The novel coronavirus upended institutionalized religion – synagogues were closed, weddings postponed, funerals limited to the fewest number of mourners and the daily ritual of communal prayer came to a grinding halt – for many people, but not for me. Here is the story of that minyan, commentary to follow.
I am fortunate to live in a Jerusalem apartment block with a courtyard and balconies; our building was also blessed with an excellent ba’al kore, a shofar blower, a neighbor on good terms with a local shul to be able to borrow a sefer torah, and a wise and patient rabbinic authority. The building is also blessed with like minded residents with a tolerance for religion. We were double blessed by many musicians among the residents, including a soprano saxophonist, two guitarists, a flutist, a pianist, a ukulelist and two recorder players (one retired), as well as several residents who can hold a tune.
The perfect combination for a novel corona minyan.
And so, with lockdown imposed on the country — and with the help of the requisite WhatsApp group – the residents decided to resume regular daily prayers from the balconies. Morning, afternoon, evening, shabbat and festivals.
To the sounds of the March birdsong, surrounded by luscious greenery and in the topsy-turvy March weather – best described by Dickens as “…when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade” – regular prayers resumed. Some residents prayed from their balconies, and a few congregated in the courtyard (two meters apart with masks and gloves), much like the passage in Chapter 2 of Song of Songs, “…looking from the windows, peering from the lattices,” and what a minyan it was.
Leisurely, deliberate prayer with no rush; a musical kabbalat shabbat; children singing from the balconies; the shofar being blown from the 3rd floor on Yom Ha’atzmaut, a musical Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut streamed via Zoom to all four corners of the globe; the police arriving just in time for the end of services to ensure we were adhering to Ministry of Health’s guidelines. We read the weekly portion dealing with leprosy wearing gloves, a mask, misted up glasses from a Sefer Torah covered with plastic. Our novel corona minyan will be remembered for a spontaneous display of fireworks; a concerned neighbor admonishing residents for not strictly observing the two meter rule; fairy lights; a neighbor peering through the bushes, someone on a nearby rooftop – like a fiddler on the roof – and another in the next door building all wanting to join in prayer; the teenage son getting up from the couch and his PlayStation to help make a minyan; the neighborhood dog carefully on watch, families praying together and a lot of good will, and the tolerance and coincidence of people who simply wanted to pray.
I have never been a big fan of institutionalized religion. The community I left in South Africa had many, many empty buildings, and very few congregants. I am currently in a year of mourning with an obligation to say kaddish. Prior to COVID-19 outbreak, I found myself uncomfortable with the confines and rules of the religious institutions that I am affiliated with, like a line from Dire Straits’ Telegraph Road, “Then came the churches, then came the schools. Then came the lawyers, and then came the rules.” The va’ad, the incessant announcements about announcements, and the seemingly mindless rules and regulations imposed upon congregants.
We live in an age of growing mistrust in institutions, in Israel and abroad. There is a strong sense that our institutions no longer address the needs of the people they are meant to serve, becoming unwieldy, bureaucratic, self-serving and deaf to the will of their constituents. Organizations must be and I believe will be assessed on their response during times of crisis, many of the solutions during this period were based on grassroots initiatives with organizations lagging far behind. Much can be learned from the past two months, but if our corona minyan has any lessons for communal leaders it would be to err on the side of goodwill, tolerance and inclusion, to be more responsive to the needs of their congregants and less prescriptive, applying the rules judiciously and wisely, exercising compassion rather than coercion.
On the matter of institutional malaise, two tracks later on the same album, Mark Knopfler noted that “…the watchdog’s got rabies the foreman’s got fleas”, but that is the topic of a different post.