pace the davening. One consolation is that you can set the times according to your preferences. I’m going to start with the pace of my morning minyan which on March 19th is Brachos at 6:33, Baruch Sheamar at 6:39, Borechu at 6:51 and Shemoneh Esrai at Neitz at 6:59:27.

I miss my Shul, but perhaps Hashem wants us to concentrate more on connecting to Him through private prayer at this time. It’s certainly a worthwhile endeavor.


Making Your Shaloch Manos Count

In his sefer, “Getting to Know Your Soul”, Rav Itamar Schwartz discusses the thirteen faculties of the soul according to Rav Hai Gaon. The 7th of these faculties is Chessed or Kindness. Chessed is the physical act, but the goal of chessed is love. Yet feeling love is not the ultimate goal. It is a means of achieving something deeper – a sense of unity between the one who loves and the beloved.

We know the pasuk teaches “The world is built on kindness”. The simple meaning is that the the world cannot survive unless people help each other, which is certainly true. On a deeper level, we know Hashem created the world in order to bestow goodness on his creations. Thus, when we say that “the world is build on kindness”, we also mean that the world was created in order for the Creator to bestow kindness. On the other hand there is a pasuk that says “On that day, Hashem will be one and His name will be one”, implying that the goal of Creation is the revelation of Hashem’s oneness. Which is the goal – kindness or oneness? In fact, one complements the other. We are taught in sefarim, that Hashem’s ultimate kindness is identical with the revelation of His oneness.

For us, if chessed is only about giving, it’s a precious quality, but not the root of them all. The real power of chessed is its power of unifying the world into one cohesive entity.

On Purim, we have two mitzvos of kindness, Matanos L’evyonim and Shaloch Manos. When we give our Shaloch Manos, we can try to think about the connection we are making, and that it is a facet of the deep connection, which is love. The more we focus on the love inherit in our giving, the more we can do our part in building the unity that will herald the day when “Hashem will be one and His name will be one”. Chag Purim Samayach!


Who Can Make the Sun Shine? – The Candy Man Can!

No, we’re not taking about Willy Wonka, where the song originated, or Sammy Davis Jr., who made it popular (don’t you just love the power of wikipedia), we’re taking about the man in Shul who makes the kids smile with a piece of candy or three on Shabbos.

Could there be possibly be politics with the candy man? Of course! Now remember our definition of politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. And in the case of distributing candy to children there are actually some real issues.

A story will illustrate. When our Shul moved into a new building the members were putting in their requests for seats. The candy man wanted to sit near the Aron, but the Baalei Tefillah felt that having the kids come up front during davening was disturbing. The candy man agree to change his policy and only distribute candy after davening. Soon thereafter somebody further back in the Shul distributed small portions during davening. The candy man did not mind and was happy with his after-davening slot.

Besides the distribution issue, some parents are not crazy about their kids eating too much candy on Shabbos because it makes some kids wired. However it’s hard to put controls on the candy man if the Shul is ok with the distribution.

All in all the candy man is a good thing. It sweetens the Shul going process for the younger kids who remember the experience for a lifetime.


The Problem of Shul Beis Medrification

Having organized a nightly community Beis Medrash and having directed the Torah programming in my Shul for the last 18 years, it’s seems strange that I’m actually writing about the problems of Beis Medrification. However it’s a big problem and if we don’t approach it wisely we’ll weaken our communities in the noble pursuit of increasing Torah learning. Let me explain.

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

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

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

Originally Posted 8/30/2012


Connecting at the Superbowl Party

Two of the most central commandments of the Torah are “Love Hashem” and “Love Your Fellow as Yourself”. Love consists of developing a deep connection to another. With Hashem we develop that deep connection by thinking of Him when we perform mitzvos. With our fellow humans, we develop that deep connection by appreciating their good qualities, praying with them, learning with them, helping them physically, financially and emotionally, and spending time with them.

Which brings us to the Superbowl Party. Many Rebbeim that I know feel that it’s ok to watch the Superbowl as long as you click it off during the commercials and the halftime show. In our hectic world, we need some down time, and watching sports is one of the more acceptable leisure activities. The Superbowl party adds the dimension of sharing some quality time with our friends. It’s a nice venue in that there are lots of opportunities to talk and connect during this 4 hour event with the game providing a good backdrop for small talk.

Attending the Superbowl Party is certainly not a positive commandment. However, if you focus on deepening your love and friendships, then the Superbowl Party, or any social event for the matter, is an opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of “Love Your Fellow as Yourself”. And it doesn’t matter who wins.


The Three Aspects of Shabbos Shul Security

Our Shul has been working on improving our security for over 5 years and I wanted to share some of what we’ve learned. There are three aspects to Shabbos Shul Security: physical plant enhancement, restricting entry and active shooter response planning.

The first step is to keep intruders out of the building by strengthening your physical plant. This includes enhancing your outer doors, inner doors, locks, windows, cameras, gates and walls. There are a lot of things you can do here, but you should consider investing in better locks as your first purchase.

The second step is preventing entry to your Shul when services are in session. Keeping your shul doors locked with a push button lock is a good idea. You should also make every effory to hire an armed guard, which will cost you about $200 for 4 hours every Shabbos morning in the NY area. In addition to an armed guard, Shul members will need to assist in identifying who will be permitted to enter.

The third step is to have a plan in place if an active shooter makes his way into your building. The government recommended plan is composed of running, hiding or fighting as an absolute last resort. Each shul needs to map out a plan primarily based on your physical layout.

Funding for this endeavor will be provided by the funders of the Shul, the members or the government. Government grants are available and our Shul and others in our neighborhood have received grants of $50,000 and $100,000. The newest grants can be spent on plant improvements, armed guards and training. You will probably need to spend $1,000 to $1,500 to hire someone to help you procure the grant. You will also need to spend $1,000 to $1,500 on a Security Risk Assessment.

The three groups to help you are private security firms, the police and community advisory groups. The private security firms provide the best and most comprehensive guidance, but they cost money. The police will give you free advice, seminars, and walk throughs, but their availability is limited. The community advisory groups are most focused on active shooter planning and their availability is limited. Each group has a specific perspective from which they view security and you should keep that in mind when you listen to them.

We must do our hishtadlus, but we should not forget to pray and put our ultimate trust in Hashem.


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 in my Shul for many years, 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 the “Aisle Rule”.

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The Role of the Rabbi in Increasing Shul Membership

Is The Rabbi Responsible for Increasing Membership
We received an email, a while back, from a reader who is a member of a small orthodox shul in a competitive Orthodox neighborhood. The Rabbi is a fantastic guy and a mensch of the first order, but he is not bringing people into the shul. The writer wants to know is this the expected role of the Rabbi, or is it more the role of the Board of Management?

Roles Go Beyond Initial Understandings
I think that the primary responsibility of increasing membership lies with the Officers and the Board. When a Shul hires a Rabbi, it is helpful to be explicit about what roles are expected including increasing membership. Even if not specified, helping to increase the membership of the Shul is usually in the best interest of both the Rabbi and the members. The question then becomes in which ways can the Rabbi help increase the membership.

Why Do People Become Members
To explore the question further we need to look at some of the reasons people become members:
1) They like the members of the Shul
2) The Rabbi answers their halachic and hashkafic questions
3) They like the davening and other services the Shul provides
4) The Shul is a convenient choice

How the Rabbi Can Help
Here’s how the Rabbi can help in each of these areas numbered above.
1) He should take the time to understand and relate to the membership’s particular needs. This will encourage more members in the existing categories to join the Shul.
2) He needs to be easily accessible for questions from the members. He needs to provide halachic and hashkafic answers appropriate for each individual. He needs to know when and what leniencies are appropriate.
3) He should make sure the davening is appropriate from the members in terms of quiet, speed and speeches. He needs to provide classes and find others to provide classes that are relevant to the members. He should encourage and work with the officers and the membership to increasingly provide appropriate services for the members.
4) He usually can’t do much about the Shul location, but he can make sure the times of davening are convenient for the members.

Different Roles in Different Communities
The ideas above are general and the needs and focus of a particular Shul and Rabbi depend on its location, needs and authority and financial structure.

Originally posted in February 2012


Why Your Shul Should “Do the Daf”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Doing a Better Hallel On Chanukah

Chanukah is a time of L’hodos U’l’hallel, To give thanks and praise to Hashem and we fulfill that obligation with the saying of the Full Hallel on Chanukah for all eight days. Here are some notes from Maharal: Emerging Patterns by Yaakov Rosenblatt on Hallel.

Give Praise Servants of Hashem from this time forth and forever more
Despite Hashem’s loftiness, He is still intimately involved with the life of man and continually bestows goodness through kindness, judgment or mercy.
He raise the needy from the dust is through judgment because the poor should be provided for.
To seat them with the nobles, nobles of His people is through kindness because although raising the poor out of poverty is just, elevating them to sit with nobles is an act of kindness.
He transforms the barren women into a joyful mother of children is an act of mercy since this women is not capable and therefore is not in the realm of judgment, nor is it kindness since children are not above and beyond human needs, rather it is mercy because even though this woman is unable to have children naturally, Hashem still allows her to conceive and bear children.

When Yisroel Went of out of Egypt, the House of Yaakov from a people of a Strange Language
After praising Hashem for His kindness through normal realms, we now praise Hashem for the miracles that transcend nature.
The sea saw and fled, the mountains skipped like rams, the hills like young sheep – water takes the shape of its container and the Earth is shaped by man. When Hashem acts and gives form and definition to all creation it is natural that the sea fled and the mountains skipped.
Hashem turned the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of waters – when Hashem is the force, even a rock is shaped effortlessly.

Not to us Hashem, but to Your Name Give Glory
This Psalm says the reason that Hashem performs miracles for the Jews is to give recognition to His name, His love and His truth. Only Hashem deserves this recognition and not things like idols which clearly have no power and are weaker than man. Man’s powers are listed in decreasing importance: speech, sight, hearing, smell, feeling, walking, and making sounds.

Hashem will Bless our Remembrance: He will Bless the House of Yisrael
Hashem will Bless our Remembrance requests that the lasting impact we will have on others and the world will be a blessing.
The Dead cannot praise Hashem, nor can any who go down into silence shows that only when the human body and the world are functioning properly can they “sing” the praises of Hashem. King David says allow us to live, allow us to thrive, so our very existence can proclaim your glory.

I love Hashem Who Hears my Voice and my Supplications
You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. King David thanks Hashem for saving his soul which represents the spiritual, the eyes which are the connection between the spiritual and the physical because they do not actively enter the world, but monitor it for the mind/soul to process, and the feet which represent the physical. Tears represent a loss of part of the soul.

How can I repay Hashem for all His kindness to me?
I will carry the cup that You have filled with salvation, and call upon the name of Hashem – A cup that is filled represents ones meaningful accomplishments and we think Hashem for the ability to act in meaningful ways.
I will carry …in my arms to show the cup that you filled precedes me and proclaims your greatness
I will pay my vows to Hashem in the Presence of all His People to use every opportunity to proclaim the greatness of Hashem and to publicly honor Hashem’s glory

Give Thanks to Hashem for He is Good
Thanks also mean to concede, so to the extent that a person recognizes and acknowledges the Hashem has given him everything is the extent to which he will thank Him. Different groups: humanity, Jews, Kohanim and G-d fearing people, have experienced different benefits and will therefore thank Hashem differently.

Out of My Distress I called upon Hashem
There are three levels of hatred, basic dislike (all the nations) because of economic, cultural or military threats, dislike due to differences in values which only the Jews hold (they surrounded me) and deep seated hatred (they surrounded me like bees) due to the subconscious understanding that the success of the nations is dependent on the Jew’s failure. If we act according to our spiritual potential the world’s event will be centralized around us for our benefit. If we do not, we are punished and the the nations are successful.

O praise Hashem all you Nations
Hallelukah combines a word of praise with Hashem’s name and is used to praise the miraculous because the only the one who created the worlds (Heh – this world, Yud – the next) can suspend the rules to perform miracles when he sees fit.


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!


Connecting to Your Baal Tefillah

It’s not uncommon for people to have an opinion about the Baal Tefillah. He’s going to slow. He’s going to fast. He’s singing too much. He’s not singing enough. He’s putting on a performance. He’s not inspiring the Tzibbur. These opinions take on different intensities depending on whether it’s Yomim Noraim, Yom Tov, Shabbos or during the week.

In the secular world, everybody is entitled to their opinion, but in the Torah world our goal is to work towards the day when “Hashem is One and His Name is One”. If we are not united as a people, we will not reach that goal. Everyday time we have a negative opinion of the Baal Tefillah we disrupt the spiritual unity of the Shul at some level, even if we don’t express it.

Here are a few Baalei Tefillah prototypes. We might disagree with them, but if we consider that this may be where our Baal Tefillah is coming from, it can lessen our frustration and the resulting dis-unity.

1) The Quick davener is trying to get the repetition over with as soon as possible.

2) The Slow davener is following the halacha of not “throwing” a blessing from his mouth, rather he is concentrating and making the blessing calmly.

3) The Inspirational davener is here to inspire and will sing many nigunim.

4) The Non Inspirational davener wants to daven the best that he can to help lift all the prayers to Shemayim.

5) The Performing davener is using his G-d given talents to inspire to help lift the prayers.

6) The Pareve davener is only up there because the Gabbai asked him and he’s doing the best he can.

The Torah wants us to to give the Baal Tefillah the benefit of the doubt and keep connected to him. If you want to take the next step, you can follow the halacha and follow along with the Baal Tefillah and answer Amen to each brocha.

Klal Yisroel needs all our prayers, here’s one small step to make them better.


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, near the turn of the century (~2000), 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.

Originally Published January, 2014


Chessed, Gratitude and Love

In his sefer “Getting to Know Your Soul”, Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh teaches us some important lessons about Chessed:

“Love has three layers in the soul. The outermost layer is chessed (kindness), the middle layer is ahavah (love), and the innermost layer is echad (unity)…The real significance of chessed is its power of unifying the world into one cohesive unit…An act of giving is not chessed unless there is some love in it, either an expression of existing love, or the intent to foster love.”

Rav Shwartz also points out that every act has both lishma (pure) and lo lishma (alterior) motives. We should focus on the lishma components of our acts to strengthen that component. I think we can add that we should also focus on the lishma components of the acts of others. If we do this, accompanied by a feeling or showing of gratitude, we can build love and create deeper unity between ourselves and our fellow Jews.

I send out the davening times for my daily minyan every two months. It takes about 5 minutes and I usually don’t get a response from any of the recipients, nor do I expect one. However this week, as I was marinating this post in my head, I received a thank you from someone in the minyan. It was nice and I felt the love. I also took it as a sign that the message in this post is on target.

Have a Happy Gratitude Day!


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.


Keeping Quiet – How to Talk to Talkers in Shul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orginally posted February 2012

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Accepting the Unacceptable

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

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

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

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


The Joy and Splendor of our Shuls During Hallel on Succos

As a result of writing these posts over the years, friends will sometimes come over to discuss a Shul Politics moment or topic. The topic often highlights the innate tension between the needs and rights of the individual and the needs and rights of the many. However, it has also helped me focus on the times when the Shul is hitting on all cylinders and comes together in a great spiritual moment. Hallel on Succos is one of those amazing occasions.

It starts towards the end of Shemoneh Esrai of Shacharis when the rustling begins and the members begin to gather their lulavim and esrogim. Then comes the announcement reminding everybody that we will wave the lulavim together in accordance with our Shul’s Ashkenazic custom. This is followed by a short break giving those who haven’t yet done so, the opportunity to say the brocha over the daled minim.

