Chaim I. Waxman
Chaim I. Waxman
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Restore us to You, oh God – but where to?

If not for the Delta variant, outdoor prayer services would mostly be back inside, but maybe we should continue them, even when the pandemic is over
Illustrative. Jewish men pray outside a synagogue at the Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem, on March 25, 2020 (before masks were required by law). (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Illustrative. Jewish men pray outside a synagogue at the Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem, on March 25, 2020 (before masks were required by law). (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Over the past year, I have heard people wondering whether those who have been davening (praying) in street minyanim (prayer groups) will return to shul (synagogue) once the pandemic is over. Many reasons were given to support the position that highly significant numbers of people will not return, and many other reasons were given for why they will. Of course, no one can predict with any degree of certainty, as Yogi Berra, the memorable late manager of the New York Yankees baseball team quipped, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” What I wish to present is a variety of arguments for each of the positions, followed by indications based on a responses to a questionnaire distributed to several outdoor minyanim in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Admittedly, there are a number of reasons that the methodology of the sampling leaves much to be desired, and we will have to wait until the pandemic is finally over — may it be soon — to see how many will return to shuls once they are fully open, and how many will decide to stay with street or yard minyanim. Nevertheless, this is an initial step in gaining empirical evidence on the subject.

The almost worldwide prevalence, in Jewish terms, of Orthodox outdoor minyanim is novel, and emerged in mid-to-end March 2020, shortly after Purim, as a consequence of the-then new COVID-19 plague. The closing of shuls was clearly not something the Orthodox community took lightly and, indeed, some initially resisted warnings about the consequences of davening in shuls. In Israel, even after government authorities enforced their closure, some resisted, but the overwhelming majority apparently complied. In place of shuls, minyanim were started in yards, on street corners, on roofs, and many other outdoor areas where it was feasible to hold prayer services.

Not long after the onset of the phenomenon, there were voices calling for maintaining outdoor minyanim even after the coronavirus threat is over, and that was before most people even imagined its lasting as long as it has. One major reason for the initial positive attitude toward them was that of convenience. They are very close to home, they are free of much of the politics involved in shul life, and their essentially informal character enabled those attending to feel relaxed about when they get to the minyan, where they sit, and how they dress while there. Some said that they got to know neighbors who had lived near each other for many years with whom they had previously had almost no contact.

Some say that they feel that their praying is much more spiritual in the outdoor minyanim than it was in shul. In the early stages of closure, Herb Keinon, a senior contributing editor and analyst at the Jerusalem Post, wrote that for the past 35 years he had not prayed as consistently at every service as he was in his balcony minyan. Rabbi Shmuel Reiner, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, suggested, in an article in Makor Rishon’s Shabbat section, that street minyanim may be a blessing in disguise in that the absence of physical separators, mehitzot, has brought about not only a physical closeness between people but, even more importantly, an emotional one, and that the institutionalized powerfulness of the established shul will give way to something more refined and shared. He did not explicitly say that street minyanim should remain, but he did provide grounds for suggesting that some may, in fact, remain.

Some women expressed pleasure at being able to sit near their spouses and feel part of the service rather than being behind mehitzot. In some cases, the minyanim came to be clusters of families davening together, something which some found very appealing. It is not permitted in a formal shul, but in an outdoor minyan even the rules are more lax.

Many children became much more actively involved in the outdoor minyanim. They are frequently called upon to lead the services as ba’alei tefila (prayer leaders), readers, and to serve as gabbaim (officials). They are also much more likely to be honored with reading from the Torah and being called up to it.

One of the major reasons given for why the overwhelming majority will return to shul is the weather. Outdoor minyanim may have many advantages, but when it gets very hot or very cold, windy and/or rainy outside, they are not the most pleasant places for davening. Most people find enclosed, furnished and, usually, air conditioned and/or heated shuls much more comfortable.

