Michael Schachter
Michael Schachter

Choosing The Shul That’s Right For You

INTRODUCTION

The experience of going to shul should be meaningful, spiritual, and uplifting. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s difficult to find a shul that offers the right type of environment. How many times have you made the effort to get to shul only to return home feeling disappointed and frustrated? This guide was created to help you navigate the difficult and confusing world of shuls and minyanim. Use it to help enhance your davening experience and find a place that’s right for you!

Note to any women/girls reading this: Please make sure to pass along this guide to your father, husband, and brothers. Don’t you want to help them have a better shul experience?

BUILDING DESIGN

One of the first things people notice about a shul is its design. Some shuls have beautiful windows, others have decorative doors or walls. These features can certainly enhance the environment for a meaningful davening experience. But there are other aspects of the shul design that may be more important.

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It is not unusual for the first question that people ask about a shul to be about the Ezrat Nashim, the Women’s Section. The existence of a women’s section in any shul should not be taken for granted. Many shuls create minyanim in spaces where there is, in fact, no Ezrat Nashim at all!

Ideally, the Ezrat Nashim should be located adjacent to the main shul (Men’s Section). It doesn’t really matter if the Ezrat Nashim is to the side of the main shul or behind the main shul. The important thing is that there be easy access from one to the other. (While some shuls have beautiful balconies for the Ezrat Nashim, it is far from ideal.)

Let’s face it. Nobody likes to get slapped with someone else’s tefillin strap. Too often people will whip the strap (of the tefillin shel rosh) around from behind their back and unintentionally whack a fellow Jew. Or, sometimes it’s a string from one’s tallit that catches someone’s eye. This should never happen and it can easily be avoided. The Ezrat Nashim is the obvious solution! It’s the perfect place to put on one’s tallit and don one’s tefillin. You can think of it as your “preparation room” and spread out there, put on your tallit and tefillin with proper kavanah, with no need to worry about getting in anyone’s way. When you are ready you can choose to slip into the main shul for davening.

You may find that some shuls can fill up quickly and get crowded. Once again, this is where the Ezrat Nashim is very important. Why get crowded in when you can spread out in the Ezrat Nashim? That space is there for a reason – use it!

Please note: While it is extremely unlikely to occur in many shuls, it is possible that a woman or girl will show up and expect to have access to the Ezrat Nashim, even on a weekday. Obviously, this is less than ideal and may make it difficult for you to have the type of davening experience that you deserve. In this situation, you may want to shoot a glance of disapproval towards the offending party. It is possible that she will understand that her presence is having a negative impact on your davening experience, in which case she will hopefully give you back your space. Unfortunately, if she doesn’t “get the message” you may have no choice but to stay in the main shul on this particular occasion. If you notice this happening with any regularity, you may want to consider finding a different shul or minyan where you can feel confident that your space in the Ezrat Nashim will not be usurped.

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While most people tend to focus on what’s inside the shul building, the outside of the building should not be overlooked. What does the entrance to the shul look like? Does it make you feel like you are entering a holy place to speak with Hashem? Is there a covering at the entrance to protect from rain? (Note: The entrance to the Ezrat Nashim may be located on the side of the building… somewhere.)

Ideally, the area right outside the entrance to the shul should be surrounded with trees, bushes, and flowers. It’s inspiring to be surrounded by nature as you enter the shul! There should be some benches near the entrance as well. It’s a good idea to sit outside the shul for a couple of minutes and gather your thoughts together before going inside to daven. This is also an ideal time to enjoy a cigarette or two. After all, what better time is there to inhale a thick, healthy nicotine-filled smoke cloud than right before going to pray for your health? And don’t worry about the second-hand smoke that everyone passing by will inhale either – in just a few moments you’ll be praying for the health of all of Klal Yisrael too!

SEATING

Walking into your shul should feel like walking into your own home. Just like you have “your chair” at home, you should have “your seat” in shul – your Makom Kavua. Your seat should have your name on it and you should walk into shul secure in the knowledge that your seat is reserved for you! In addition to having your name on the seat, it is appropriate to also put a gentle reminder on the seat that reads “נא לא לשבת” (Please do not sit). If you do happen to walk into shul and find someone in your seat, do not hesitate to tell them to move. What was he thinking in the first place sitting down in a seat with someone else’s name on it?