Hallel begins and everybody is reciting Hallel and holding their daled minim at attention. The chazzan for the occasion is usually more melodically talented and uses the occasion for more singing. Then towards the end of Hallel comes the recitation of Hodu and Ana along with the waving. Looking around, you can see that everybody is totally involved in the moment as we acknowledge our dependency on Hashem and we ask for his outright help and assistance in our endeavors. It’s a magnificent moment.

The Ramban at the end of Parsha Bo, states:
“For the objective of all the commandments is that we should believe in G-d and acknowledge to Him that He created us.

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

On Succos all the work we put into our well functioning Shuls achieves its purpose as we collectively sing, praise and wave in acknowledgement that we are Hashem’s creations and we look to Him for success in everything we do.

Chag Someach!


Balancing Din and Chesed on Yom Kippur

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

Shuls also have to balance Din and Chesed.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rosh Hoshanah Baalei Tefillah – Inspiration & Perspiration

Rosh Hoshanah is a day Jews take seriously. However, it’s a long day in Shul and many of us have trouble focusing on the davening for such an extended period. That’s why we turn to the Baalei Tefillah for inspiration. The first problem we face is that what’s inspirational to Shmuel, can sound kvetchy to Reuven. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find Baalei Tefillah who will please everybody, and it’s impractical to implement a fully democratic selection process

Another issue is that being a Baal Tefillah is not easy. It takes much preparation and perspiration to be at your best for the entire davening. Perhaps Baalei Tefillah insist on choosing their own niggunim in certain parts of the davening for self-inspiration. Our Shul had a particular niggun that we liked, and even though we asked a few different Baalei Tefillah to use it, none of them complied with our request.

The length of the davening creates other tensions. The variance in the time it takes individuals to say Shemoneh Esrai is great, because of its length, and the extra care many people take on the Yomim Noraim. If the Baal Tefillah takes much longer than the average congregant, there can be much down time for individuals as they wait for him to finish. The overall davening time is also important because people have different expectations as to when Mussaf will end.

One suggestion is to state the Shul’s expectations when the Baal Tefillah is first selected/hired. If the expectations are not met, sometimes the Rabbi, Gabbai and Baal Tefillah can get together and agree on a game plan that works for most people. It’s also helpful to let the members know how long the silent Shomoneh Esrai will be so they can set their expectations and davening speed accordingly. Finally, even if there initially are some issues, over the course of the years, people know what to expect from the Baal Tefillah and accept it.

Despite best efforts, the details of the long davening can create some minor tensions. In those situations it’s a good opportunity to judge favorably in the hope that measure for measure, Hashem will give us a favorable judgment.


Shul Slights and The Bigger Picture

The Talmud [Rosh Hashana 17A] teaches that one who is “ma’aveer ol midosov” (willing to overlook it when he’s been wronged) has his transgressions overlooked. Rashi there explains that the Attribute of Justice doesn’t scrutinize such people or their actions. The ‘mirror in the sky’ reflects onto us the way that we treat others. (Translation from Torah.org)

We create our own spiritual reality by our thoughts, speech and actions as the above Talmudic passage highlights. Part of that spiritual reality is determined by our willingness to look at a bigger picture. Jewish issues such as judging people favorable, giving the benefit of the doubt, and not taking revenge are partly based on seeing a bigger picture.

An example of this was brought home to me recently. A member, who probably didn’t read the The Stress of Yomim Noraim Seating post was complaining about a small seat price anomaly that was effecting his family. Although I wasn’t personally involved in the pricing, I tried to explain that it was rooted in a larger goal of keeping our base membership price very low for a Shul with our breadth of services.

Shul administrations have to take the entire memberships needs into account, whether that involves fees, davening length, or air conditioning settings. They’re forced to look at a bigger picture and usually some trade-offs are involved and some members may feel slighted even though that’s not the intent. Rosh Hoshana is a good time to look at these issues from a wider perspective so we will merit to have Hashem look at our mistakes and deficiencies from a wider perspective.


Getting Lost in My Seat

On one hand it’s inspiring that so many of us want a specific seat for Rosh Hoshana. Assumably, it’s because we want to pray like there’s no tomorrow on the Yom HaDin. To achieve that we need our regular seat, or the seat we sat in last year. It makes sense to want to maximimze our prayer in the optimal seat.

When my kids were younger, we used to go away for Rosh Hoshana. I remember how we would get to the hotel early and I would head straight for the Shul, scouting out a good seat. Not too close. Not too far. Away from the traffic flow. But not too far that it’s hard to get out. When my optimization algorithm stopped spinning, I would place my talis and seforim and mark my seat. Did it really matter? If I didn’t do some prep work beforehand, would my Kavanna be better because of the seat? Probably not.

When you daven in your own Shul, a different consideration comes it to play. There are many more guests and married children present, so it’s often not possible for everybody to sit in their preferred seat. I remember in the past being asked to change my seat. When I said yes, it was begrudgingly. After all, didn’t I have the first rights to the seat that I had sat in regularly for so many years.

I now see that I made a mistake. If I really wanted to show Hashem that I was getting more serious about my Divine Service, wouldn’t it make sense to give up my own rights, so somebody else could have the seats that they need. Wouldn’t that show Hashem that I was taking a step out of my self-centric world view and concerning myself with the needs of His children. What an amazing step that would be towards a more favorable judgement.

It may be too late for me. Now that I’m on the seating committee, it obligates me to give up my seat if it will help somebody else. So I won’t be able to do complete teshuva and give up my seat because it’s the right thing to do. Hey, maybe you could give up your seat and have me in my mind. It’s just a thought.


The Struggle to Minimize Machlokes

Hashem wants us to achieve some very specific things, one of which is “walking in his ways”. The Ramchal explains, based on Mishna 2.1 in Avos, that our actions should lead to true good, namely, strengthening of Torah and the advancement of friendship. Anything that connects people is good and anything that separates people is bad.

This leads to one of the primary Shul principles, which is minimizing machlokes. I was tested by this on two separate occasions recently where people came with what I call a reasonably unreasonable request. From their perspective it was perfectively reasonable, but from a Shul perspective it was slightly unreasonable. Both of them threatened to go to the Rav to get a Psak in their favor. Although the Rav might bring up an issue with me, he would never issue a Psak overriding an operational decision. However, the Rav’s guidance in many Shul matters often has the minimizing machlokes principle at its root.

My difficult task was to not be offended by their threat to get an overriding Psak. I couldn’t even tell them that the Rav would not override a decision. My job was to try to satisfy their request, with a smile, even if it was slightly unreasonable. I was fairly successful in one situation, probably because it came through email and I resisted the urge to respond until I could resolve it in the person’s favor. In a face to face situation, I was only partially successful, because the audacity of the psak override threat got the best of me.

Hashem wants us to connect. Hashem wants us to be united. This is why minimizing the divisive effects of machlokes is a primary Shul Policy.

One last point to note is that sometimes a decision must be made which will upset someone, creating a slight machlokes. However we must still strive to minimize the occurrence and degree of any machlokes. It’s not always easy because emotions often come into play, but the more we can internalize the principle the better chance we will have of implementing it and fulfilling Hashem’s directive.


The Stress of Yomim Noraim Seating

With Rosh Hoshana about a month away, you’ve already received your Yomim Noraim seat reservation form. And if you’re a typical Shul member, you might drive the seating committee crazy by waiting till the last possible minute to send it in. Let’s take a look at some issues that make Yomim Noraim seating so stressful.

Most people take their Yomim Noraim davening seriously. People want a group of seats that will work for the men and the women in their family. Since all Yomim Noraim seats are usually pre-assigned and most families want to sit together, some people will be moved from their regular seat. The seating committee has to juggle and judiciously decide who will move and who will stay, who will smile and who will complain. In fact one of the most anticipated events of the year is when the seating chart is posted.

Two rules your Shul may want to consider publicly announcing is setting the minimum age for pre-assigned seats (eight or nine might make sense) and that girls under Bat Mitzvah will not be assigned to the choicest seats in the women’s section (usually the first row or rows).

The second issue is cost. Shuls that are member-funded often draw their fees from three main sources: membership dues, a yearly dinner/melava malka/breakfast and Yomin Noraim seats. Because they’re an important revenue source, Yomim Noraim seating charges can be more complicated than the IRS Tax Code. A Shul has to decide the price per member, family discount pricing and the price for guests, married children, grandchildren, non-members, families of non-members and pets (just kidding, most Shuls allow pets in for free). Many Shuls also try to encourage members to pay old obligations during the seating process.

You’ll be spending a lot of time in Shul on the Yomim Noraim and your seat is important, but it’s a good time of year to overlook any seating slights, try not to argue about the fees if you’re accurately charged, and get your reservation forms in early, even before the deadline.


All You Need is Love

When discussing revenges and grudges in the chapter on Cleanliness (Nekiyus), the Mesillas Yesharim says that the Yetzer Hara inflames the heart of a person about past wrongs done to him. This makes it very difficult to totally forgive a person. Therefore the Torah comes immediately after the verse prohibiting revenge and bearing a grudge with the all-encompassing rule of “You shall love your fellow as yourself”. As yourself with no differences, with no distinctions, exactly as yourself.

If we focus on loving people and connecting to them in our actions and in our hearts, we can accept the imperfections and mistakes of others. Shuls provide many opportunities to put this Torah principle into action. On occasion a phone will go off during a shiur or during davening. Most people refrain from saying something, but perhaps a fleeting thought questioning the person’s technical prowess enters the mind. The solution to overcome any negative thoughts is to love this fellow Jew. Even to the point of feeling his embarassment over the small disturbance the phone created.

We can take this principle a step further and apply it to the father with the crying baby. We can change “What was he thinking?”, to “Most of the time babies behave in Shul”. We know that this is not easy, as the Ramchal said, our natural inclination is be negative and judge and react infavorably towards people. Thankfully we have the Torah which gives us the rules and the tools to use these challenges to become bigger.

Elul is starting and we can use these small interpersonal disturbances as growth opportunities in preparation for the day when Hashem will judge us for our shortcomings. In the words of a modern day poet – “All you need is love”.


The Weekly Newsletter and Shul Announcements

A Vehicle Born Via the Internet
As we mentioned previously, the monthly newsletter morphed into the weekly newsletter when it became inexpensive and efficient to send it out via email on a weekly basis. In the process, some Shuls no longer use postal mail to distribute newsletters.

Where Did the Columns Go?
In the monthly newsletter it wasn’t uncommon to see a Rabbi’s column, a President’s column and perhaps columns from the Women’s league and other groups in the Shul. Although it was often hard to keep the columnists to the monthly deadline, it was achievable. Moving to a weekly publication makes it almost impossible and some Shuls have eliminated the column, while others have managed to keep it, sometimes in a less frequent basis then weekly.

Production Schedule
A weekly newsletter creates a weekly deadline which makes the Shul secretary’s job harder. Every week (s)he must email the newsletter to the members on Thursday night or early Friday morning. It’s helpful to keep the deadline as late as possible to include as much late breaking or arriving news as possible, but it has to be early enough so the secretary can edit it together. Deadlines considerations must include the fact that some (or many) people will send information after the deadline. In addition, if there’s somebody who is helping with proof reading, time has to be allotted for the editing-proofing cycle.

Shabbos Disemination
In addition to emailing, some Shuls print hard copies to distribute in Shul on Shabbos morning. This creates another task for the Secretary, but keeps people who are not so Internet active, more informed.

The Announcement Dilemma
The last issue to consider is which parts of the newsletter will be announced on Shabbos morning by the president or the gabbai. On one hand you want to wish Mazal Tovs and condolences and publicize Shul and community events where appropriate, but on the other hand people get impatient if announcements take too long. Practice in delivery is helpful here. If you can keep the announcements in the 2-4 minute range you will be able to minimize making the members feel burdened.


The Torah of Tisha B’Av

A unique aspect of Tisha B’Av is that you’re not allowed to learn many types of Torah, because learning Torah brings us joy. As this halachic digest points out: “One may not study Torah on Tisha B’Av except for melancholy passages in Torah texts, the laws of mourning and Tisha B’Av, and works of Musar (S.A.,O.Ĥ. 554:1; Y.O. 2:26).”

The irony of this is that in my Shul, more people pass through the doors to learn Torah on Tisha B’Av then any other day. Between the four showings of the Chofetz Chaim Heritage videos (2 of them concurrent), the Rav’s shiur and a shiur by a popular local Talmud Chachim, close to 1,000 people will pass through the doors of the Shul on this day. How are we to understand this?

First there are some practical factors as to why so many people attend shiurim on Tisha B’Av:
1) most people take the day off
2) there’s not much else to do which is in the spirit of the day
3) going to a shiur takes your mind off the hunger you might feel
4) after a few years, it’s become your routine on Tisha B’Av

From a spiritual perspective, one reason might be that although many of us have trouble actually shedding a tear for the destruction, we know at some level that something is missing in our lives. And we know at some level, that we’re all a part of the problem. It’s one day that many people take some responsibility for the less than perfect state the Jewish people are in. Hearing the mussar oriented shiurim on Tisha B’Av is our praiseworthy attempt at trying to do something about. On this day we’re all open to our faults and we’re ready to take a corrective step in the right direction.

The second reason is perhaps the spiritual power of communal Torah learning. The two primary communal spiritual activities are prayer and learning Torah. The power is so great that these spiritual activities are two that many of us can actually feel. When we’re most receptive to spiritual progress, like the Yomin Noraim and Tisha B’Av and we combine that with a communal spiritual activity like learning Torah, the overflowing of our Shuls on Tisha B’Av is understandable.

May we all grow from the tremendous power of the day and may our communal efforts lead us to an environment of even greater spiritual opportunities.


Mourning the Destruction and Cell Phone Glancing

The internal conversation goes something like this: I don’t talk in Shul. My phone, text and email are set for relatively non-disturbing vibrating alerts. I get to minyan more or less on time. And I don’t even look at my phone during Shema or Shemoneh Esrai. So what’s the big deal if I glance at my phone when I get an alert during the davening down times?

My good friend, Rabbi Moshe Schwerd, provided a fairly compelling answer in a shiur about Mourning the Beis HaMikdash, which you can download here. He explained that Hashem took away our primary portal for connecting to Him when He destroyed the two Temples because of our sins. However, He did leave us with one primary prayer portal, the Shul. And now we’re blocking up that portal, with a disrespectful approach to prayer and to our Shuls.

Rabbi Schwerd illustrated this by explaining that call waiting is the only way we can insult two people in 5 seconds. First we tell the person with whom we’re talking to hold on because we want to see if the person on the incoming call is more important. And when we find out that he/she isn’t, we tell them we’ll call back because the first person is more important. Of course we don’t use those words, but that’s the message we’re sending and the message we send everytime we interrupt any conversation to check our phone.

The Shul is Hashem’s house. Even when we’re not davening we’re there for an encounter with the Master of the Universe. Do we really want to put Hashem on hold when we come to meet Him? Would we check our phone during a meeting with the President or our boss when asking for a raise? If we want to develop a relationship, shouldn’t we have the courtesy to pay attention?

So the answer to the opening question, is yes, it’s a big deal to glance at our phone. Hashem wants our attention in Shul. He knows it’s hard to have kavana during Peskukei D’Zimra, Shema and Shemoneh Esrai, but He also knows that we can put the phone away for the 40, 15 and 12 minutes at Shacharis, Mincha and Maariv respectively. Listen to Rabbi Schwerd’s shiur and think about it.


The Sensitive Issue of the Private Kiddush

Here are some private kiddush scenarios:

You just had a baby girl and you want to make a nice hot kiddush. On a given Shabbos about 200 people come to Shul and you must use an approved caterer for a hot kiddush, which will set you back over $1,000, which is not in your budget. So you chose to have a private kiddush in your home. The cost is at least half the price, and although it might be more crowded, it’s also more intimate and personable. The problem is that people who did not get a personal invite might be offended, which is the opposite of your intent in throwing the kiddush and sharing the Simcha.

