Tag Archives: minyan

The Siddur’s Healing Power

By Paula Jacobs (Framingham, MA)

It looks like any ordinary prayer book: blue cover, plain lettering, traditional Jewish prayers, and printed in the USA. While the prayer book has bound Jews throughout the world for centuries, I never imagined that an ordinary siddur would transform my pain to healing, while teaching me the real meaning of connection and community.

When I was reciting kaddish for my father at my synagogue’s daily minyan many years ago, the prayer book became my daily companion as a source of solace and cherished memories. During my kaddish year, the siddur linked me to generations past throughout the Jewish calendar cycle. As I prayed, memories flowed, reminding me of family holiday dinners, Chanukah parties, Purim celebrations, and more.

Through the prayer book, I gained a profound, lasting appreciation for the value of a prayer community. Granted, when I began attending minyan, I initially struggled with some of the communal customs: rapid-fire recitation aloud of certain prayers, calling out the page number before the Aleinu prayer, and light bantering during the services. Sometimes I lost patience with leaders who davened too slowly or too fast, made Hebrew mistakes, or chanted off key.

But the siddur taught me what truly counts, what community is all about, and how to appreciate the uniqueness of each individual created in the image of God. By praying in community, I learned the invaluable lesson to appreciate fully the humanity of those with whom we pray and the intrinsic value of participating in something greater than ourselves.

Once I understood that important lesson, I began to heal. I also decided to help other community members heal by creating a ceremony to mark the end of kaddish. This ceremony features the presentation of a siddur signed by minyan members, symbolizing the community’s support role during the year of aveilut or mourning.  

As I continue to conduct this ceremony 18 years later, I am grateful that the siddur keeps me connected to community. It’s something I think about whenever I present a siddur to a community member and whenever mourners share their personal stories or photographs and memorabilia with the entire minyan community after receiving their siddur.

I am also grateful that the siddur has connected me to a story greater than my own. As I reflect upon the more than 200 stories I have heard, I recall the nonagenarian who died surrounded by his loving children and grandchildren; the father who sent his young children alone from Cuba to make a new life in America; the 20-something widowed mother who became a successful business-woman; the first-generation American who became a judge; the Holocaust survivor who built a new life and family in America; the elderly father who fulfilled his lifelong dream of making aliyah; and other family members who left behind a legacy of treasured memories.

I look at the signatures of those who signed my siddur when I finished saying kaddish. I see the faces of those who stood beside me as we recited the Mourners Kaddish: the young woman mourning her mother, the elderly man reciting kaddish for his late wife, and others who have since moved away or passed on. We were once strangers but through death our lives have become intertwined. And it is the ancient Jewish prayer book that has bound us eternally together and enabled us to heal.

Paula Jacobs writes about Jewish culture, religion, and Israel. Her articles have appeared in such publications as Tablet Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, and The Forward.  If you’d like to read more about the ceremony that she created to mark the end of Kaddish, visit  https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/traveling-mourners-path

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Black Hat

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

At the close of the Rosh Hashana service the rabbi asks us to be seated.

He knows our kids are squirming and hungry but he has a plan. Smiling securely in our modern orthodox Jewish building, the rabbi deputizes each of us to reach out to our increasingly right-moving Jewish community shuls. Our mission, as the rabbi explains it, is to become friendly and join a minyan and style of davening different from our own. We are to break the barriers, say hello to black-hatted strangers, go to a yeshiva minyan, shukkle, mingle and daven. We are to begin this the very next Shabbat and help bring Jews closer.

I make my way through Brooklyn streets in the fading light of a cold Friday afternoon. Hurrying in my knitted purple yarmulke, camelhair coat, and oxblood loafers to a small synagogue, I feel like I’m a robin among penguins, a rose-vine in a field of black orchids, a square peg in a grid of round holes.

I am in a black-hat neighborhood and it feels like enemy territory, even though we are all Jews.

Despite my discomfort, I smile and wish “Good Shabbos” to passersby, but their eyes merely flick past me and dismiss me with mumbled responses.

I hang my coat on the pitted aluminum coat rack in the rear of their small shul and smile: when I leave, my coat will be easy to find in this field of black cloth and marbleized buttons. Like a rebellious peacock, I parade my colors before these plain-garbed men. It is the very choice of my clothing, I know, that fences me off into self-imposed alienation. But it is only in a shul like this where I feel the need to cover my stylish clothing, to conceal my wedding-banded finger with my right hand. I resent feeling like this.