Sometimes a shul will be fortunate enough to have names on all of the seats. Some may ask, ”Where are guests supposed to sit in this situation? Won’t it be uncomfortable for a guest to walk into shul and find that every seat has someone’s name on it?” Not to worry. It is likely that after experiencing this uncomfortable situation once or twice, these people will not return to get in your way again. Remember, it’s YOUR shul and that’s YOUR seat! Guests can always go somewhere else.

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Choosing your seat in shul is an important decision. You don’t want to sit somewhere where you can be easily distracted from your davening. For this reason some prefer to sit away from any windows or entrances. (Reminder: the Ezrat Nashim offers a great space for davening with no distractions.)

If there is one available, you may want to strongly consider choosing an aisle seat. Often, the space between the rows of chairs or benches in the shul is rather narrow. This creates a challenge when beginning and ending the amidah. It’s hard to take those three steps backwards and forwards in such a narrow space. If you have a seat on the aisle you can comfortably say the amidah in the space that is available next to your seat – that is, in the aisle. Here, you will have ample space to take those three steps backwards and forwards and say the amidah without feeling boxed in. You will also be sending an important message to the others in the shul that this is not the time to be walking up and down the aisles, as you will be blocking the aisle preventing anyone from passing.

MINYAN SCHEDULE

The minyan schedule in every shul is usually driven by two main factors. One is the times of sunrise and sunset and the other is the needs of the particular group of men who pray there. Is there an early Shacharit minyan? Late Shacharit minyan? Perhaps a late Maariv during the week? Obviously, the number of minyanim offered in any shul will also be dependent on the number of shul goers. Make sure that your shul offers minyanim at the times that work with your schedule.

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In today’s modern world there are many shuls that maintain websites where the times for the various minyanim are posted. Some shuls operate with a more old-school approach and post the times of the minyanim on some sort of a sign that is either attached to the side of the shul building or that stands in the area in front of the shul.

Ideally, however, the times for davening should be posted only inside the main shul. This can be done easily either with an “electronic luach” that displays all of the times for the minyanim or with a “multiple clock board”, where the various clocks display the times of the minyanim. Of course, in order to access this information and find out the times of the various minyanim, you must already be inside the shul, attending one of those minyanim. But once you gain access the first time, only you and the other members of your shul will know exactly what times the minyanim are scheduled. Posting the times anywhere else would mean that other people might also find out the davening schedule. Obviously, this only increases the chance that you could show up to shul one day to find a stranger (guest) in your seat – and nobody wants that to happen!

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For some people, the greatest minyan challenge of the day is Mincha. In the winter months, when the days are short, there is a relatively small window for Mincha, and for many people, that small window is during working hours. In the summer months, when the days are longer, the Mincha minyan can easily conflict with dinnertime or children’s bedtimes.

Some shuls offer Mincha & Maariv back-to-back. Mincha is scheduled for a few minutes before sunset and immediately at the conclusion of Mincha (just after sunset) Maariv begins. While some men seem to appreciate the convenience of this arrangement, it is important to realize that if you attend Mincha & Maariv back-to-back, you will likely be home much sooner (and for longer) than if you attend Mincha & Maariv separately. This means that you may be expected to be more involved in household chores or taking care of the children, etc. Be sure to choose wisely.

In some shuls, Mincha & Maariv are scheduled about an hour apart from each other, with a speaker filling the gap between the two tefillot. This is a convenient arrangement for those men who wish to be out of the house for approximately an hour and a half every evening. But some prefer to daven Mincha earlier in the day (perhaps during a break at work) and show up at shul for Maariv following the speech between Mincha & Maariv. Even though Maariv is scheduled for a specific time (which should be publicized within the main shul only), it is not unusual for the speech between Mincha & Maariv to run several minutes past the scheduled time for Maariv. If you come to shul for Maariv and discover that the speaker is still going past the time for Maariv, do not worry. Whether it’s your wife who is waiting for you to return home, or your business that you closed for a few minutes so you could get to shul, or whatever appointment you might have to get to that evening – it can all wait. The teaching of Torah should never be bound by schedule limitations. Just be thankful that in addition to (eventually) getting to daven Maariv with a minyan, you were also zocheh to catch some inspiring words of Torah.