When I was in Ramat Beit Shemesh a few years back, my friend’s Shul had a small kiddush after davening. The participants would rotate bringing small snacks and a bottle for a L’chaim. Although anybody could join, the group was about 10-15 men, and was somewhat exclusionary.

In our Shul, we’ll occasionally get together for a l’chaim and some chips and dips after davening. We once had a 10 minute kiddush, with a l’chaim, 2 divrei Torah, and some light food. These impromptu kiddushim are open to everybody, but because of their nature, invitations are usually extended to a small group.

A few years ago, our second cousin’s family spent their last Shabbos in Kew Gardens Hills, before they make Aliyah. We decided to make a kiddush in our home for their friends at the Yeshiva where he was learning. It’s not Shul related at all. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody got slightly upset, because they heard we had a kiddush and didn’t extend an invitation to them.

In the above scenarios the participants have a right to make a kiddush, but nonetheless people do get offended. Most people get past it, as they do if they’re not invited to a Bar Mitzvah or Chasanah, but it’s unfortunate that in the friendship building Shul environment, some connections get weakened in these private kiddush scenarios.


The Importance of Baseball

Our Shul had three teams in the Baseball League championships last Sunday. You can read a writeup of how we did in this article titled: “Jewish Community Baseball League’s Ahavas Yisroel on Display”.

I stopped by to watch a few innings and I was so happy about the mentchlekiet shown by the players and the coaches. When you see that type of fine behavior exhibited in the heat of a championship, you know it’s more than skin deep. Kudos to the league’s Directors, and to all the coaches who provided this important outlet for our boys.

I wrote about the importance of baseball a few years ago, and I’m reposting it below.

Originally Posted on June 29, 2017
Our Shul had some teams playing in championship games last Sunday, so I went to one of the games to show my support. I was talking to DK, who had moved from supervising the running of our Shul teams, to becoming Director of the entire league. He told me that our Rabbi felt it was very important that our Shul continue to field three of four teams, for the boys of the neighborhood, even though we had less than ten boys playing in the league. Let’s see why our Rabbi thinks baseball is so important.

In the first chapter of the Mesillas Yesharim the Ramchal states:

“The essence of man’s existence in this world is the fulfilling of mitzvos, the serving of God and the withstanding of trials, and the world’s pleasures should serve the purpose of aiding and assisting him, by way of providing him with the contentment and peace of mind requisite for the freeing of his heart for the service which rests upon him.”

Of course the Ramchal is talking about permitted pleasures and we see that they play a very important role. Man is created from a body and a soul and our body is attracted to the pleasures of the world. The performance of mitzvos and the serving of God make us more spiritually oriented, but we will always have a physical component which is attracted to this world. When we use the pleasures of this world properly we achieve the contentment and peace of mind necessary to serve God. If we deprive ourselves of the necessary permitted pleasures, we will not have peace of mind, which will hinder our service of God.

Younger boys are not obligated in mitzvos, but they do serve God through their prayers, Torah learning, and Gemillas Chasadim. They need pleasures to achieve the contentment and peace of mind necessary for their Divine Service. Baseball is one of the best sources of that pleasure. It builds teamwork, creates friendships and teaches good sportsmanship and does not require high levels of athleticism to play.

We need adequate permitted pleasures to serve Hashem properly. Thankfully, we have baseball and a Rav who understands its importance to guide us.


The Puck Stops Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reposted in honor of the outgoing EH and the incoming YK.


Shuls, Shavuos and Spiritual Reality

I was learning with a newcomer to Torah Judaism recently and I used the term “spiritual reality”. He said that was an oxymoron because reality is tangible and spirituality is not, and the two terms should not really be used together. He had a good point, because by definition (according to the Ramchal in Derech Hashem), spirituality is not measurable. However the Torah teaches that there exists a G-d, who created a spiritual reality which is the cause of all physical reality that we experience.

The Ramchal says that we could deduce the existence of Hashem and spiritual reality (although not its details), through observation of the physical world and logic. However, he bases his discussion in Derech Hashem on what we know from our Masorah (cross generational teachings). Shavuos is the day on which we collectively experienced the existence of Hashem and received many of the foundations of our Torah and Masorah. The Torah describes spiritual reality and prescribes how we are to live and relate to that reality.

I had a conversation with a fellow Shul member recently which highlights the difference between physical and spiritual reality. We were discussing how we might close gaps in the services the Shul provides and make existing services more effective and efficient. These are aspects of physical reality that any organization would address. In the course of our conversation we agreed on two principles of spiritual reality: minimizing machlokes (distance-creating disagreements) and having extreme sensitivity to the feelings of people currently involved in Shul operations. Although abiding to these principles might sometimes result in less effectiveness and efficiency, they were spiritual Torah priorities and therefore they took precedence.

As we prepare to receive the Torah on Shavuos, it’s great to be reminded how fortunate we are to be connected to, and governed by, the spiritual reality of the Torah.


A Closer Look at the Hashkama Minyan

The conventional rap on the Hashkama Minyan is that it’s a utilitarian minyan for those who want their davening fast and early. Another objection is that the participants are less connected to the Rabbi and the Shul than those who daven at the main minyan. Although these may be valid points, let’s take a closer look.

I was in Lawrence about a year ago and my host davened at the Hashkama Minyan. There were both men and women present. It was a reasonable pace, followed by a generous hot kiddush. After that, there was a 30 minute shiur by one of the prominent Baalei Machshava of the area. It was a fantastic Shabbos morning experience and I would be hard pressed to resist making it my mainstay if I lived in the area.

The Hashkama Minyan in my shul is missing the kiddush and the shiur, but it is structured to overcome some of the potential deficiencies. The davening is a reasonable pace, but time is saved by running the service efficiently. There is a weekly Dvar Torah giving by one of the participants and on occasion by our Rabbi. And due to the efforts of the Gabbai, who was recently honored at our Shul Dinner, there is a sense of community among the mispallim. I daven there about once a month, and I find it a very positive experience.

Like most things in the Jewish Community, Hashkama Minyanim are what you make them. If you throttle the speed, mix in some Torah, and infuse a sense of Tzibbur, the value of the Hashkama Minyan increases greatly.


Davening Down Time and AFAHP

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

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

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

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

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

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


Taming The Wild Shul Kiddush Scene

The Scene
You’ve seen the movie. Shul ends and it’s time for Kiddush. In the time it takes to say “Walmart Black Friday Shoppers”, the hot food is either all gone or desecrated into a non-appetizing state. Ok, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but hungry Shul-going Jews can sometimes go a little over the line. The key, like in many Shul matters, is to set boundaries that can be observed.

Wait For the Rabbi To Make Kiddush
The first boundary to consider is waiting for the Rabbi to make Kiddush for everyone. Nobody takes any food, without exception, until the Rabbi makes Kiddush. Yes, people will correctly point out that you should make a mezonos immediately after Kiddush, but that halachic problem can be addressed with well position plates of cookies and crackers around the room. For guests and members who forget, politely point out that this is a rule without exception.

The Seven Minute Rule
To make it easier for people to wait, our Shul created the seven minute rule. At the end of the davening, or at the end of announcements, the president or Gabbai reminds the congregation that nobody should take any food until the Rav makes Kiddush in about seven minutes. That’s the approximate time it takes for all the men and women to get from the sanctuary to the social hall. In your shul, it may be the six, eight or nine minute rule. It doesn’t have to be to-the-second in actuality, but knowing that they’ll be eating soon, helps people remain within the don’t-take-yet boundary.

Making It Last
Even with the Rabbi making Kiddush and the seven minute rule, when the waiting ribbon is cut, it can still get ugly. Multiple tables and smart food placement can help with the sometimes inevitable jostling that results from a many people, single destination configuration. To make the hot/best food last, having members serve can help. Smaller plates or small cholent bowls is another idea. Gentle reminders to take less can also have a positive effect over time.

The Shul Kiddush is a great event which people thoroughly enjoy. I’ve laid out some ideas to make it a little more civil, but sometimes people will cross the best behavior line. It’s important to give the benefit of the doubt when that happens and remember that there are cultural norms involved. People are generally good, but sometimes they’re also hungry!


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 Transformation of Shaloch Manos

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

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

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

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

Shaloch Manos has become a nice fundraiser, but do we lose anything in that process?


A Shul Dinner Primer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see there’s a lot of steps, so you need a competent dinner committee, consisting of a dinner chair, a journal chair, and a few other people helping with the planning and execution. It’s helpful if you can get some the same people from year to year, because there’s a lot of knowledge that is gained each time a dinner is run. It’s a great event and with some proper planning it can be even better!


Shul Communications – Avoid Becoming a Shul Spammer

Beyond the Schedule
If your Shul is just a place to daven, then you don’t need much communications, perhaps an updated davening times schedule every now and then. However, as we’ve discussed your Shul can be much more: it can be a place of connection, growth and community. To reach those higher goals you need to communicate and connect with your members.

In the Beginning
Before the Internet, Shuls communicated with their members with announcements during davening and with newsletters often published and snail mailed on a monthly basis. The announcements are still there, but the snail mail has been replaced in many Shuls with email. The email can be delivered via a service like Constant Contact, a free alternative like Mail Chimp, via Gmail or from your Shul’s software program.

Beware of Shul Spam
Because it’s so easy to send emails to the membership it may be tempting to send them often. The problem with a freewheeling email strategy is that your messages can become Shul Spam. Shul Spam is not the spam that ends up in the Spam folder, but rather they’re emails that are ignored. The myriads of parsha and daily and weekly emails that are subscribed to often fall into this category.

Tread Cautiously
If your members perceive your emails as Shul Spam, then they will not achieve your goals of communication and connection. Of course timely information, such as funerals need to be emailed immediately, but for other information a weekly email is filling the bill for many Shuls. A Shul should try to have some policy about when to send out separate emails for shiurim and other special events.

The Weekly Newsletter
The ease and low cost of sending email, combined with a sensible weekly mailing policy has created a situation where many Shuls are now producing a weekly newsletter. The weekly newsletter is not the same animal as the old monthly newsletter and it creates new issues to confront, which we’ll discuss in a future post.


Mishkan, Mikdash, Shul

In the Strive for Truth essay named “Mishkan and Mikdash” Rabbi Dessler points out that the Tabernacle is sometimes called Sanctuary (Mikdash) and sometimes called Dwelling Place (Mishkan). A Mikdash is a place of holiness where we recognize Hashem’s awesomeness and try to transcend our lower level to reach out to Hashem. A Mishkan is a place where Hashem rests His presence amongst us despite our relative lowliness because He knows we can lift ourselves up.

Our Shuls contain elements of both. When we start to pray Shemoneh Esrai, we strive to make Hashem’s presence so real, as if we were talking to a person. We need to feel the Mishkan. In the prayer itself we reach up to connect to Hashem in our minds and in our hearts. We can see the interplay between the two: the more we feel Hashem’s presence, the easier we can connect, and the more we connect, the more we feel Hashem’s presence.

From a practical point of view, we all need to work on our davening. Feeling Hashem’s presence is a challenge which needs real efforts to improve. Focusing on our prayers is another challenge. If we take a few seconds before starting Shomoneh Esrai to mentally acknowledge that we are standing before Hashem, we can at least start the first brocha with some of the required focus.

Our Sages instituted praying with a minyan to help us connect to Hashem. When we each work on trying to connect to Hashem through prayer our collective efforts make the Shul more of a place where Hashem’s presence can be felt. May we all merit success in our individual prayer efforts so we can turn our Shuls into the best Mishkans and Mikdashes they can be.


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 was once sitting in the lobby before the Chuppah at a wedding. 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?”.

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.


Appreciation of Our Wonderful Shul Choices

I was out of town for Shabbos twice in the last two months and it was a great experience. Out of town Shuls are very friendly. Out of towners are less judgmental and more accepting of a wider range of observance. Out of towners really appreciate their shuls and their fellow members. In addition, being away brought me to a greater recognition and appreciation of some aspects of the Shuls in my larger neighborhood.

The first recognition is place. Since there are many Shuls in larger neighborhoods, you are more likely to find one near your house. Many people in my neighborhood have a 1-3 minute walk to their nearest Shul.

The second recognition is time. There are many different times available for Shacharis, Mincha, and Maariv. This greatly increases your opportunities to daven with a minyan. Many people in my neighborhood rarely miss davening with a minyan.

The third recognition is speed. We daven at different paces. It’s nice to be able to find a minyan that fits your speed. When you’re not rushing, you have a better chance of having some kavanna. And if you have a need for some speed, you can find that too.

One of the purposes of prayer is recognizing and appreciating the good that Hashem provides. How appropriate it is to recognize and thank Hashem for our wonderful Shul choices.


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

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

Why is Davening Difficult

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

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

The Problem for Shuls

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

What We Can We Do

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


Appreciating the Quirks of Shul Members

Shuls Are About The People
Shuls are more than a place to pray. They aren’t just minyan factories churning out thrice daily prayer services. Shuls are communities, social groups, places for us to make deep and lasting friendships. Shuls, at their heart, are about the people.

People Have Their Quirks
You don’t have to be an Myers-Briggs expert to know that people have different personality types. Beyond the types, people have flaws and idiosyncrasies. And as much as we often wish that people would behave more like us, we know deep down that a planet full of me-clones would be boring at best, and probably closer to intolerable.

Look For The Strengths
Even if we grant that differences in people make the world a more interesting place, what do we do about the fact that people can be downright annoying? One path is to focus on people’s strengths. Everybody has them, and the more you look for them, the easier it is to find them. It’s a talent that’s worth developing and it will make you a better spouse, parent and friend. Find the strengths and share your findings with others.

Love The Quirks
Finding strengths is doable, but the quirks are a challenge. Personality quirks are hard enough to appreciate, and serious character weaknesses are often intolerable. The key to loving the quirks is appreciating that they are the keys to our lives. We have to overcome them, and often try to change them and it’s difficult, but it’s what we’re here for.

Resisting the Tyranny of the Majority
In Shuls, the membership machine is often looking to eliminate quirky behavior for the benefit of the Shul. It often is stated in the form of “Why should we all suffer, just because Joe is….”. We sometimes must mute bad behavior, but in most cases, the behavior is tolerable and we should just grin and bear it and appreciate the person’s challenges. In Shuls, we need to focus on the individual, not on the collective, it may be counter-intuitive, but it’s the right thing to do.

Shuls are about the people and we all have our quirks. Tolerating, accepting and appreciating the quirks of others makes you a better person and makes your Shul a better place.


Shul Security Tips

There was a good article in the Forward containing some Shul Security Tips. Here is a link to the article. Here are the tips.

1) Strike the balance between preparedness and paranoia.

2) Use technology where it’s prudent.

3) Develop a synagogue security plan.

4) Take advantage of the physical security you already have.

5) Install video surveillance.

6) Design a plan to cooperate with local law enforcement.

7) Train synagogue leaders about security.

8) Engage the community while leaving most of the responsibility on the staff.

9) Apply for a security site visit.

10) Consider active shooter training programs.

11) Assign patrolling staff.


The Darkness Reveals the Light

It was a typical Friday morning. I stopped by Wassermans supermarket at about 8:30 am to pick up a few things for Shabbos. I didn’t paying enough attention to the Con Ed truck and the police cars parked at a nearby Shul.

I went home at about 9:30 and my son-in-law and grandson knocked on the door and proceeded to tell me about the fire coming out of the manhole right near our Shul. Our Shul also houses the Gan that my grandson attends. My son-in-law explained that a fire travelled from a manhole near the Con Ed truck to our Shul. All the children from the Gan were evacuated in a safe and orderly fashion as the Shul lost all power.

