When Things Go Back to Normal

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Sara Wolkenfeld


When will things go back to normal? 

Particularly as the high holidays approach, rabbis and lay leaders across the country are entwined in a series of negotiations about the how and when of a return to pre-pandemic synagogue: Which services? For how many people? What about children’s programming? Constructing these opportunities feels like a game of Jenga, with extra blocks―we pile on the additional constraints (masks, size limits, etc.) and then ask which pieces we can remove from the puzzle before the whole thing comes crashing down.

But “normal” is a very uninspiring religious goal. Instead, we might ask: Given the need to reimagine our shul experience, how might we reach new heights of religious engagement? How might we help people reclaim important components of their spiritual lives while simultaneously encouraging people to try to find new avenues of connection? 

In “normal” times, the average Modern Orthodox synagogue experience consists of at least three elements; analyzing these components can open our eyes to the potential to reopen and reconstruct the individual’s experience in congregational life. Using traditional language, let’s call these elements “tefillah,” “minyan,” and “shul.” Outlining these paradigms allows us to focus on the ways in which we might craft new opportunities by weighing the components that have always been a part of our religious lives.

Let’s start with tefillah, or prayer. Personally, I have always preferred to pray in the synagogue. My own tefillot are enhanced by hearing familiar tunes and the voices of those who sing more beautifully than I do. The rhythms of the service provide structure for my own prayers. I rarely find as much kavanah (directed intention) when davening alone, even in the most beautiful and inspirational spaces. Yet the mitzvah of tefillah, in its most basic definition, is independent of the presence of others. 

Rambam defines the biblical mitzvah to pray as an expression of the obligation to “serve God” (Sefer Hamitzvot, Positive Mitzvah #5). While the Torah’s language is sweeping, the implication―according to Rambam―is that one way in which we are to serve God is through our prayers. Ramban, commenting on this formulation, proposes that prayer is a biblical mitzvah only in times of distress (Hasagot ha-Ramban on Sefer ha-Mitzvot, 5:1). In either case, at least according to R. Soloveitchik’s analysis, the implication is likely that prayer responds to an existential need for the human being to be in conversation with God, whether or not there is an external source of distress. 

The global pandemic has touched everyone in the Jewish community in some way, and in this time of pain and need, there are many who feel a need to pray in ways they did not before. Indeed, it may be that large numbers of people now feel called to fulfill Ramban’s biblical obligation of tefillah as we respond to an et tzarah, a time of communal and personal distress. What will our communities do to welcome people who feel a need to pray as never before? Practically speaking, some communities may choose to open the sanctuary for people to come, one or two at a time, and many have a sacred space in which to pray even before they are ready to return to public prayer. There may also be room for new tefillot, or an opportunity to revive prayers written in response to pandemics past that have been forgotten. Prayer communities need to give people space to express new kinds of pain, or perhaps a newly discovered sense of gratitude for all that we previously took for granted.

The second element is minyan. While sometimes used colloquially as a synonym for communal tefillah, minyan is a particular type of gathering. In discussing groups of people coming together for tefillah, the Talmud never uses the word minyan. Statements about the importance of praying with a group generally refer instead to the tefillot of the community (tzibbur). Perhaps the closest the Talmud comes to talking about what we call “minyan” is the discussions of which tefillot are enabled by the presence of ten men. 

One salient example is the recitation of kaddish. If you have never needed to recite kaddish, the obsessive counting of ten may be hard to understand; but if you ever have, you likely feel it too. During the years that I recited kaddish for my parents, I was thus a minyan-goer. I showed up on time, or as close to on time as was possible with an infant daughter. I leaned over to the men’s side of the mehitzah and counted eagerly, waiting for that all-important tenth man so that I could recite kaddish along with the other mourners. I sought out minyanim in unconventional spaces and said kaddish quietly when I found a pop-up gathering that was not accustomed to hearing a woman’s voice during prayer. What I needed was not a physical shul, and what I found was often not a communal embrace or a source of inspiration; my purpose was simply to find ten men with whom to pray.

In our present situation, countless people in our community have missed the opportunity to mark yahrzeits, convene for shivah, and observe aveilut as they would have wished. What might a reopening provide for those who feel the opportunity has passed them by? Synagogues might convene special gatherings, minyanim or not, to honor or mark past occasions. A group bar/bat mitzvah celebration, a special yizkor service, or welcoming-spaces to mark the births since the lockdown began―all of these and more might be part of a re-entry process to communal tefillah.

Kaddish can be a powerful motivator for tefillah be-tzibbur. Yet the months-long absence of all communal prayer can also illuminate something for those of us not in mourning and those of us who are never able to help “make a minyan.” When we pray with a tzibbur, we experience all those parts of the service that cannot be replicated at home: the melodious congregational singing of kedushah, the dramatic opening of the Aron Kodesh, the communal mi sheberakh blessings, and so many other things. Our reopenings can be marked by renewed attention to the moments of tefillah be-tzibbur that inspire us and the special power of those prayers only recited when we gather as a minyan. Instead of a focus on counting up to ten men, we might think about the resonance of the Talmud’s idea that God hears the prayer of a tzibbur (Berakhot 8a). The implication is that even the words that we say on our own have a special resonance when we say them together. Right now, even praying with nine other people feels like a revelation. I want to continue feeling that sense of wonder when my voice joins with that of the kelal (community), and I hope that synagogues will focus anew on celebrating each and every participant who arrives, whose presence encourages the special divine attention granted to a tzibbur.