Some long for the friends with whom they have davened over the years; some long for their regular seat in shul, and some long for the formalities, both structural and procedural, of the shul. Some, apparently, look forward to going back to shul where they can once again partake in the social encounters at the kiddush, replete with “schmoozing,” whiskey, herring, and more, after davening Shabbat morning

Many, if not most, rabbis took the temporary, makeshift essence of street minyanim as a halakhic given and did not even consider the possibility of their remaining once shuls are reopened. For example, with respect to the issue of whether to say an abbreviated repetition of the Friday night Amidah prayer, “Me’eyn Sheva” (Magen Avot etc.), in a street minyan, because it was specifically instituted to be said in a shul, Rabbi Yaacov Ariel wrote in the journal Emunat Itekha, “There is absolutely no intention to pray there permanently,” so Ashkenazim should not say it. For him, returning to shul is a given and he did not even consider the possibility that there is any intention to pray outdoors permanently.

Some of those who argued that everyone will return to shul pointed to the central role of shul in Jewish communal life. Street minyanim, they argued, cannot fill the many functions of the shul. Prominent among those making this argument, not surprisingly, were shul rabbis and officers. The validity of this argument, however, may depend on the size and location of the community involved. In neighborhoods with a high proportion of religious-observant Jews, street minyanim do not necessarily have a negative effect of Jewish quality of the neighborhood. In fact, they may contribute to it. For example, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, some shul rabbis in the Boro Park neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, railed against the opening of small storefront minyanim, shtieblach, asserting that they would destroy the shuls and, hence, the Jewish quality of the neighborhood. A decade later, it was obvious that the Jewish quality of the neighborhood greatly intensified, largely due to the availability of a wide range of minyanim.

Likewise, a number of years ago, the then-rabbi of a shul in the German Colony, in southern Jerusalem, expressed disdain for those who pray at Shtieblach of Katamon for their lack of Jewish communal commitment, whereas there are actually several good reasons to think that those who daven at Shtieblach are no less and may be even more committed to the local Jewish community then are those who attend that shul. The facts, as indicated, are that there is a very wide range of communal services that take place at Shtieblach, even as many fluctuate between the various and often spontaneous minyanim, the membership dues are minimal, and the vast majority of those attending services there are not members.

During the spring of 2021, I initiated a survey of a number of street minyanim in southern Jerusalem and elsewhere. The provisional data indicated that about 75-80 percent said they will return to their previous shuls once they are opened; about 20-25%, among whom there was a disproportionate number of seniors who live very close to the minyanim, said they will continue to daven with the street/yard minyan they have been attending. At the time, it appeared to me that the vast majority of shuls had no great need to fear these minyanim; only a minority, perhaps 15-20% indicated that would stay with their street/yard minyan.

By mid-May, most adult Israeli Jews were vaccinated, there was serious discussion of vaccinating teenagers, and Minister of Health Yuli Edelstein announced that the coronavirus plague was over and all remaining restrictions would be removed by June 1. Many street minyanim ceased functioning, with many participants going back to shuls and some joining with still-functioning street minyanim. I know of several instances in which pressures from a shul rabbi or president forced the closure of the street minyan. For example, one rabbi required that the street minyanim return the Torah scrolls that the shul had loaned them. But in most cases, people returned to shul voluntarily. In fact, there were widespread predictions that the days of the remaining street minyanim were numbered, with most giving them several weeks at most.

Then came the “Delta strain” and the re-imposition of a variety of restrictions. Some of those who had gone back to shul now returned to their street minyanim. Some street minyanim which had folded came back to life. I was at a yard minyan in Neve Daniel on the Shabbat of June 12, when it was announced that this was the last Shabbat of the minyan. As it turned out, that minyan is still functioning. The minyan in Katamon that I regularly attend has not missed having services three times each day since before Pesach 2020, and is now larger than ever.

Will the street minyanim continue even after the COVID-19 threat has passed? As I have been telling my students, if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that we don’t know!

About the Author
Chaim I. Waxman is a sociologist of Jews and Judaism. He is chair of the Behavioral Sciences Department at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem and professor emeritus of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His most recent book is Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy (Littman Library of Jewish Studies and Liverpool University Press, 2017). He and his wife, Chaya, live in Jerusalem.
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