At about 10:15 I got a call requesting that an email go out to our members explaining the situation. We we’re not going to get power back until at least Shabbos. Some building committee members and the Rabbi laid out a plan of action. Here is the email:
There is currently a power outage in the Shul due to an Underground Fire. Con Edison is not sure exactly when power will be restored.

– The Gan classes have been dismissed.
– The 12:25 Early Mincha today is cancelled.
– We hope to have emergency lighting in the Men’s section for Mincha/Maariv tonight.
– There will be no Youth Groups tomorrow.
– We are planning on having Shacharis tomorrow, possibly with only natural light.
– We will be sending an update later (I”YH) regarding the scheduled Melava Malka and the MS Learning.

Please say a Kapitel Tehillim (121, 130) for the continued protection of the Shul and its inhabitants.

A few trips were made to Home Depot by our call-to-duty members. Shabbos Services under battery operated lights was a nice experience. The Rav’s Friday night Dvar halacha was appropriately about the permissibility to move the battery operated lights and to have a non-jew remove the batteries after services.

Shacharis and Mussaf under natural lights went well and we were even able to have the Hashkama minyan in the basement Social Hall with the assist of some battery operated lights. When we got back for Mincha the lights were restored and we had Shalosh Seudos in the Social Hall and the full Moatzae Shabbos schedule took place in the Shul.

There were many things to be thankful for as a result of this incident:
1) We were able to have Full Shabbos Services without any electricity for most of Shabbos.
2) We have a number of members, and our Rabbi, who are ready and willing to do whatever is necessary to insure the proper functioning of the Shul.
3) The Shul was built with much natural light which was of great avail for Shabbos day services.
4) Con Edison works quite hard in our five boroughs to restore power in emergency situations.

It’s easy to take electricity and the functioning of Shul Service for granted. Sometimes Hashem throws a curve ball so we can appreciate everything that goes into making davening happen day in and day out.


The National Holiday Minyan Schedule

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

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

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

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

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

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

If your 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.


Shuls Exist for Their Members

There’s been much discussion in recent years about the Decline of the American Synagogue. Perhaps the primary reason for this decline is that Shuls often forget the cardinal rule: Shuls primarily exist for their members.

Mission One is a Place to Pray
The primary purpose of a Shul is to provide a place for collective prayer. Yet, we often lose sight of this. Prayer is a difficult endeavor and it needs focus to achieve success. The Shul needs to address the collective prayer needs of its members. This begins with making sure that our members have a fixed place from which to pray. My sense from the comments to last week’s post is that people are too quick to ask a member to give up their seat. Yes, we shouldn’t be rude to our guests but we also can’t lose sight of the fact that a Shul’s primary calling is as a place for prayer for its members. Make an extra effort to ensure that members get their rightful seat.

Take Complaints Seriously
Members will complain about the speed of the davening, the announcements, the temperature the sermon and everything else in between. Due to the fact that in a collective situation some people will be unhappy, Shul authorities sometimes (often) poo poo their members’ complaints. This alienates members and causes Shuls to drift further away from their purpose of serving their members. Take your members’ complaints seriously. Try hard to address their needs and explain why sometimes the collective membership’s needs will leave their individual needs unmet.

Don’t Forget The 80%
A rule of thumb bandied about is that approximately 20% of a shul will be active members on boards and committees. These involved members will know more about what’s going on. Often, non-involved members will complain of being uninformed. A common response to this complaint is: if they want to know, get more involved. I think this response is incorrect. Not everyone has the time, talent or focus to be involved. We need to appreciate the 80% who pay their dues, come to Shul and want to know what’s going on. When members feel unwanted, they go elsewhere and then Shuls panic about how to increase membership. Show true caring for all your members.

Make Greater Purposes Explicit
Sometimes Shuls have a greater purpose other than providing a place for their members to pray. This can be a wonderful thing but there are two potential problems. First, the members did not collectively agree to this greater purpose. Second, the members are not even aware of this greater purpose. Sometimes Shuls don’t make this greater purpose clear because they’re afraid they will lose members. Eventually, you will need to come clean, so take the high road and explicitly tell members what the Shul is about.

Beware of “Depersonalization”
People often get upset with “The Shul”. Sometimes the reason is because it’s more comfortable being upset with a collective, impersonal entity than to be upset with your neighbor. Other times, it’s because the democratic process purposely substitutes process for people so that decisions are truly collective. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the leadership functioning as “The Shul” but be aware of the potential to alienate members if that becomes the standard operation procedure. A solution would involve making sure that the Officers and the Board make efforts to communicate with as many members as possible on a person to person basis.

It’s a wonderful thing when a Shul is serving the needs of all of its members, but it takes work and focus. Above are some pitfalls to try to avoid.


Taking Five for Hashem

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

A few years ago my feelings changed. While thinking through the “Miracles of Chanukah” sugya, I came to realize that lighting the Chanukah menorah expresses our desire to serve Hashem in a higher manner – in the absence of the full functioning Beis HaMikdash. Just like the Maccabees desired a pure service, our lighting expresses our connection and desire for such a service.

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

Maoz Tzur never sounded better.

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

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The Miracle of Shalosh Seudos

Chanukah is a time when we focus on Hashem’s miracles and offer Hallel and Hodaah, Praise and Thanks, for those miracles. As we know, the Al HaNissim addition for Chanukah is inserted in Modim in the Shomoneh Esrai.

In the regular Modim we thank Hashem “for Your Nesecha, that are with us every day.” Nesecha is usually translated as miracles. How many of us can honestly say that Hashem performed miracle for us today? That’s why I like to translate “Nesecha” as “Your signs”. There are many signs of Hashem’s existence and His love for us, such as Torah, nature, the existence of the Jewish People, and more. The problem is that it’s often difficult to see Hashem behind these common signs, so once a year we focus on the uncommon signs, the Miracles of Chanukah. When we clearly see Hashem’s love on Chanukah, we express our love through Hallel and Hodaah.

Shalosh Seudos is like a hidden miracle. Every week people come down after Mincha. There are tables set. Food on display. Just wash and dig in. It’s easy to miss that there were people who ordered the food. People who arranged the tables. People who put out the food. People who will clean up. And these people do it because they care about, and love, the members of the Shul.

In the silent Modim we are supposed to recognize Hashem’s love and connect back to Him with feelings and expression of love. Here too, we can connect back in our hearts (or with words), with love, to the people in the Shul who show they care about us. That is the goal of recognizing the Miracle of Shalosh Seudos.


How Awesome is This Shul

“How awesome is this place! This is the house of Hashem and the gateway to heaven”. When Yaakov said this, he was talking about the Beis HaMikdash. After the destruction, our Shuls function as our Mikdash Me’ats, our small places of holiness. They are our houses of Hashem, our gateways to heaven.

Our Shuls are truly awesome places. It’s the place that we can have a face to face conversation with Hashem three times a day. It’s the place where we can publicly declare Hashem’s greatness with our Jewish brothers and sisters. It’s the place where we can witness people working selflessly to keep this holy place functioning.

So why don’t we feel it? Why don’t we walk into a Shul and feel “How awesome is this place!”?

It’s probably the same reasons that we generally don’t feel Awe of Hashem. In the “Guidebook to Reaching Awe” (a.k.a. Mesillas Yesharim), the Ramchal highlights 10 deterrents that keep us from reaching adequate levels of Awe.

One of the deterrents is worldly distractions. We’re dealing with a lot of things on a daily basis: our jobs, our finances, our families, our friends, our health, and what exactly are we going to have for breakfast/lunch/dinner today. It’s hard to put those things out of our minds.

A second deterrent is our self-centered perspective. The davening is fast. Or slow. It’s hot. It’s cold. It’s talkative. It’s unfriendly. I want my seat. Don’t sneeze on me. There’s no cholent. That’s our default perspective.

Perhaps when we walk into to Shul, we can start with the thought – “How awesome is this place!”. This is the gateway to heaven. Hashem, the Master of the Universe wants to hear my voice. He wants to hear my problems. He wants to have a deep relationship with little ol’ me. Maybe if we start with these thoughts, we can gently push the other concerns to the side – for a little while. It’s worth a try.


Good Politics and Bad Politics

When I started this site I asked my Rav whether he thought the name “Shul Politics” was too provocative. He said that he liked the word “politics” because it means “the activities associated with the governance of an organization”, and is a healthy and necessary component of a Shul.

Recently I heard the Rav advising someone taking a position out of town, to focus on teaching Torah and to not get involved in the politics, which he clearly viewed as negative. My experience is that most people view the word “politics” as negative. So what gives? Is politics good or bad?

Good politics is when a group makes governance decisions properly. In a Shul where the financial responsibility rests upon the membership, some decisions are made by the Rabbi, the officers, and committees, while significant decisions are decided upon by the Board. In some Shuls and in most Chabads, the Rabbi bears the financial burden, so he makes many of the decisions. When the process is understood and decisions are made fairly according to that process, we call that Good Politics.

Bad Politics is when a person or group of people dominate the decision making process in a way that is contrary to how people think decisions should be made. In some places, the decision process may be dominated by a small vocal and powerful minority and that would be an example of Bad Politics. Bad Politics is best avoided, because success in out-decisioning the powerful minority is difficult to come by. The better method is to do what is right and win the support of a significant number of people. A larger group has a better chance of creating a Good Politics environment.

Many shuls have a mixture of Good Politics and Bad Politics. When there is a fair process, the decision making is Good Politics, if the normal process if side-stepped, the decision would fall under Bad Politics. Sometimes those involved in Bad Politics are truly doing it for the sake of the Shul, but by side-stepping the process, Bad Politics results, and damage is done.

Politics is more than a necessary evil, it creates close bonds between members when a Shul is governed by Good Politics. No Shul is perfect and it is inevitable that a Bad Politics event will occur, however if the Shul is governed by Good Politics at its core, the bad events will be corrected and the people will continue to continue and move on in unity.


Touched by an Act of Love

Many years ago I adopted the practice of using a standard table shtender during davening. I flip it on its side when davening Shemoneh Esrai. My weekday shtender costed $12 and is made of plain wood. After using it for a number of years, it falls apart often and I have to put it back together.

This week when I walked into Shul, I saw that my davening neighbor had gone through the trouble of glueing the shtender back together. I was touched and thanked him a number of times. We’ve been sitting next to each other for years, we exchange “Have a good day” goodbyes when we leave, we’ve invited each other to our weddings, but I’m calling this an act of love.

Love is a having a deep connection to another. We can talk about the love we have towards our spouses, our children, our parents, our siblings, our extended family, and our close friends. But in reality, we have an obligation to love every Jew, that is to feel a deep connect to every Jew. Rabbi Dessler says we can increase our love by giving, and Rabbi Noach Weinberg of Aish HaTorah recommends developing love by focusing on the positive aspects of each fellow Jew.

So my davening neighbor went out of his way to fix my shtender, beyond the call of normal Shul behavior, and I was truly touched by this act of love. If I can prevent this act from receeding into the backyards of my memory, I can continue to deepen my emotional connection to my neighbor. May we all be zoche to transform our acts of kindness into acts of love and connection.


A Call for More Rabbinic Collaboration

There are five 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.


Is Shushing Worse Than Talking in Shul?

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

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

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

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

So How Do We Stop Talking?
The most effective strategies involve the Rabbi, Officers and membership. It make senses to identify the major problems. Then determine what areas makes sense to target first. Then try to implement a gentle plan to achieve the first goal. Measure the effect, make changes if necessary, and repeat the process until an acceptable level is achieved.


The Real Problem of No-Frills Davening

This post is a followup to the No-Frills Davening post. No-Frills Davening is the phenomena where people join and attend Shuls on Shabbos for davening alone. What could be wrong with that? Shuls are built as places to daven. To answer this question we have to take a step back to look at the goals of Judaism.

The goals of Judaism are to create three types of connection: 1) the connection of our body and soul; 2) a connection to Hashem; 3) connections of ourselves with other people. Body and soul connection is achieved by learning and following the Torah’s prescription of how to act, feel and think from a spiritual perspective as we navigate our lives in this physical world. Connection to Hashem is achieved through serving Him via the mitzvos and through prayer. Connection to others is achieved by diminishing and overcoming our egocentric perspective and helping, seeing the good, speaking well of, and giving honor to our fellow Jews.

Although the Shul is a place where we connect to Hashem via prayers, it is also a place where we connect to our fellow Jews. Connecting to people requires us to go beyond the comfort zone of our family and close friends, and dealing with people who are not such close friends, who have different views than us, who might sometimes rub us the wrong way. And it takes work because we have to put aside our ego and individual perspective to accommodate the perspectives, needs, and personalities of others. Many people don’t enjoy this and therefore seek a no-frills, no-conflict, no-accommodation-required environment. But if we are to grow as individuals and collectively as a community and a people we need to get our hands dirty and constructively deal with these differences and conflicts.

The world is becoming a much more polarized place and as inhabitants we are affected by this division. The Torah gives us the prescription to eliminate polarization and that is through connection. Hashgacha has placed us in Shuls where we have the challenge and opportunity to do the real work of creating connections and a true unity. No-Frills Davening is harmful because it keeps us in our comfort zone and prevents us from creating the connections which are a major component of our purpose in the world.

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The Phones of Yom Kippur

You don’t normally hear a phone go off during davening Shul. Yet here it was, Erev Yom Kippur, the last mincha of the year, the first viduy of the day, and five different phones rang, some of them more than once. After the fifth phone went off, one of those davening let out a big “Nu?!?”. What lessons were to be learned?

The first lesson is that we should consider turning off our phones as a preparation for davening. Disturbing others during davening is a big halachic no-no, and a ringing phone is one of the bigger disturbances. It was pointed out that perhaps many people don’t turn off their phones, but since they don’t get many calls, they usually get away with it. Erev Yom Kippur is a big time for phone calls, so these people got caught with their phones down. Hopefully we’ll all be careful with turning off our phones in the future.

The fact that a few of the phones rang twice, shows that some people just hit the reject call button, instead of turning off their ringer. We asked our Rav and he ruled that if a person is not sure whether he turned his phone off, he should take it out and turn it off in between brochos.

I asked a friend what he thought could be learned from this incident and he said we need to chill out when a phone accidentally goes off and not embarass the already embarassed davener with a “Nu?!?”.

We think of our phones as our personal devices, but there’s a lot of person to person considerations in our use and misuse of them during davening.


Member Participation – Coerce, Encourage or Accept

Maariv is finished on Moatzei Shabbos and the familiar call goes out – “we need people to help clean up Shalosh Seudos”. It’s the same refrain and it’s often the same group of people who clean up. The same participation scenario is replayed for the Shalosh Seudos setup and for many other Shabbos and weekday volunteer functions needed for the successful running of the Shul.

There are at least three approaches to take in regard to member participation:
(1) You can coerce participation with statements like “if people don’t help we’re not going to have Shalosh Seudos any more”.
(2) You can encourage participation with statements like “if you eat Shalosh Seudos, it’s only right that you sometimes pitch in”.
(3) You can accept the fact that some people consider paying dues enough of a participatory effort, and are not inclined to help out.

I’m more in the acceptance camp (3) although I think there is no harm in encouragement. I’m happy to be in a Shul with a healthy occupancy rate and without the attendance of the other members it would be a much less fulfilling experience for me. In need be, we will pay for services that member participation would’ve provided for free.

Some people think that participation, beyond dues, is the price all members must pay and they get very frustrated when members don’t pinch it. Although I’ve never seen it, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Shul where participation is explicitly or implicitly expected from all members.

The size of the shul may determine which policy is adapted, although I’ll never forget the small out of town Shul I visited, where the Rabbi davened, leined, was gabbai, set up and cleaned up Shalosh Seudos. And he did it all with a smile and with no regrets.

For those who are participating, take pleasure in the fact that you have the opportunity and ability to do communal chesed. And for those sitting on the benches, it may be you’re right, but please consider pitching in on occasion, it will make everybody a little happier.