In this overheated large room of white cloth-covered tables and metal folding chairs, these Jews stare with a brazenness unbecoming true knights of the Torah and defenders of the faithful. Though I am a stranger in their strange land, and the Torah demands that they love me, these Jews stare at me instead with pity and condescension, instead of love and concern.

I pull an Artscroll English siddur from the shelf and move toward an unoccupied table. I’m ready to pray and freeze their antisocial stares with one of my own.  So I stare back at them until they look away first, and I am as pleased with my win as a petulant child.

Most congregants pray and chant, though some talk and gesticulate, ignoring the open prayer books before them. Others weave through the mass of tables and chairs during prayers, removing scholarly tomes from crowded bookcases during prayer. Their brows furrow in concentration, poring over tiny print. They are learning Torah.

I don’t understand how they can do this during prayer, from whom they receive rabbinic approval. If I had an audience with the American president or with a king, I could not read a book openly in his face during that time. How can studying during a prayer session with the king of kings, even learning Torah, be justified? Their talking disturbs me for the same reason, but I am just a visitor so I keep my thoughts to myself.

The time for evening prayer arrives, and when the sexton asks me to lead the services, I am shocked, but I simply smile and nod slowly. Some skeptics here will now hear their first-ever modern Jew leading services. Still, I give them credit for trying me out, me, with my pale-blue shirt and striped tie and unblack shoes and colorful, little knitted yarmulke.

I know my davening surprises them because it sounds authentically East European. They can’t figure me out, and that pleases me: I like being mysterious.

When finished, I get heartfelt back-slaps and smiles from some worshipers. But others are suspicious. One asks me pointblank, “What is someone who looks like you doing in a place like this?”

I am stunned but say nothing, remembering a Torah teaching about not judging a wine by its bottle.  In this shul, my Jewish worth is measured by my clothing and the style and length of my hair. But for me,  Jewishness is in the soul, in memories of childhood, rituals and laws forsaken or embraced.

A young man blocks the return to my seat. Arms across his chest, he blurts his demand: “Why didn’t you wear a black hat when you led the services? Why that tiny Pepsi-Cola cap on the back of your head?” I feel like slapping his arrogance, his holier-than-thou aura. Thoughts furiously bounce around in my head. I want to scream: “If you are all so scrupulous about keeping commandments, how could you ask another Jew such a question? Why do you ignore the dictum ‘love your neighbor as yourself’? And where are your manners and observance of commandments between man and man?”

I feel sad that I must submit to my rabbi that his class experiment was a failure, that some fellow Jews  shunned and mistrusted each other. I can forgive their social  backwardness but not their hypocrisy. I am stone-silent as I think of a song: “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile,” so I do, and still smiling, I wish him good shabbos.

Then I replace my siddur, retrieve my easy-to-find camelhair coat, and walk out uneasily, disconnected, into the cold night.

For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. His poems and stories have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and his short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne.

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Tuesdays, With Minyan

by Mali Schantz-Feld (Seminole, FL)

Minyans were for the men of my family during my childhood in Brooklyn, NY more years ago than I would like to confess. Decades later, at an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in St. Petersburg, Florida, my daughter was invited to read from the Torah at Thursday morning minyan before her Bat Mitzvah. A few years later, for my son’s Bar Mitzvah, the scenario was a bit different. I kvelled over his beautiful voice chanting his Torah portion, but, later in the service, I chanted Kaddish for my mother, who had suddenly passed away. A celebration of life, a comfort in death, I felt her presence, along with a connection to the others in the small group and to my heritage.

Fast forward three years: Rosh Hashanah, a time for resolutions. A plea from the bima floated from the speaker’s mouth and rested on my shoulders. Although only ten people were needed to  recite Kaddish, read Torah and other prayers, often, attendance was less than ten. So, adding to my Jewish New Year’s resolution to exercise more, I resolved to get my soul in shape along with my body by attending Tuesday morning minyan.

I was nervous. The “regulars” could daven in Hebrew faster than I could keep up in English. Grabbing on to a word here and there, and depending on the kindness of strangers to point out the place, I looked around at the small band of “minyanaires.” A 90-year-old, with a European accent and white hair reminiscent of my grandfather’s, read from the siddur words that obviously had been etched in his mind years ago. A variety of people stopped by before starting their day’s business—lawyers and doctors removed their suit jackets to put on their tefillin, chatting about the latest stock market news one minute, engrossed in prayer the next; men in jeans;  women, some in running suits and others dressed for success; out-of-towners and members of other congregations. Anyone with a few spare minutes was encouraged to stay for coffee and a bagel afterward.

