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Chaim Trachtman
Chaim Trachtman

Mourning Month 9

In the prelapsarian days before COVID, one could say kaddish and see the world. It was common for people to create a scrapbook of pictures showing all of the places where they had said kaddish, on business trips and on vacations, at the times when they had lost track of time and needed to find a mincha pronto. The explosion of Chabad minyanim in the most remote places on Earth has enabled people to travel to the farthest reaches of the globe knowing they can rely on getting kosher food and attending a daily minyan.  COVID has changed all that. Over the last 18 months, I have mainly said kaddish at three places – Kehillath Jeshurun (KJ), the Young Israel of New Rochelle, and occasionally the Riverdale Jewish Center (RJC). There have been occasional emergencies but mostly in Queens.

This month broke the pattern. I was fortunate to be able to visit Israel for three weeks on the presidential coattails of my wife, Audrey. It was inspiring as I accompanied her on the visits to AMIT schools around the country, meet with the dedicated teachers, and interact with the lively students. The commitment to teaching the whole student and to integrate values in religious and non-religious school settings struck me as unique in these polarized times in the US and Israel.

But from the perspective of my monthly essays, number 9 was distinguished by the largest number of different minyanim where I davened in such a brief period of time. Truth be told, my home base was the shul on Chovevei Torah. After getting off to a rocky COVID-quarantine start, I was made to feel so welcome. The 6:50 am and 4:30 pm times became part of my vacation routine. But my travels with Audrey required creative real-time planning to attend minyan for mincha. With professional reconnoitering by Chavi and Limur who work with Audrey, I was able to find a place to daven each day. I davened in the hallway with the principal and students at the boys school in Maalei Adumim. The next day, a visit to a secular school in Shoham was more challenging. A Lubavitch shul was located nearby, and I was able to be the shaliach tzibbur with them. At the end of tefillah, they laughed and said that I should not have worried that anything would happen to me because I davened nusach Sefard. I davened in another Sefardi shul in Rechovot. Finding ten men was becoming problematic as the sun was setting, and so our driver was unexpectedly, from his perspective, recruited to make the quorum. I davened in Efrat, Tiberias, and at the melodious Yakir minyan for Kabbalat Shabbat in Jerusalem. I prayed at the Kotel with the men with hats who make sure that plaza and tunnel are never unoccupied. On a rainy day when I was strolling along Rechov Yaffa on our way to the Israel Biennial, I davened at a mincha mill in a building with a  clock on the outer wall under the roof. The clock that was built early in the 1900s was as striking as clocks that grace public squares in New York, Belgium, and London. I davened in the store where we bought tefillin for my soon-to be bar mitzvah’ed grandson. Finally, when I got home, before going to the beautiful light show in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden with my family, I davened at 770 Eastern Parkway. I know the kabbalists say that you should spiritually prepare at least an hour in advance of tefilla. Although the lead up was not quite as long, it was extraordinary hearing the men sing before mincha, on a regular Wednesday in the middle of the week, mind you.

What to make of all this? First, it was interesting to learn that most minyanim in Israel daven nusach Sefard because it is considered more home grown than Ashkenaz. Since leaving Philadelphia, I daven nusach Ashkenaz. But as a child growing up and davening in the Tolner Rebbe shtiebel, I davened nusach Sefard. I was not so fluent during my trip to Israel, but it did bring back memories of going to shul with my father. Although my parents enjoyed travel they were not big-time globetrotters. I am sure that they too had a list of shuls that they davened in over their lifetime. But as the Jewish community in the US has grown and become more secure, socially and financially, the number  and range of shuls visited during a year of kaddish has grown substantially. My parents harked back to an earlier era when Jewish lives were not so glamorous and cosmopolitan. But, although me and my contemporaries are exposed to many locales and customs of prayer, I am not sure if this has promoted the appreciation of difference and a recognition of everything we share in common that unites us as Jews. In the “old days” before global travel became routine, I wonder if having fewer shuls in a smaller number of places may have forced people to daven together and minimize the differences that define each Jewish community. Maybe too much of a good thing is not such a good thing.

About the Author
Chaim Trachtman is originally from Philadelphia. He was a pediatric nephrologist and a professor of clinical pediatrics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine before retiring. He is engaged in patient care and is the PI for both NIH- and industry-sponsored observational cohort studies and clinical trials in children and adults with glomerular disease. He is a board member for Yeshivat Maharat and edited a book entitled "Women and Men in Communal prayer (Ktav)" that discusses partnership minyanim. His wife is the current President of AMIT and he has three daughters and six grandchildren.
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