The Yom Kippur Break

The Love and Fear of the Yom Kippur Davening

The Gemora calls prayer the Service of the Heart, and as we’ve pointed out before, it’s a difficult service. It’s difficult to stay on task during a 15 minute Maariv, so it’s no wonder that the 10-14 total hours we’ll spend in Shul on Yom Kippur creates a wide range of emotional responses. For some the day is a tremendous opportunity and they could think of no better place then to spend it then Shul. To others, between the fasting, the length, and the intensity, it is very difficult to spend a long time in Shul. And there’s a wide range of emotions in between.

How Long was the Break?

Although the length of the davening can come under scrutiny on any given Shabbos, on Yom Kippur, almost everybody has an opinion on the subject. So the typical post Yom Kippur cross Shul conversations often involves the question: “how long was the break?”. The fact that most of us need a little down time or a nap before the final Neilah service takes the question beyond the realm of one-upmanship. Although many people will be forgiving on Yom Kippur if the break is short, the Shul really wants to give people as much support as possible on this important and intense day.

Try to Streamline

As we’ve mentioned previously, we don’t always have control over the Baalei Tefillah. If you’re Shul waits for your Rav to finish his viduy, it’s not quite appropriate to ask him to cut it short on Yom Kippur. However you can try to make the Leining as efficient as possible, and make sure that people who are opening the Aron are ready when their time has arrived. Many Shuls start earlier then normal and you may want to push the start time a little earlier for those who say Shiur HaYichud.

All You Can Do is Do Your Best

Even after you’ve done as much as you can to streamline, it will probably be too long or not inspirational enough for some members. Although it would be great if the unhappy members would grin and bear it with the Shul, that’s not always practical and they might chose to daven elsewhere. In all situations, discuss possible solutions but try to keep the issue on a low simmer – because it is a day of forgiveness after all.


The Four Most Important Words in Shul

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the key to establishing a palpable closeness to G-d when we say the Shemoneh Esrai, are the words Melekh (King), Ozer (Helper), uMoshia (Rescuer), uMogen (Shield) in the first brocha. We start off addressing G-d as a majestic but somewhat distant King. A Helper is more available and closer than a King, like a friend who we know we can call on. A Rescuer is closer than a Helper, because he is right there to save us when we need help. A Shield is closer than a Rescuer because he is surrounding us, protecting us from harm. If we say these four words slowly (4+ seconds per word), focusing on the different perceptions of closeness, we can sense Hashem’s protection.

This four word progression is also applicable to the Yomim Noraim. On Rosh Hoshana we focus on Hashem as King. In the ten days of Teshuva, we call out more in Selichos to Hashem, our Rescuer, because He is more available in this period. On Yom Kippur, we pray and confess to Hashem, our Saviour, as He saves us from the consequences of our sins. On Succos, we focus on Hashem, our Shield, through the mitzvos of the Sukkah and the feelings of protection that it generates.

The idea of the progression from King, to Helper, to Rescuer, to Shield, might help explain a question regarding brochos. Every standalone or sequence-beginning brocha must contain Hashem’s name and the word Melekh. However, the beginning of Shomeneh Esrai is missing the Melekh. Tosfos gives the most quoted answer: the first Brocha mentions Avrahom, who was the first one who made Hashem King over himself. The question still remains: why not just put the word Melekh, like we find in every other brocha?

Perhaps we can say that the word Melekh by itself represents a distant King. However in Shomeneh Esrai we are talking directly to Hashem, To help us create that conversational closeness, the Men of the Great Assembly, put the word Melekh at the end of the brocha in the progression leading to Magen. This is the relationship Avrahom personified, and that is the relationship we are pursuing in the first brocha and in the entire Shomoneh Esrai.

May we all merit to make the progression from Melekh to Magen in these upcoming Yomim Noraim, and in every tefillah that we daven.


Serving the Kings

Making Hashem Our King
Rosh Hoshana is approaching and it’s an opportunity for us to crown Hashem as our King. This is a difficult task because a King has absolute sovereignty and few people are willing to cede all their personal authority to Hashem.

Rabbi Noson Weisz provides a motivating thought by pointing out that Hashem is the creator of the entire universe and He can do anything for us. He can make all our problems disappear and provide us with peace, prosperity and endless joy. However, by giving us Free Will, we are given the power to determine our spiritual and physical outcomes. Hashem can only provide His full providential assistance if we cede our sovereignty back to Him by making Him our King.

If we do truly cede control back to Him, Hashem’s Hashgacha Pratis will come into full swing bringing us the spiritual and material success for which we yearn. That’s the connection between making Hashem Our King and Our Judgement for the Year – if we truly accept Hashem as King, he will take care of us as only a King can. However, this is still a difficult task.

Making Our Friend Our King
Rabbi Aaron Feldman brings down a Magidda D’ R’ Meir (thought to be a baraisa), which says that one of the questions we will be asked in the World to Come is “Im Melachatcha Es Chaveiro Alecha” – Did you make your friend a King over you. Did you do Chesed for your friend? Did you serve your friend? Did you treat your friend as a King?

When we treat our friend, or our fellow Shul member as a King, we diminish our self-centered perspective. The same is true when we serve the Shul with pure motivations. This service is a mitzvah in its own right, but the accompanying diminishment of ego makes it easier for us to accept Hashem as King.

Our Shul recently celebrated a Simcha of the “S” family who exemplify the trait of treating your friend as King. May all of Klal Yisroel acquire this wonderful trait so that we can individually and collectively give Hashem the sovereignty to bring the Geulah.


The Importance of Developing Emotional Connections

The Need For Emotional Connection
The Mesillas Yesharim teaches us that the basis of our Service of Hashem, is Deutoronomy 10:12 in Parshas Eikev: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you?
– Only to fear (be in awe of) Hashem, your God,
– to go in all His ways,
– and to love Him,
– and to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and all your soul,
– to observe the commandments of Hashem and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit.

We are quite good at observing the commandments, but many of us have trouble with the emotional component, specifically that of loving Hashem. We know we are supposed to love Hashem, but do we actually experience that love emotionally?

Without a strong emotional connection to Hashem and Torah, our mitzvos become rote, our davening becomes rushed, and we look to our possessions, our vacations, our vocations, and the worlds of sports, entertainment, and social media for emotional stimulation. It’s very likely that the spiritual malaise effecting large segments of our community is a result of a lack of a strong emotional connection to Hashem and Torah.

How Can We Develop Love
Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner zt”l taught that to develop our Love of Hashem, we should work on Loving Our Fellow Jew, which is a commandment in its own right.

Love means to have a strong emotional connection. Most people have a strong emotional connection with their spouses, their children and their parents. But when we walk into Shul, with how many people do we actually feel a strong emotional connection?

To develop our love of our fellow Jews, we have to identify and relate to their positive qualities. One such quality is that at the root of every Jew is a pure spiritual soul. Every Jew is part of the collective soul of the Jewish people which unites us all. Every Jew is a child of Hashem and is loved by Hashem. Every Jew in our community places a part in creating an environment where we can grow through Torah and Mitzvos. And every Jew in our minyan, is instrumental in increasing the likelihood that Hashem will accept our Tefillos. We’ve identified a few positive qualities that give us the ammunition to develop our love.

Having identified the positive qualities, we have to actively and repeatedly think about that we love our fellow Jews because of their qualities. Thinking that we love someone is instrumental in actually developing that love. We shouldn’t be sidetrack by the fact that we love our spouses, children and parents more then our Shul members. We are obligated to love every Jew and each Jew has inherent positive qualities that form the foundation of love.

Actively thinking about our love of our fellow Jews is critical to developing that emotional capacity – and using it to love Hashem. So on a regular basis we can look around our Shul, and think about how we love this person, and that person, etc..

Loving Hashem
When we develop the practice of experiencing emotional love on a regular basis, we can then use that capability to Love Hashem. Our prayer books are filled with praise of the positive qualities of Hashem which give us many reasons to love Him. We have to actively think about how we love Hashem. It’s not enough to know it intellectually, we have to develop that love, by regularly thinking how we love Hashem.

It’s interesting that Chazal have put a special focus in the Three Weeks on developing a Love of our Fellow Jews. This is followed by the month of Elul, where we focus on Love of Hashem as indicated by ‘Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li’ – ‘I am for My Beloved and My Beloved is for Me’. Loving people and loving Hashem are commandments that are achievable. We can start on the right track every day in Shul with thoughts of Love. Don’t worry, nobody will know, but don’t be surprised if we start feeling them loving us back.


August Begins With An Aleph

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

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

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

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

Have a Gut Chodesh Elul!


The Primary Shul Policy – Minimizing Machlokes

As we’ve discussed in the past, Hashem wants us to achieve some very specific things, one of which is “walking in his ways”. The Ramchal explains, based on Mishna 2.1 in Avos, that our actions should lead to true good, namely, strengthening of Torah and the advancement of friendship. Anything that connects people is good and anything that separates people is bad.

This leads to the primary Shul policy, which is minimizing machlokes.

The minimizing machlokes policy is not obvious or simple. My Rav lives by it and his guidance in Shul matters often has this principle at its root.

I remember an issue many years ago when two people in the Shul were having a disagreement. It was clear that one party was much more in the right. However the other party was significantly upset about the matter, so my marching orders were to try and appease the significantly upset person.

Hashem wants us to connect. Hashem wants us to be unitied. This is why minimizing the divisive effects of machlokes is the primary Shul Principle.

One last point to note is that sometimes an unavoidable decision must be made which will upset someone, creating a slight machlokes. However we must still strive to minimize the occurrence and degree of any machlokes. It’s not always easy because emotions often come into play, but the more we can internalize the principle the better chance we will have of implementing it and fulfilling Hashem’s directive.


Why You Need Shul Bylaws

Do You Have Bylaws
You can hear the sound of a collective eye roll when you mention Shul bylaws. They’re usually found only in democratic shuls or independent minyanim. Like legal contracts, they can be boring to the non-lawyers among us, but they’re very important for a Shul’s functioning, especially when critical issues come to the forefront. If you don’t have bylaws, it might be a good idea to create them now.

Primary Purpose
This Bylaws for Dummies article explains, “Bylaws basically establish a contract between members and define their rights, duties, and mutual obligations… The bylaws detail the extent to which the management of the organization’s business is handled by the membership, a subordinate board, or an executive committee.”

The Blue Avocado site has a good bylaws checklist and says (with some shul specific modifications) that
a) You should not put too much in the bylaws so you don’t come to regularly violate them.
b) If trouble erupts — such as internal conflict or attacks from others — the bylaws will become very important. So make sure they are reviewed approximately every three years.
c) Attach (and distribute) any changes made to the bylaws and make sure the president has a current copy. Too often everyone forgets about changes.

This Synagogue bylaws article by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY) says, “Most calls for assistance happen when there is a synagogue crisis, which can be either good or bad. Examples of “good” crises are when the synagogue is in a growth spurt and needs to strategize to keep its new members involved or is considering the purchase of a new building with a new mortgage. Bad crises can occur when a congregation is declining and is concerned that it will not have a minyan soon, or there is no more money and they must refinance or sell the building.”

We’ll Help You Get Started
The Orthodox Union (OU) has some Shul Bylaws templates, and you can take a look at them here.

A NY Shul’s Bylaws

There is a Shul in NY, which has bylaws that have worked pretty well the last 25 years so we’ve gotten permission to include them as a public service for those who want to work on their bylaws.

So get to work on your bylaws if you don’t have them, it’s worth the effort.

Congregation Your Name of Your Town, Inc.


Article I — Name

1. This congregation shall be known as Congregation Your Name of Your Town, Inc. – a non-profit religious corporation in the State of Your State, County of Your County, whose offices are located in Your City.

2. This congregation shall not be dissolved as long as ten members who have been in good standing for at least five years are willing to continue it.

3. In the event of dissolution, the disposition of its assets shall either be in accordance with the donor’s request at the time of donation of a specific asset or under the trusteeship of Your Synagogue Umbrella Organization for the benefit of new Orthodox congregations.

4. This congregation shall be a member of the Your Synagogue Umbrella Organization

Article II – Membership, Dues, and Assessments

Continue reading “Why You Need Shul Bylaws”


A Framework for Alleviating Shul Anger

Over the years we’ve discussed many of the anger provoking Shul situations such as talking, shushing, cell phones ringing, seat misappropriation, fast davening, slow davening, tzedekah collectors, etc. I had a new one last week at Mincha. In the middle of my silent Shemoneh Esrai, my neighbor sneezed twice without covering his mouth, generously spraying me with his germs.

You have to wonder why there are so many anger provokers in a thrice-daily activity which should promote achdus. Perhaps the answer is that Shuls provide us with a training ground for which to learn to deal properly with anger, thereby improving our middos.

So how can we deal with these anger provoking incidents. Let me share with you a simple framework that I have found very useful, based on the teachings of Rabbi Dr. Benzion Twerski, son of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski.

Anger is a signal that there is something wrong in a given situation. Hashem, Moshe, Pinchas, the Prophets all got angry when the Jewish people behaved inappropriately – something was wrong. When we get angry in Shul, it’s because we perceive that there’s something wrong. That person should not be talking. That cell phone should not be ringing. That person should not have asked me to change my seat. That neighbor should have covered his mouth.

When we experience the anger signal, the next question is what to do about. There are three basic options: 1) Say or do something now; 2) Say or do something at a later time; 3) Let it go. When the “what to do” analysis is done with a cool head, which it should be, much of the time the answer will be 3) Let it go. The key idea however is to acknowledge the anger has signaled that something is wrong, and now that we are aware of the situation, you can let the anger go.

What I like about the framework is that it’s workable, it’s Torah based, and it reveals the positive purpose of anger. Try it and let me know your experience.


Setting Up Your Shul for Shavuos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rebuking the Rebuker

The five weekday minyanim that I regularly daven at in my neighborhood are usually quiet during weekday davening. However, there was one occasion when two young men were engaging in conversation during Chazara HaShas.

Here’s a conversation that did not take place:

Me: You know the Shulchan Aruch brings down that it’s a serious aveira to talk during Chazaras HaShas?

Young Man: I’m not quite convinced that you’re so concerned about my spiritual well being – but thanks anyway.

Me: Well I like to daven in a place that is quiet.

Young Man: That’s nice, but right now I prefer a little bit of shmoose time with my friend.

Me: But my preference is backed by the halacha.

Young Man: I learned that a person should not use the Torah as a spade to dig, which I was taught means you should not use the Torah for your only personal gain.

Me: It’s not my personal gain, it’s better for the whole Tzibbur if the Shul is quiet.

Young Man: And it’s also better for the whole Tzibbur if this is not a place of sinas chinam – didn’t you watch any Tisha B’Av videos last year?!

Me: There’s an understanding in this Shul that people don’t talk during davening.

Young Man: I usually don’t talk, but today I did and I think you are seriously transgressing the halachos of rebuke.

Me: Perhaps you’re right. Sorry for not handling this properly.

Young Man: No problem.

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Anger at Cell Phones in Shul

Maybe this has happened to you. In the middle of davening or a shiur, a cell phone rings.

Here are some ways this might be handled:

1) Recently, I saw the Shliach Tzibbur give a scolding “Nu” from the Amud. I’m not sure that handling a disturbance with a bigger disturbance and a public embarrassment makes sense.

2) Sometimes it is announced before davening that everybody should turn off their cell phone. At this point of cell phone adoption, I’m not sure that it makes sense to give this pre-announcement before every davening. It also might sound like a warning, that if you ignore this announcement, then wrath awaits.

3) In one minyan, the Gabbai made an announcement after davening reminding people to turn off their ringers and notifications. He is a caring person, so I suggested that the person was probably embarrassed when it went off and mentioning it again might increase his embarrassment. He agreed and no longer makes such an announcement.