The third element is shul, which can be neatly summed up by a personal memory. When my spouse and I lived in Israel with a toddler, we often split up our Shabbat morning tefillot. One parent would attend an early morning service, and the other went to a later one, so we each had a chance to pray free of childcare duties. When it was my turn to attend the later service, I sat in the courtyard with my little one, chatting with friends and other parents, waiting eagerly to greet more people when the first service ended. This was an experience of shul in its exclusively social sense. The communal gathering framed our Shabbat and provided a spiritual home for my little one and myself, even though we had not yet engaged in any tefillah whatsoever.

In my community, and maybe in yours, many of the people bemoaning the lack of “normal shul” have just this model in mind. I will borrow the language of the Gemara (Berakhot 30a)and call this the “hever ir” aspect of shul. This coming together as a community is epitomized by Tot Shabbat, children’s groups, kiddush, and all the hallway kibitzing (socializing). This is what builds the social fabric of the shul. This is what enables us to perform acts of hesed for each other because we know that this one had surgery, this one’s child is struggling in school, this one just started dating someone. When I read the famous dictum of Hillel, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” this is the image that comes to mind (Pirkei Avot 2:4). One could, in theory, attend minyan on a regular basis, pray with great intensity during all tefillot, and still not engage with a community in this thick and important way. 

Communities have tried to keep this part in place throughout the pandemic, with expanded focus on hesed projects, Zoom kiddush, and other creative initiatives. But one aspect of this model that is hard to recreate online is the serendipitous encounters: the person you happen to be next to in line during kiddush, the parent you meet because your children end up playing together. In fact, these online meetings can exacerbate the worst of these opportunities: talking to just the people you already know. When we meet again, will we be sure to break those patterns? Synagogue leadership will have work to do in order to encourage us all to break out of our silos and get to interact with one another. When COVID-19 broke out, there was widespread concern for the vulnerable among us: the elderly, those living alone, people in compromised health. These may be the people who take the longest to feel comfortable joining in communal settings, but whether present or not, a robust shul social life must include those we must go out of our way to include.

But perhaps the greatest opportunity for what we can create when we reconvene comes from the convergence of all three of these paradigms. I have attended many synagogues in my life―as a congregant, mourner, parent, communal leader, and rabbinic spouse. I cannot personally recall any shul in which the leadership reached out to check on what I was doing at home when I was not present. Ours was a shul-based Judaism; classes, resources, social connection, minyan, and tefillot were all based in and around the synagogue. 

Yet the new perspective we have gained during this crisis shows us both what shuls can be when they are able to safely reopen as well as what they can provide to those who are not present. This includes books or PDFs when someone needs to daven at home, outreach even when it isn’t our friend who doesn’t show up that week, Zoom classes for the home-bound, kiddush-to-go for the folks who couldn’t make it, and a commitment to adding to the richness of Jewish home life. Tefillah, minyan, and shul are all important elements, and not all of them always have to take place in the shul itself. The pieces we add may not only be home-based elements, but also components that were previously crowded out by our fealty to an established structure and liturgy, such as varied prayer gatherings, the addition of tefillot, and a renewed commitment to creating meaningful prayer opportunities for individuals and groups to daven. This is a different game than Jenga, more like the MineCraft games that play in the background now whenever I am able to get any actual work accomplished. We are challenged to build something new, reassess communal needs, and reexamine religious priorities. 

Elul encourages this kind of introspection and growth. In one of Rav Hutner’s essays on the process of repentance (Rosh Hashanah, Ma’amar 6), he describes the process of teshuvah as a type of “middah k’neged middah,” measure for measure. The starting point for this assertion is a midrashic comment on the verse “And these matters that I command you today shall be upon your hearts” (Deuteronomy 6:6). The word “today,” asserts the midrash, means that we should approach Torah as though it is new and exciting each and every day (Sifrei Devarim 33). Past mistakes have no hold on us, as we reorient ourselves to what it means to observe mitzvot. When this is our stance toward the Divine, Rav Hutner writes, God responds in kind and treats us as new beings. Each one of us wants to hold on to that which is familiar and comforting, and, as a collective, we want to be careful not to lose those aspects that made our shuls special and meaningful in the past. The special challenge of Elul and the high holidays, this year and every year, is to open ourselves up to what we can do differently, refusing to content ourselves with simply “returning to normal.” 

Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld is the Director of Education at Sefaria, a new online database and interface for Jewish texts, and a David Hartman Center fellow at The Hartman Institute of North America. She is passionate about Talmud education and expanding Jewish textual knowledge for all. Her previous experience includes serving as Director of Education at the Center for Jewish Life - Hillel at Princeton University as part of the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, as well as serving as faculty at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago and at the Drisha Institute in New York. She studied Talmud and Jewish Law at various institutions of Jewish learning in Israel and America including Midreshet Lindenbaum, Drisha, Nishmat, and Beit Morasha and speaks on various Jewish topics at synagogues, schools, and university communities. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their five children.