After a while the Hebrew words and familiar faces became my friends—seniors with their mischievous smiles and ready jokes; the accountant and handyman who kept everyone on the right page; the woman who lost her husband to cancer at a time in life when they should have been enjoying empty-nest syndrome together. Someone volunteered to recite Kaddish for a previous “Minyan-keeper,” a poet, with a gray beard and leprechaun-like stature who unlocked the chapel doors and announced pages for so many years. The regulars dedicated the chapel’s eternal light in his name so his inspiration would preside over the minyans indefinitely.

At the minyan, not all come to say Kaddish. But all come to start the day with thankfulness, integrity, faith and love of Torah. It’s tough to drag myself out from under cozy blankets to arrive at the synagogue at 7:45 a.m. But when I see the smiles on the other nine faces, knowing that  I’m the one who makes the minyan complete, I really feel like a “perfect 10.”

Mali Schantz-Feld, a professional writer for twenty years, has written on topics ranging from medical breakthroughs to the national economy. She has won writing awards from the Florida Magazine Association, the Florida Freelance Writers Association, and the national Jesse H. Neal Award for Editorial Excellence. She loves sharing the warmth and significance of Jewish traditions and heritage with family and friends.

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A Miracle In Rhodes

by Helene Kroll Gupp (Sarasota, FL)

It was September, after Rosh Hashanah, and we were on the island of Rhodes searching for a synagogue to spend the most sacred of all our holidays–Yom Kippur.

Along with another couple, we had flown to Athens, then to Mykonos, and now we were in hot and blindingly sunny Rhodes.  Somehow, we had located an old synagogue, down a dusty street, practically hidden from view.  Through a series of disjointed verbal expressions and elaborate hand illustrations, we got our message across to some local townspeople that we wanted to pray at the synagogue.

We were directed to the synagogue’s caretaker, an elderly woman with numbers on her arm.  She instructed us to come back the next day for services at 9 a.m.  Obediently, we did just that.  But 9 a.m. Greek time means “whenever!”

The synagogue had a strong Moorish feel to its architecture and an even stronger odor of dust and mold.  When my husband and our friend, Arnie, each put on a tallis belonging to the synagogue, they kept sniffing until they realized that the scent encompassing them was one of layers and layers of dust.  Obviously, a tallis was used but once a year!

Slowly, a few people started drifting into the synagogue.

A young woman, employed by a cruise ship docked at the port, told me she was Jewish on her father’s side but that in her heart she felt Jewish and wanted to be part of this holiday.

A few tourists rudely rushed in, snapped some pictures of the bimah, and ran out as quickly as they came.

Then three Israeli soldiers on holiday strode in.  Young and vibrant, they filled the synagogue with their exuberance.

Since it was an Orthodox service, the women sat on one side.  And because the young men were also Orthodox, they would not consider including women in the minyan that was required to hold a proper service.

One of the soldiers offered to act as rabbi and hazzan, and patiently waited with us for a quorum of ten.

All in all, there were nine men present; not enough for a minyan.  We all sat around in that stuffy synagogue, waiting to start the service.

Suddenly, a tourist, dressed uncomfortably in a suit and tie, rushed into the ancient building and breathlessly asked, “What time does the service start?”

“Now,” we all exclaimed.

He was our tenth man!

In that moment, thousands of miles away from our home and our temple of three thousand people, ten men and four women celebrated Yom Kippur.  We had our minyan. And for another year the Day of Atonement was observed anew in Rhodes.

I will never forget that holiday in Greece.  It taught me how important every Jew is.

Of all the High Holidays I have spent in my hometown synagogue, none will equal that experience of being part of the continuation of an ancient tradition.

And I will always remember that little synagogue and the miracle I witnessed there: the miracle of one minyan that preserved Yom Kippur for another year on the island of Rhodes.

Helene Kroll Gupp came to Sarasota in 1994 from her hometown of Rochester, New York where she enjoyed a thirty-two year career in public relations and development, including stints with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, State of Israel Bonds, Jewish Home and Infirmary, and lastly, Jewish Family Service. A life member of Hadassah, she is active in Women’s American ORT, Gulfside Chapter.

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