4) One speaker announced after a phone rang, “Baruch Hashem I can hear”. Although he was trying to say that “it’s no big deal”, it might have caused added embarrassment by bringing attention to the matter.

5) Saying nothing but thinking that perhaps the offender is technically incompetent or inconsiderate.

6) Treating the ring as if someone coughed in the middle of davening. We wouldn’t get angry if someone coughed, so why should we get angry about a cell phone ring mistake.

7) Realizing that this incidence is really a test from Hashem and that the appropriate response is to feel bad about the embarrasment the cell phone possessor is feeling.

If we adopt number 6 or 7, we can actually transform this into a growth opportunity. I can’t wait for the next errant ring.


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.

Originally Published August 2014


The Rise of The Growth Culture Shul

The Shul Transformation
You don’t have to be a 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. This includes a multitude of Torah learning opportunities, 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.

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.


Ten Ideas For Purim

Here are Ten Ideas for Purim

1) Spend more on Matanos Levyonim than on Shaloch Manos

2) Give Shaloch Manos to at least one person to whom it will have a friendship impact

3) It’s a day of joy, so don’t get lost in the details

4) If you haven’t hired someone for the task, then help clean up the Shul after the Megillah leining

5) Let your children enjoy their noise toys, but be considerate of your neighbors

6) Consider that some people get a little sick from the smell of the cap guns

7) Try to appreciate the costumes and poems of others

8) If you drink, drink responsibly, be under control

9) Be positive in your joy, focus on increasing your connection to others

10) Improve the quality of your seudah by focusing on Jewish unity and re-acceptance of the Torah


Preserving Shul Sanity on Purim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Rabbinic Compensation Stats

Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future commissioned a study to shed some light on Rabbinic Compensation and Benefits. The survey was distributed to some 1,000 rabbis across North America, including those who serve as teachers, chaplains, campus rabbis, and are retired, in addition to those with a current pulpit. A total of 265 rabbis responded, representing a cross-section of Orthodox rabbis across the U.S. and Canada.

Here are some stats from the study:

• The average synagogue in the study employs close to two rabbis, with large synagogues, defined as those with 500 or more member units, employing almost three.

• The average synagogue employs the equivalent of about 1.6 full-time office employees.

• The median 2017 compensation for all rabbis in the survey is $90,000. For senior rabbis, the median is $100,000; associate rabbis $85,000; assistant rabbis $65,000; and campus rabbis $77,000.

• Pay varies significantly by the size of the synagogue. The median compensation for senior rabbis at large synagogues is $200,000, medium size synagogues (200-499 member units) $150,000, and small synagogues is $70,000.

• More than half (52 percent) of the surveyed rabbis do not receive health benefits, although a significant portion of them are covered under their wife’s plan.

• Nearly seven out of 10 rabbis do not receive any life or disability insurance from their synagogue, and only slightly more than 50 percent receive retirement benefits.

• Only about 20 percent live in a synagogue-owned home or apartment, or have a joint arrangement. The vast majority own or rent the residence in which they live.

• Vacation benefits are generous, however, with half of the rabbis receiving four-to-five weeks annually, and 20 percent entitled to six or more weeks.

• About 58 percent have additional employment, with the most common secondary position as a Judaic studies faculty member.

• Rabbis also supplement their income with rabbinic-related activities, such as officiating at lifestyle events, although it is typically a minimal amount; two-thirds make less than $2,500 a year doing so.

• They also typically get reimbursed for certain job-related expenses, such as conferences and professional development, entertaining guests on Shabbat and holidays and cell phone usage.


Sharing the Joy: Your Shul and Your Wedding

The wedding of your children is one of life’s most joyous occasions. 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, reciprocity should be considered, 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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The Ramban on the Purpose of Shuls

The Ramban Synagogue, which was founded by the Ramban in 1267 and is the second oldest active synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. If you’re in Eretz Yisroel, try to daven there. The Ramban in his Torah Commentary at the end of Parsha Bo explains the purpose of Shuls. Here’s the Ramban:

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

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

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

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

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Transforming Seating Problems into Chesed Opportunities

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

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

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

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


Sweating for Shalom

– I daven in a small Beis Medrash.
– It sometimes reaches the low to mid 70s in the room.
– We have a big a/c unit with a remote control.

– One day it was very warm, and nobody turned the a/c on.
– I offered to be the a/c gabbai.
– The gabbai rishon deputized me.

– On my first day it was warm and the a/c was off.
– Somebody was cold and they had objected to the a/c.
– A discussion ensued about an appropriate a/c policy.

– It seems that the Coldys raise more objections than the Warmys.
– I decided to resign my a/c gabbai position.
– That was the day that I decided to Sweat for Shalom.


Slow Down, You Pray Too Fast, Got to Make the Service Last Now…

A friend recently asked “Why do we often say Brochos quickly?”.
The Mesillas Yesharim helps to explain why, and provides a practical path to the remedy.

In the introduction, the Ramchal points out that serving Hashem is not a natural and automatic process, like eating and sleeping. Therefore, we have to first learn what it means to serve Hashem. Then we need to make a serious concerted effort to improve and reach adequate levels of service, since this is the reason why we were created.

The basis of our service of Hashem, is Deutoronomy 10:12 in Parshas Eikev: “And now, Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only…
– to fear (be in awe of) Hashem, your God,
– to go in His ways,
– to love Him,
– to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and all your soul,
– to observe the commandments of Hashem and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit. “

The Ramchal writes about each of these components, beginning with the loftiest, summarized as follows:
1) fear (awe) of Hashem – like we would fear (be in awe of) a great and awesome king;
2) walking in His ways – refining character traits and reducing self-centeredness, leading to improved relationships;
3) love – in our heart, and being inspired to please Him, like we would want to please our parents;
4) wholeheartedness – doing mitzvos with a focus on serving and connecting to Hashem, with devotion, not by rote; and
5) observance of all the mitzvos – with all their fine points and conditions.

The reason why we say Brochos quickly is that we are focused on the what of the mitzvah, which is just saying it. However, to serve Hashem properly, we need to also focus on the why – consciously connecting to Hashem through the mitzvos, and the how — doing the mitzvos wholeheartedly, with love, without self-centeredness, and with fear.

Improving our service is a process.
A good place to begin this process is by saying one Brocha each day with more focus.

This is what we can focus on when we say a Brocha:
“Baruch” makes us aware that Hashem is the source of all blessing.
“Atah” focuses us on the fact that we’re talking directly to Hashem.
“Hashem” in it’s Yud Kei Vav Kei form, signifies that Hashem always existed and is the source of our existence.
“Elokeinu” says that He is the ultimate authority over all physical and spiritual creations.
“Melech” brings that authority to a more concrete Kingship.
“HaOlam” recognizes that His Kingship extends to the entire universe.

We should share many simchos and continue to travel together on the path of improving our Service of Hashem.

In honor of the upcoming wedding of my daughter.


The Shul Newsletter and Membership Privileges

A friend recently asked whether he can get on our Shul’s mailing list to receive our newsletter. I told him that only members are on the mailing list. He raised his eyebrows a bit and he didn’t seem interested in Shul Types, Authority and Financial Strategies, so I didn’t explain the underpinnings of this policy. So let me lay it out briefly here.

A large part of our Shul’s revenues come from the members in the form of membership dues, high holiday seats and dinner donations. In exchange for membership, privileges include:
– priority on the Rabbi’s time when asking questions
– seating on Shabbos
– Chesed committee benefits including meals for births, during aveilus and in other times of need
– the intangible benefit of belonging to a group who shares their values in Torah, Avodah, Gemilas Chasadim and Eretz Yisroel.
– the weekly newsletter which primarily details Shul events and member related announcements

And if you’ll ask, isn’t it better for the Shul if more people know about it’s activities? I would answer that:
– community-relevant information is publicized on other channels
– we don’t think the newsletter attracts new members or significant donations
– we think there’s value to keeping the newsletter a private privilege for members only
– there’s increased privacy in keeping the information among the members

Although reasonable people may come to a different decision regarding the Shul Newsletter, I think the policy we have makes sense for our Shul at this time.


A Tale of Ten Tablecloths

It seemed like a no-brainer. A visitor to our Hashkama minyan felt the davening would be enhanced if the folding tables were covered with white tablecloths. So he went out and bought 10 white tablecloths and dropped them off in the Shul.

The new tablecloths created a few small logistics problems: they need to be put on the tables; they need to be folded after the minyan; they need to be stored somewhere in our tight-for-storage Shul; they need to be cleaned periodically; and these responsibilities fall unexpectedly on the minyan Gabbai.

The larger issue is that enhancements and donations to the Shul need to be managed by a process which is administered by the officers, boards and members responsible for the care and feeding of the Shul. It needn’t be complicated, but there needs to be points of responsibility and determination of need.

This incident highlights a large point about chesed. Chesed is giving a person (or a Shul) what they really need, not necessarily what you think they need. That is why it makes a lot of sense to ask the appropriate Shul contacts when you want to make a non-cash donation. Does that make sense?


Understanding Your Shul President

Being a Shul President is taxing, tiring and consuming. If you understand the trials and tribulations of the president you can help your shul, yourself and of course, the president. Although there are Shuls with female presidents, I’ll use the pronoun he in this article for ease of writing and reading.

Shuls have an interesting configuration in the partnership between the Rabbi and the President. The Rabbi is hopefully the undisputed spiritual leader, while the president is responsible for the non-spiritual needs, in addition to supporting the Rabbi in all matters. If the Rabbi and the president are not working well together, trouble is sure to follow.

In regard to the lay leadership, the overall mission of a Shul as a place for prayer, learning and loving-kindness are set, however some shuls do add new mission ingredients to the standard mix. Leadership abilities definitely come into play when handling special projects like a new building or when handling crisis situations.

The overall key to leadership is seeing the big picture. There’ll be a lot of issues and problems that come up day to day, but a focus on the mission, which includes providing a peaceful place for the members to daven, learn and help each other must always be upfront. The president is there to serve the members and he must always keep that in mind, especially if a member gets hot under the collar. It’s not a reciprocal relationship and that can sometimes make it difficult.

Management is a key presidential skill. There are numerous things that need to be taken care of on a weekly basis and the buck stops with the president. He’s the one who’s responsible. A president can sometimes get away with being a so-so manager if he has some good people under him that get things done.

The president also has to manage those who do volunteer to work on shul affairs. The general rule of thumb is to let those who volunteer have the space to do the job in the manner they see fit. Sometimes this might result in lesser success, but in the long run it benefits the Shul. The president needs to be aware of what’s going on in each area and to support the shul volunteers in the roles they assume.

The president is the governor of the Shul and needs to develop that talent. There are a lot of decisions that have to be made and then enacted. It’s important for the president to depend on the membership to help govern. Talking out issues with the members, understanding the various points of view, clearly spelling out their thinking on every subject, getting feedback and then making a decision and going forward. If the president works with the membership, the right decision will be made more often and there will be less difficulty administering the results.

Perhaps the most difficult yet important role is the president as peacemaker. He must truly hear and understand each member’s point of view, even if he might disagree. Even when the president is quite sure the member is wrong on a particular issue, he must still try to make peace and try to satisfy the member in whatever way possible. This can be very difficult, but when it comes to the successful care and feeding of a Shul, shalom trumps emes (peace overrides truth).

Member to member conflicts can be even more difficult and the president has to develop the skills of Aaron HaKohen a renowned peacemaker. It’s not easy, but when members see that the president does truly care about them, they will be more successful in their peacemaker role.

Of course there’s much more to say about this subject, but just as a president must understand his members’ attention spans when it comes to the Shabbos announcements, so to a web writer must understand the attention allocation of his readers.

It’s hard to find the highly developed qualities of leader, manager, governor and peacemaker in one person, so cut your president some slack. If you do accept the wonderful responsibility of being shul president, you can surely grow from the effort.

(Published in honor of EH)


Choosing Shalom Over Emes

My Shabbos Shul gives members who come on a regular basis a set seat each week. Since I was responsible for allocating the seats when we moved into our new building, it’s still my job to resolve seating conflicts. So it wasn’t out of the ordinary that a friend directed my attention to a quiet conflict in progress last Shabbos. No words were exchanged, but it was clear from the body language that two people were claiming the same seat.

After davening, I went over to the person who was assigned the seat and let him know I was aware of the situation and would try to resolve it. He said that he didn’t want to make waves and that the other person seemed to want the seat more, so he would take a different seat nearby. I offered again to try and resolve it, but he said it was ok, and he appreciated my involvement.

During the week, I daven regularly at a different weekday minyan. A number of months ago, the main gabbai clarified to me that regular daveners of the minyan could have a regular seat. Since I met the criteria, I said a regular seat would be great, and I was assigned one.

When I walked in last Sunday, I was told by a different gabbai to take a different seat on Sundays, because the person in my seat davens there on Sundays in the spring and summer months and he would be coming for the next 6 months. On the Emes (truth) scale, it would be hard to call a Sunday only spring-summer davener, a regular. But I didn’t say anything and I took the other seat. I thought that it was interesting that I was involved in resolving a seating issue on Shabbos and here I was on the other side of the table.

Reflecting upon the two events and seeing the Shabbos Shul member choose the route of Shalom over Emes, I decided to follow suit and not say anything to the Gabbai about the issue. The take away is that we do have rights, and there are times when we’re entitled to assert our rights. But perhaps our default position should be to relinquish or rights and choose Shalom over Emes.


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.


Forgiving “The Shul” on Yom Kippur

It sometimes happens that people have valid complaints against “The Shul”. “The Shul” didn’t appropriately announce a Mazal Tov. Or “The Shul” made another mistake with your bill. Or “The Shul” isn’t as friendly a place as it could be. Obviously their not complaining against the building, their complaining against the people running the Shul.

I think people should inform the appropriate parties when things aren’t right, but it might be worth keeping in mind that the people administering the operations of the Shul are volunteers, who collectively provide you services for no pay. In most Shuls only about 20% about the membership is involved to any significant degree, which makes the volunteers jobs even more commendable.

It’s probably too much to ask that people should think long and hard about the right way to phrase their complaints. Many reasons come to mind, “People pay dues for these services”, “The Shul made the mistake”, “People should take responsibility for the positions they take”, and the list goes on. Thank G-d there are exceptions. Many people show appreciation and are very hesitant to complain. But those who have spent significant time volunteering for “The Shul” will be well advised to expect to take heat for the mistakes they will make.

It’s Yom Kippur time and although some Shul administrations ask for a public forgiveness, others don’t. However there is a paragraph inserted in the Tefillah Zakkah, recited before Kol Nidrei at the request of the Chofetz Chaim in which we forgive everybody who has wronged us (without waving any financial damage we have incurred). This might be a good time to privately forgive “The Shul” for their sins of commission and omission. It will take a second and if you do it sincerely perhaps you’ll even reach the next level and come to appreciate all “The Shul” does for you.


From Me to Hashem via You

The Ramchal in Derech Hashem lays out our purpose in life. We are born with a primarily self-centered orientation and our mission is to transform ourselves into Hashem-centered people. Improving our character traits (middos) helps us break our self-centered orientation, while doing mitzvos helps us develop a Hashem-centered orientation.

From Rosh Hoshana thru Yom Kippur, since Hashem, Our King, is so prominent, we can accomplish more in the way of Hashem-centeredness. To really take advantage of this we need to break our self-centeredness through middos development.

In the Mesillas Yesharim, the Ramchal lists the four middos which need the most work: Pride, Anger, Envy and Desire for honor and money. All these middos involve other people, and we need to turn down the volume on our perspective and turn up the volume on the other person’s perspective. To the degree we do this and diminsh our self-centerness, is the degree to which we can make Hashem our King and the central force in our lives.