MIKDASH M’AT

Every shul is considered to be a Mikdash M’at – A Mini Beit Hamikdash. Therefore, it is not only important for the shul to have a nice design (see earlier discussion), but it is also imperative that everyone walking into shul be prepared to enter a holy place. This means preparing both mentally and physically. One’s mind must be cleared to focus on the davening and one’s body must be clean to approach Hashem in prayer.

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While it is assumed that most people walking into shul are basically “clean” and ready to daven, it is important for everyone to wash their hands before starting to daven. Every shul should have a washing station set up near the entrance to the main shul where one can find a “Natla”, a special cup for washing hands. While many people are accustomed to using a Natla when washing before eating bread, too many people pass up the opportunity to use the Natla before davening and properly clean their hands in preparation for Tefillah.

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Part of being “clean” for davening includes taking care of one’s bodily functions when nature calls. Every shul must have a restroom. One is not permitted to continue davening when one feels the need to use the bathroom. However, before returning to the davening, one MUST clean his hands well, so that he is prepared to once again stand before Hashem in a state of cleanliness. It is for this reason that there must be a Natla available outside of the bathroom. In some shuls you may find that there is a soap dispenser in the bathroom as well. It is probably there for when the shul is used for non-religious functions. Using the Natla is the only way to ensure that your hands are actually clean and you are ready to return to your davening.

(It is surprising that in many food establishments that are under strict Rabbinic supervision, there is no requirement for all workers to properly clean their hands using the Natla after using the bathroom before returning to their food preparation. After all, if the greatest level of cleanliness can be achieved only through the use of a Natla, and not with soap and water as every medical and health professional around the world would have you believe, wouldn’t you want to know that the person preparing your food used a Natla after using the bathroom?)

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Even after all of the proper preparations for davening, both mental and physical, many people discover at some point in the middle of their tefillah that there is something getting in the way of achieving that connection with Hashem. There is some sort of barrier that must be removed. Sometimes this can be accomplished by simply sticking a finger up your nose and twisting it around a bit. You may be surprised to discover just how easy it is to remove whatever was getting in your way. You can now immediately resume your tefillah – barrier removed! 

(Current practice seems to support the view that it is actually not even necessary to pause your tefillah to remove these barriers. This can be done at any point in davening, including the amidah. This also means that one’s hands are obviously still considered perfectly clean for davening. It’s possible that the use of the Natla after using the bathroom actually continues to protect the hands from becoming dirty at any point during the davening, regardless of how high up one’s nose the fingers may have been inserted.)

CONCLUSION

There is no one correct way to operate a shul. Personal preferences play a big part in where you choose to daven. However, the ideas presented in this guide are fairly universal and should help you in your pursuit of finding a place to daven that is right for you.

It’s important to find a shul and minyan that offers you the type of davening experience that you are looking for – a place that you can call YOUR shul. A place where you can come inside, grab that Natla and wash your hands, and comfortably make your way to YOUR seat that bears your name. Shake hands with all of those familiar faces surrounding you – they are your shul family! 

Final note: Some people have the custom of kissing their hand after shaking hands with a neighbor. This is a beautiful thing to do in shul. After all, it doesn’t matter where your friend’s hand was right before you grasped it and then put your own hand to your mouth – the protection from that Natla goes a long long way!

About the Author
Michael Schachter spent several years working in both formal and informal Jewish education in the US before making aliyah in 2010 with his wife and children. For the past few years he and his family have been running the Safed Puzzle Room, an educational escape room experience, in Tzfat. They have also created a series of online Israel and Jewish themed escape room games, available at Bagels & Locks Studios. He and his family make their home in Katzrin, where they also run one of the local shuls, Kehillat Or Hatzafon.
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