The people we meet in Shul give us many opportunities to diminish our self-centeredness and make Hashem and His mitzvos the focus of our lives. Elul is a great time to take advantage of these opportunities as we travel from Me to Hashem Via You.


Hishtadlus and Hashgacha

It’s not the first time I was in this pinch. It was Thursday morning and I still didn’t have a speaker for Pirkei Avos on Shabbos. I had already asked about 10 people, some of them twice. Of the 18 weeks of Pirkei Avos, this usually happens once, and often around this time. People go away and the pool of potential speakers from the Yeshiva Kollel dries up because of Bein HaZmanim.

I started moving on the backup plan. I asked a friend, RCW, who davens in front of me at weekday Shacharis, if he would speak again this season if I couldn’t find someone. He tentatively agreed, pending his wife’s approval, but not before he asked two other people at the minyan if they could do it. On such short notice they were both hesitant.

Mid morning I got a text from RCW that he got clearance from his wife. A few minutes after that I got a text from RCEW, who often helps me get speakers, saying that he got somebody from the Kollel to give the shiur. Who did he happen to ask? The same person that RCW asked in the morning. He had come up with something to say after Shacharis.

We were all doing our hishtadlus to get a speaker. The hashkacha was that RCW went out of his way and asked this person, and then RCEW happened to ask the same person so he was primed to say yes. It’s comforting to see how Hashem is actively involved in our lives after Tisha B’Av!


A Great Shabbos in Lawrence

My wife and I had the pleasure of spending Shabbos with friends who moved from Kew Gardens Hills to Lawrence almost 20 years ago. During the course of the Shabbos I spend some time with two other friends who also made that move at about the same time. Although I do see all of them from time to time at weddings and other venues, it was nice to spend some time with them in their neighborhood.

One of the striking things about Lawrence is the number of great Shuls there and across Route 878 in Far Rockaway. The number of great choices is growing. On Friday night we davened at a newer Shul which has gone from a house Shul to a beautifully renovated 180 men’s seat Shul in a few years. The quietness and slowness of the davening was the right complement to the tasteful and comfortable Shul interior.

The Shabbos morning davening at an older established Shul was the highlight of the Shabbos davening. The Shul had three Shabbos morning minyanim starting at 7:30, 8:30 and 9:00. We davened at the 8:30 minyan which was well paced and quiet. After the conclusion of davening, a nice cholent, kugel, herring and scotch kiddush was served. After the kiddush there was a great shiur on the parsha by Rabbi Ari Bergman, another former Kew Gardens Hill resident, which was attended by about 30 men and women. When the shiur ended we rushed upstairs to catch the last 10 minutes of the post-davening shiur of their scholar-in-residence. The only thing missing for me was a Rav’s drasha, which is given at the 9:00 minyan.

It’s great to see that Long Island Jews are putting the time, energy and resources to make sure that their spiritual surroundings match their physical environs.


Negative Consequences of Positive Acts

There are two areas where doing a positive act might result in negative consequences. The first it publicly thanking people for services performed for the Shul. The second is publicly wishing people Mazal Tov.

When publicly thanking people from the podium or in the newsletter, there is a risk that you will leave someone out and thereby offend them. This can happen at a Shul dinner, where thank yous for general services may be issued, and after specific events. Many people feel that thank yous are so important that they should be issued, even at the risk of leaving someone out. A way to minimize the danger of offending, is by checking your list of thank yous with one or two people, thereby reducing the risk of leaving someone out.

One small caveat is that some people don’t want to be publicly thanked either because they like to keep their chesed private, or because they feel that they did not make a significant enough of a contribution to warrant a public thank you. Some people make a distinction between publicly announced thank yous and those written in the newsletter, as the sting of being left out is more pronounced when it is in print.

There are many lifecycle events that invoke a Mazal Tov, such as a bris, bar/bat mitzvah, engagement, marriage and birth. Mazal Tovs are strong builders of connection, at both the time they are announced and after Shul, when members come over to the Baal Simcha to wish Mazal Tov.

If there is a kiddush in the shul commemorating the event, then public thank yous are certainly in order. In regards to other events, one possible policy is to only announce events that are submitted to the president or some other officer. The downside of such a policy is that people involved in Simchos are usually busy and may forget to submit their Mazal Tov. The upside of such a policy is that there will be less cause for offense, since the lack of an announcement was the result of a lack of notification.

The other possible policy is to encourage submission of Simchos, but announce those that are known even if they are not submitted. The downside of such a policy is that people might be offended if their Simcha is missed, since other non-submitted Simchos where announced. The upside of such a policy is that more Simchos will be announced, resulting in more good will and connection.

I personally feel that Mazal Tovs and their connection generation is so important that they should be announced whenever they are known. Events that are missed can be announced the next week when they are discovered. If such a policy is adopted, members of the Shul should be encouraged to submit Simchos of which they are aware. A caveat here is that some people may not wish a particular Simcha to be announced, specifically when there is a party involved, like a Bat/Bar Mitzvah, and they don’t want to offend people who were not invited.

Life is complicated and setting policy on Thank Yous and Mazal Tovs should be thought through and discussed.


Starting a Chabura

We try to encourage as much learning as possible in our Shul and we have found that the chabura is an effective mechanism. The major difference between a chabura and a shiur is that there is usually more participation in a Chabura, which makes the learning more active. The minimum number of people needed for an ongoing Chabura is three, the leader and at least 2 more people. A chabura’s strength is not in its number, but in its regularity and longevity, and we have a number of chaburas that have been ongoing for many years.

We started a Dirshu Daf HaYomi B’Halacha Mishna Berurah a number of years ago. The Dirshu schedule is Sunday through Thursday, with Friday and Shabbos reserved for review (or to catch up). The Chabura takes about 20-30 minutes a day and the Mishna Berurah is completed over the course of 7 years. There are many resources from Dirshu which assist both the leader and the group.

On the 17 of Tammuz, 5777, Dirshu’s Daf HaYomi B’Halacha will begin Chelek Gimmel of Mishnah Berurah, the learning of hilchos Shabbos. Over the course of about a year and a half entire Chelek Gimmel of Mishnah Berurah will be completed.

It’s a great time to organize a Dirshu Halacha Chabura. If you can’t, it’s still a great opportunity to start learning hilchos Shabbos in the Mishna Berurah. To receive calendars and/or shiurim locations, please call 888-5-Dirshu or e-mail [email protected]


Everyday Connection Building

Our purpose in life is connection. To connect to Hashem. To connect to our souls. To connect to other people. These are connections of the heart -meaning they need to be internalized. This takes work and time and we must continually try to deepen these connections.

I was talking to a friend and he said that when he walks into certain Shuls he doesn’t feel comfortable. Sometimes because he had a bad experience and sometimes because the people did not seem so friendly. That’s understandable, however I asked him to look at it from a different perspective.

There are 7.5 billion people in the world, about 15 million Jews, and about 3 million Orthodox Jews. That means only .04% (4 out of every 10,000) of the world’s population are trying to connect to Hashem through following the Torah.

When you walk into any Shul all the people there are a part of this small special group on this special mission. Focusing on that thought when we enter a Shul, focuses on the positive in the group and deepens our connection to them.

Due to the way we are created, with egos, we have a tendency to focus on the negative in people. However, it is only by focusing on the positive that we build connections. I’m not saying that we should be Pollyannas and ignore the issues, but rather that our main focus should be on the positive.

My friend tried the above suggestion the next time he entered a previously uncomfortable Shul, and he said it made a noticeable difference. Focus on the positive in people, it’s what Hashem wants, and it markedly improves our life.


Shul Things That Don’t Scale

Scaling is a term popularized in the tech startup world*. The concept is that a small group of about 3 designers and developers create a product and try to get in in the hands of a small group of between 100 to 1000 users. The developers iterate a few releases of the product based on user feedback and usage metrics. When they feel that they have a product that users love, they try to scale it to a much large group via sales, marketing, and business development.

For Shuls, scaling would consist of taking an experience that some people find valuable and getting more Shul members to participate. However there are a number Shul things that don’t scale well – and that’s ok.

One example is the small kiddush after davening. A dozen or so people get together around a table over some schnaps and chips. They shmooze for 30 minutes or so, often with a short dvar Torah. Over time deeper connections are built among the members of this group. It works because it’s small and consists of longer uninterrupted conversations with a small group of people. The larger Shul kiddush and Shalosh Seudis is also valuable for conversation and connection, but the intimacy of the small kiddush gives it certain connection advantages.

Another thing that usually doesn’t scale are shiurim. For in-depth shiurim, you need a certain level of knowledge and the desire and ability to focus for 45 minutes or so. A majority of people will not meet these criteria for various reason, but those participating receive a lot of benefit from the in-depth learning. A daily Daf Yomi shiur, which is often supplemented by Art Scroll, and trades-off depth for breadth, will usually not get a Shul majority. People often chose the options of learning with a chavrusa or by themselves. Nevertheless, weekly or daily shiurim are extremely valuable for those that do participate.

A third thing that doesn’t scale is a Shul social event, whether it be a picnic, a Melava Malka, or other special event. People have differing schedules and a specific time will usually not work for a number of people. Secondly, different people have different social appetities and social events are not appealing to all members. But once again, they are very valuable for those who do participate.

I think the takeaway is that although number of participants is an important metric, it is clearly not the only one, and might not even be the most important one.

* In a classic article by one of the most knowledgeable startup investors, Paul Graham suggests that startups Do Things That Don’t Scale


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 of the NuNu as illustrated by an incident that 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.


The Kitchen Cabinet

A friend challenged me on a post about getting involved a few months ago. He said that Shuls, like many organizations have closed “Kitchen Cabinets” and are not equally open to everybody.

Here’s the low down on the Kitchen Cabinet:

1) The Kitchen Cabinet is open for those who are really willing to put their skin in the game for the long term.

2) They continue to work hard for the Shul, every year, even when they are no longer officers.

3) They understand the Shul dynamics and the unique roles of the Rabbi, the President, the Officers, the Board, the Big Contributors, the Year in – Year out volunteers, and the membership.

4) They understand the change process of the Shul and which projects are worth the effort.

5) They are constantly concerned about the Shul’s financial situation.

Most Shuls want to expand their Kitchen Cabinet and if you meet the above criteria and want to accept more responsibility, please talk to those currently involved.


The Wisdom of Guest Seating

The Ramchal in the introduction to Mesillas Yesharim states that only serving Hashem is considered true Wisdom. I usually explain this idea as follows: Wisdom is applied knowledge. Torah must be studied in depth to pick up its many nuances. Then, that Torah knowledge must be applied to each situation. Since every life situation is unique, and the Torah addresses each situation, we need to apply Torah to the our life, minute by minute. This is true wisdom.

We had an Aufruf in our Shul recently with many guests which illustrates the above principle. Some Shuls take a blanket approach of never asking a guest to take another seat. Other Shuls are not guest-friendly and have no qualms about asking anyone to move to another seat. Our Shul takes a balanced approach trying to accomodate both our guests and our members.

On this recent Aufruf Shabbos we began with an early assessment of what seats were available. As guests walked in, three people guided them to available seats. After about 10-15 minutes the clearly available seats were taken. We then made an assessment of which people probably weren’t coming, and which people are more easy going in terms of not having their regular seats. We guided the guests to those seats. If a guest took a seat before we could show them an available one, we made an assessment of whether they should be asked to move to a different seat. As more people came in, we had to decide the best places to add folding chairs. At Borechu, the supervised seating process was over, and we attended to our davening.

In every shul situation we should strive to properly apply the wisdom of the Torah. What a challenge! What an opportunity!


Pesach, People and Prayers

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

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

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

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

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

Chag Kosher V’Someach


The Treasurer vs The People – My Bill is Wrong!

Although the president is the “buck stops here” officer, with all the responsibility that entails, the Shul Treasurer probably puts in the most total hours. In fact in our Shul, we have three, going on four, Treasurers – one for Tzedakah, one for our Gan, one for expenses and one for member’s receivables. In bigger Shuls, some of those functions would be handled by a Shul employee, but in smaller Shuls (~less than 250 member), the budget, or a sense of idealism keeps the bookkeeping in the hands of volunteers.

Of all the functions, member’s receivables, with it’s entry of charges, payment processing and billing of members is most tricky. It’s impossible to get it 100% correct and when mistakes get made members get upset.

For the entry of charges, the Treasurer must coordinate with the membership committee for any special membership fee deals, with the dinner committee for the dinner pledges, with the seating committee for the Yomim Noraim obligations, with the Gabbaim for any misheberachs made, with the building committee for building pledges. In fact for any charge entered, there is a person with whom to contact. A good Shul Membership System makes this easier, but much coordination and care must be taken to minimize mistakes.

Applying the payments is also a challenge because it’s often not clear to which charges the payment is to be applied. The Treasurer sometimes has to make a best guess, and if the payment is misapplied it will inevitably create confusion when the bill is received.

The final challenge is billing. Gehinnom hath no fury like a member with an incorrect bill. Maybe it’s not that bad, but the negativity directed towards the Treasurer when then the bill is wrong inhibits many treasurers from billing regularly. And no bill means no payment, which hurts cash flow and is more likely to lead to uncollected debt if the member moves on. Ideally monthly billing is appropriate, but a Treasurer who gets out four bills a year is usually considered doing a good job.

For the Treasurer the consolation of this difficulty is that there are many Kaporah moments and the mesiras nefesh builds a better Jew. For the membership, perhaps it would be healthy to cut the Treasurer some slack. He’s doing a tough job to help your Shul pay the bills.


Appreciating the Difficulties of Showing Appreciation

Showing appreciation can be very difficult. Mrs. Dina Schoonmaker points out that when we show appreciation there is a certain diminishing of the self that occurs, because we are admitting that we needed that which was done. She also quotes Rav Wolbe zt”l who points out that we develop an attitude of “I deserve it” which inhibits expressions of appreciation.

In the case of a Shul, we have an added difficulty because the volunteers deliver their services on a daily or weekly basis. We would have to show our appreciation to a lot of people on a regular basis. It’s not going to happen.

Most people who have been in the Shul service business for an extended period of time don’t expect expressions of appreciation. They might appreciate them, but if they expect them, they are in for a big disappointment. They serve because it’s what Hashem wants and most are happy to have the opportunity to do the Chesed.

However, even if we don’t express the appreciation we should try to think about it on a periodic basis. One of the main goals of Chesed is to create bonds between people and those bonds exist in our hearts and minds. The good people of our Shuls do a lot for us and we can build those bonds of connection by feeling the appreciation in our hearts.


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.


Connection In and Out of Town

The Maharal in his commentary on Avos (6:1) says that happiness flows from completeness, just as grief is the result of loss and deficiency. One of the things that make us feel complete is connecting to the people in a community. I spent last Shabbos out-of-town and the degree of connection among the members was palpable. In an out-of-town shul or community each person’s contribution is needed more, leading to a greater sense of connection. This is a great benefit of an out-of-town community.

Connection and happiness can be improved in any community. Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the popular Bilvavi and Da Es seforim, teaches the goal of chesed is to increase our connection to others. There are many opportunities to give in our Shuls, on an institutional or personal level. In my morning minyan, there is a gentleman who moves the talaisim from storage to each person’s seat. This act creates an unbelievable bond between him and the members. We can all look for opportunities to do these acts of chesed, thereby increasing our connection to others.

In addition to acts of kindness, we can also create connections in our minds and hearts. On the flight home, I was on a small 240 seat plane and there were 11 orthodox Jews who all happened to be sitting in the last 3 rows. As we took off I observed several of them saying Tehillim and/or Tefillas HaDerech. At that point I felt a strong connection to a group that was collectively acknowledging our Creator. As the Ramban at the end of Parsha Bo writes “the purpose of raising our voices in prayer and the purpose of Shuls and the merit of communal prayer is that people should have a place where they can gather and acknowledge that G-d created them and caused them to be and they can publicize this and declare before Him, ‘We are your creations’”.

Our purpose in life is to connect to G-d and to connect to other people with our thoughts, emotions and actions. In the process, we increase our happiness and more importantly take a step towards that day when “Hashem will be One and His Name will be One”.


It’s All About The People

A Shul can do everything right operationally, but if they don’t anticipate and prepare for demographic changes and the changes needs of their members and prospective members, their continuity will be threatened. It’s all about the people.

Unfortunately Shuls in many neighborhoods fail to heed that call. I was in a big Shul recently with a dwindling membership. In the main lobby they had a letter poster describing proper conduct in their Shul. It read, “the Shul is not …” and listed many things that the Shul was not. You might in fact agree with every item in the list, but the attitude was quite a turnoff. It’s no surprise that they are not attracting many young members to their main minyan.

A Shul needs to listen and truly understand the needs of their members and prospective members. That is not to say that you necessarily can build a Shul for All Orthodox Jews, or that you can embrace an anything-goes environment. It does mean that if you have a letter posted like that mentioned above, you might want to step back and take a fresh look at where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you should be heading. It’s all about the people!


The Purpose of Life and Shuls

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A few weeks ago, I wrote that the biggest challenge of Judaism is that a lot is expected of us. As it says in Devarim (10:12-13) we should 1) fear God, 2) walk in His ways, 3) love God, 4) serve Him with all our heart and all our soul and 5) observe all the mitzvos that he has commanded. The Ramchal makes clear in Mesillas Yesharim that this is not just a challenge, rather serving and developing a deep connection to God is in fact the purpose of our lives.

American-style Shuls with their strong chesed and friendship components give us the opportunity to advance in all five of the above components. The key to advancing is being conscious of our purpose as stated above, and using the many opportunities that come our way every single day in the form of mitzvos and interactions with people.

Let’s look at number 2, “walking in his ways”. The Ramchal writes about this: “Our Sages of blessed memory have thus summarized the idea (Avoth 2.1): “All that is praiseworthy in its doer and brings praise to him from others;” that is, all that leads to the end of true good, namely, strengthening of Torah and furthering of brotherliness”.

As an example, vorts of Shul members and their children provide a tremendous opportunity to further brotherliness, especially when they require a significant amount of time and travel. The Ramchal warns about a primary deterrent to availing ourselves of this purpose-fulfilling opportunity – that old nemesis: laziness. We don’t often think of going to an out-of-community vort as a life-purpose fulfilling event, but it is and if we become conscious of that fact – then we have a chance of overcoming the laziness deterrent, with a little help from Waze.

Torah observant Jews have the tremendous opportunity to live a constantly vibrant and purpose-filled life and our Shuls provide a tremendous vehicle to transform the challenges of serving God to the opportunities and fulfillment of that service.


The Biggest Problem in Judaism

What’s the biggest problem in Judaism. A lot of things come to mind, the Yeshiva System, the Shidduch System, the Chinuch System, the Left, the Right, the Middle, the Open, the Closed, the Leadership, the lack of Leadership, etc.

However, I think the biggest problem in Judaism is clearly stated in the pasuk in Devarim:
And now, Israel, what does Hashem ask of you, that you
1) fear Him, 2) walk in His ways, 3) love Him, 4) serve Him with all your heart and all your soul and 5) observe all the mitzvos.

That’s what’s expected of us!

On top of that we have an animal soul that’s impulsive, loves physical pleasure, and detests exertion. We have a yetzer hara that makes us ego-centric leading to selfishness, anger, envy and honor seeking. And we live in a world loaded with intellectual, emotional and physical distractions like politics, business, sports, shopping, gadgets, social media, and entertainment.

And even when we are able to overcome the physical, emotional and intellectual deterrents and create some connection to Hashem through fear, middos development, love, wholehearted service, and meticulous mitzvos observance – the majority of the payoff will not even be received in this world, but in the world to come.

This challenge is a tall order and it’s not really emphasized to FFB/BT children or FFB/BT adults, because it would just discourage them. So Yeshivos focus on the information and thought development of Torah study, and Kiruv and non-Yeshivish environments offers Torah as the best of all possible lifestyles. So it should be no surprise that many people want to move to a town where they can sit back a little and enjoy the Torah lifestyle.

That is the Biggest Problem in Judaism – a lot is expected of us and it’s really hard given our nature and environment. However, this is a problem that Hashem created. And if He created this problem, we know that He created a solution. We’ll take a look at the solution in a week or so.


Beyond a Better Lifestyle

I’m not happy about my “Making Shabbos Morning Greating Again” post from last week. For starters the term, “halachically permitted discourse between aliyos”, was ambiguous and possibly misleading. To set the record straight the Shulchan Aruch, Rema and Mishna Berurah are pretty clear that you should not talk between aliyos. The Aruch HaShulchan, however, says you can talk about any subject. Our Shul has recently adopted a middle position in which only Divrei Torah are permitted.

The bigger problem is that I fell into a common trap of viewing Judaism as a good lifestyle choice. I like my Shul because it works for me. Great people, a great Rav, short-enough davening, decent kiddushes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a person enjoying his Shul and his Torah lifestyle. The ways of Torah are pleasant and we should enjoy the lifestyle it presents. The problem is when we view a better lifestyle as the goal of our Judaism.

The goal of Judaism is for us to develop a deep connection with God, and that connection will last for eternity. We create that connection thought learning Torah, doing mitzvos, davening, helping others and improving our middos. God expects a lot because each one of us can reach high levels of connection. To move towards our potential we need to make continual improvement in the above mentioned areas our major focus in life.

When our Rabbi makes a decision to strengthen our halachic observance through some policy, “Not loving it” is a poor response. We should embrace the opportunity to get closer to Hashem through the new practice. Shabbos morning and the other times and places in our life are great for one simple reason, they present us with many opportunities to forge a stronger connection with Hashem. Let’s try to take advantage of these opportunities.


Making Shabbos Morning Great Again

After talking with a few people this week, it seems that the sought after Shabbos morning minyan is populated with younger folks, starts at 8:30, ends at 10:45, with a short drasha, followed by a decent kiddush with friends, and you’re heading home at around 11:00. Shtiebels start later. Yeshivos skip the drasha and kiddush. Big shuls add 30 minutes and often skip the kiddush.

My Shul is close to that schedule, however we’re only young at heart, and our weekly kiddush is a sporadic chips and dips off-premise affair. However I love it because of my relationship with my Rav and because I’m surrounded by a wide variety of friends concerned about the welfare of the Shul and its members.

Personally, I would like a slower davening, and I’m not in a rush to get out because I like being in Shul. But a slower davening would probably reduce the greatly appreciated social aspect. In fact our Shul just instituted a no-talking between aliyos policy and it’s had a noticeable effect on halachically permitted discourse between aliyos. I’m not loving it.

I certainly can’t speak for all the members of my Shul, but from my point of view, our Shabbos Morning minyan can already be called “great’. Great, but not perfect, and that’s why there will always be room for a Shul Politics tweak here and there.


Reversing the Slow Death of the Aging Shul

Getting Older Means Getting Smaller
Good shuls last for a long time, and as the Shul ages so does its membership. Unfortunately older members pass away or move as their needs change as their children leave the house. The older membership shrinks as time goes on.

The Empty Seat Syndrome
As a result of the shrinking older membership, Shuls that previously had hundreds of participants on a Shabbos can find their sanctuaries half empty. This creates some disillusionment among the members as they look around and long for their Shul’s former glory. It also creates financial strain since costs invariably rise as membership-based revenue increases, but it’s a lot harder to downsize the budget as membership-based revenue declines.

Just Add Younger Members
The obvious solution is to fill the empty seats with younger members. However, the young members have different plans. They’ve gone on to start their own shuls. They do this because they want to be with people their own age and they want some control of how things are run. Even if the older membership would cede control to the younger members, which is easier said than done, the younger members are usually not so excited about steering an older battleship.

Multi-Shul Solution
Another solution, which is sometimes more successful, is breaking the Shul up into smaller minyanim. Different minyanim at different times in different parts of the Shul. The first problem with this solution is that the shul transforms from a community to a place to daven. The second problem is that few Shuls are willing to subdivide their glorious main sanctuary to accommodate downsizing, so the excess capacity and it’s accompanying costs remain.

Dare to Be Great
The ultimate solution is for the Rabbi and/or lay leadership to transform the Shul into a place for serious davening, inspiration, spiritual growth, intellectual challenge and strong communal support for all members. A place that attracts all ages with the amazing breadth and depth it has to offer.

Are We All Settling for Less?
The potential of Shuls is tremendous and perhaps we’re all just settling for a place to daven, a Daf Yomi shiur and a Shabbos drasha. A Shul can be so much more. In the future we hope to examine the characteristics of an incredible Shul and what are the practical small steps to move towards that goal.


Hashem As King and I

The Yomim Noraim seem to be a time when we’re more focused on our own needs in Shul. We want the right seats, the right Baalei Tefillah, the right length of davening. This makes sense since these are the most critical prayers of the years and we want to create the conditions that enable our best possible tefillos.

On the other hand, when we’re more particular, there’s a greater chance that we’ll be disappointed by our seat or by the davening. This disappointment might move us further from our ideal davening state.

In addition, the high holy days are a time when we make extra efforts to recognize Hashem as King. According to some commentators this focus on His Kingship precludes us from personal requests on Rosh Hoshana, so it seems a bit incongruent to be more particular about our own needs.

We might not be at the level where we can totally ignore our needs, but perhaps we can catch ourselves when things don’t meet our higher holiday standards. These down moments can be transformed into up moments if we refocus on Hashem as King and move a little bit away from our “I”.


Shul Teshuva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Changing Our Perspective

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

I am working on the Yomin Noraim seating for our Shul. People will sometimes make seemingly unreasonable requests. When the implications of those requests are explained, they will usually come to a workable compromise.

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

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


Models of Chesed

In last week’s post, I tried to make the point that beyond our needs for socialization, Shuls serve as a character development arena. In this venue we can work on diminishing our egocentric view of the world to accomodate perspectives other than our own and create deeper connections to acquaintances in the Shul.

Another important roll of a No-Frills Davening Shul is the models our co-members serve to help up improve. One person motivates us to improve our davening, another our learning, and another our chesed. This week one of the “models of chesed” families made a wedding. This family regularly invites single members of the community to their Shabbos table and is involved in many chesed activities. The husband took on the Shul Treasurer position after having served two year as president. And it doesn’t stop there, as a member of the building maintenance committee he is constantly upkeeping the electrical and plumbing systems of the Shul as well as supervising the daily and weekly cleaning activities.

Beyond the institutional chesed involvement, is the personal chesed. This includes attending levayas, visiting the sick, giving rides or helping out in any way. We can’t all be expected to reach the highest level of chesed, but observing a family such as this, we are certainly motivated to make some additions or improvements to our activities. Mazal Tov to the H family on their Simcha. May they continue to take their chesed higher and higher so that we can improve from their rising tide.

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Back of the Napkin Cost To Run a Shul

Can We Afford a Shul
What is the budget of a Shul? Let’s say we have 50 member units (families or singles) who want to start a Shul. The members will finance all of the costs. If the 50 members are financing the whole Shul it’s reasonable to pay between $1,000 and $2,000 each. Generally, the smaller the Shul, the higher the cost per member. We’re looking at a budget of between $50,000 and $100,000 a year.

The two major costs will usually be rental space and the Rabbi’s salary. Additional costs include utilities, food costs, program costs and professional fees.

Space Rental

Let’s start with space. With 50 member units, we will need space for between 50 and 100 people on a given Shabbos. The rule of thumb for a Shul is between 15 and 20 square feet per person for the main sanctuary. With 100 people on a given Shabbos, we’re looking at between 1500 and 2000 square feet for the main area.

We need to add about 30-40 percent for bathrooms, food area, storage, coat area, bookshelves, etc.., so we’re looking at 2000 to 2600 square feet. If we want to add a social hall area, we would need to add another 50%, but let’s leave that out for now.

The cost depends on your location and the space itself. Let’s say we can rent space at $15-20 per square foot per year, so were looking at between $30,000 and $50,000 per year for space.

Rabbi and Other Costs
For a a part time Rabbi for a shul this size, you should expect to pay between $20,000 and $80,000. That’s a big range, but a lot depends on your location, the services required and the experience level of the rabbi. Utilities and miscellaneous will cost about $1200 a month.

On a $75,000 budget you will need 50 member families at $1,500 per family. Rent at $30,000, Rabbi’s salary at $30,000 and miscellaneous at $15,000. You can play with the numbers to see what works for you.


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

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

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

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

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


No Frills Davening

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

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

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

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


The Politics of Pesach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bein Adam LeChavero Opportunities in Shul – Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

57. Not getting upset when people speak too long.

58. Picking up trash, candy wrappers, etc.

59. Helping put siddurim and chumashim away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bein Adam LeChavero Opportunities in Shul – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bein Adam LeChavero Opportunities in Shul

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

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

Here’s David’s intro:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Helping set up the shul for davening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Between Apathy and Diligence

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

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

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

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


My Most Favorite Shul in the World

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shabbos Davening at the Holiest Place on Earth

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

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

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

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

Greetings of Peace from Yerushalayim!


The Meaningful Act of Just Showing Up

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

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

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

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


Beyond Shushing

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

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

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

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

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

Originally Posted Jan 2012


The Care and Feeding of Small Tent Shuls

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

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

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

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


Four Dimensional Flourishing in Shuls on Shabbos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rabbi As Professional Super-Jew

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

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

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

…a professional Super-Jew

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

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

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

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


Messages From My Grandson’s Bris

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tzedakah Collectors and the Unintended Tyranny of Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally Published 12/27/2012


The Ups & Downs when “Everybody Knows Your Name”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Davening Above the Din on Yomim Noraim

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

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

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

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


Pillars, People and Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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The SP Guide to a 45 Minute Shacharis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Summertime Davening Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Increasing Our Love of Our Fellow Jews During the Nine Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ruach in the Mountains at Camp Dina

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

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

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

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

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

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The Simplicity of Monsey Minyanim

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

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

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


Preventing a Shabbos of Brocha from Space and Time Overflow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Great Shul Unbundling

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

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

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

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


Making Things Right

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

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

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

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

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The Death and Life of the Shabbos Drasha

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

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

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

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

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Finding Shul Officers: Beg, Buy or Recycle

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

First Published Nov 20, 2013


Appreciating Fast Minyanim

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

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

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

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

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

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Speeches Are The Best Part of the Shul Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Software is Eating Davening

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

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

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

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


A Tale of Two Minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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


Defining Davening Up

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

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

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

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

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


I Found The Perfect Minyan

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

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

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

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

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


Positively Powerful Prayer

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

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

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

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


In Praise of Shul Families

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

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

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

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


Building a Strong Sisterhood

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

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

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

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


Ten Great Things About Praying At the Kotel

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

1. There are minyanim around the clock.

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

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

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

5. There is an elevated feeling of holiness there.

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

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

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

9. People are helpful and accommodating.

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


Time, Space and Soul at the Kotel

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

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

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

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

I decided to write three endings to this piece:

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

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

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

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

Originally published here on February 2010


Paying it Forward With Aunt Sadie’s Couch

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

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

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

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

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


Timing Tefillah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Addressing the Needs of the Young Marrieds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Customer Segments of Your Shul

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

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

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

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

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


In and Out of Sync

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Three Business Types and How They Get Shul Things Done

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

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

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

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

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

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


Improving Our Shul Maps By Choosing Connection Over Estrangement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Hoshanos Conundrum

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

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

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

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


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.


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.


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.”.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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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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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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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.


Running a Successful Shul Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.