| Voice in the Crowd |

Consider Yourself Cornered

This time, the eitzah is my own. I’m the activist here, and you get to listen


Writing an opinion column for a popular magazine has several perks.

Here is something that is not one of them. I sometimes feel like a sheimos box for people’s ideas, the community-saving solutions developed over kiddush or a Shabbos meal.

The idea-developers carry these grand ideas around, and then, when they find somewhere safe to deposit them, they do so, feeling like they discharged their duty to society.

I already know the look, the glee in the eyes of the guy about to finally take the weight of the idea off his shoulders and shift responsibility to someone else — now, he can go back to reassure his shvogger/kiddush buddies/fellow think tank members that it’s being worked on.

I try not to get cornered, but it’s hard to move faster than walking inspiration.

I have already been accosted and informed that the delay between the chuppah and the first dance is destroying the schedules of Klal Yisrael and we’re giving too much power to the photographers (not a crazy thought, but no one is changing the wedding schedule because of a magazine column).

In a few weeks it will be, “Why can’t the schools and camps align their schedules?” (Also a fair observation, but also, assuredly, one that none of the administrators or camp directors need me to point out to them.)

This time, the eitzah is my own. I’m the activist here, and you get to listen.

Earlier this year, at the Agudah convention, I had the opportunity to discuss a favorite topic: shuls, rabbanim, balabatim, and the relationship between them.

Over the past half year, I have become more educated, hearing feedback from both sides along with some real catch-22 questions that need to be addressed.

For example: Balabatim would ideally like rabbanim who don’t just know their names and faces, but know them, their realities and situations. Several balabatim expressed the same desire — that the rav visit their home, if only once or twice a year, and sit with their wives and children as well. Nice, said a rav, but if the rav is paid like a part-time secretary, forced to work one or two other jobs to make ends meet, how is he supposed to find time to visit 40 or 50 homes a year and chat?

In many cases he works as a rebbi, dayan, mechaber seforim, paid chavrusa, etc. by day, and at night, he’d better show up at simchahs and stay till after the first dance (hijacked by the photographer, I know), and he’d better hope that no other shul member is making a siyum or a shloshim seudah, or being honored at a dinner at that same time. Balabatim are very sensitive.

The rav is expected to “be there” at times of challenge, and listen, empathize, advise, and guide. To help navigate shidduchim for your children and take phone calls from those asking about those children.

Balabatim would want their rabbanim to know them better — to be able stop a shul member passing by on Friday night to say Gut Shabbos and tell him he looks a bit stressed and is everything okay? (As an aside, for that to happen, people have to make it a point to walk by and say Gut Shabbos after davening.)

The topic is always relevant, but especially now, when life is especially complicated, a good rav is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Decades ago, Rav Shlomo Freifeld would caution American couples planning to move to Eretz Yisrael that they faced a real risk of “getting lost.” A family has to belong somewhere, he would say, and in America, the shul provides that spiritual, ideological, and social home, but at the time, there were not yet such shuls in Yerushalayim.

Eventually, American families living in Eretz Yisrael formed their own kehillos, and this winter, I discovered something even more heartening. I spent Shabbos in Ramat Eshkol, and went to daven with my son-in-law — at a minyan formed by young American couples who are not making aliyah, and might only be there for a year or two; it makes no difference.

They have a minyan of their own, in a rented apartment, with a real rav to whom they pay a salary — a rav who meets each couple separately so they have a voice of stability when they are far from home.

Fittingly, the minyan is named for Shlomie Gross — who (as recounted in Rabbi Shimon Finkelman’s fantastic ArtScroll biography) was the sort of balabos who made his shul a success and was a soldier to his rav.

Anyhow, in that same conversation, Rabbi Freifeld spoke of families in America who daven in three different shuls over a Shabbos, based on weather, schedule, kiddush menu, and mood, saying, “That’s not a shul — that’s a shopping spree.”

To have a shul means, ideally, to have a kevius, a set place.

I used to look warily at the “makom kavua” people, thinking that anyone who says, “Excuse me, you’re in my place,” has unresolved issues — Big deal, take a siddur and sit somewhere else, do you need your seat to feel like you belong somewhere? — but now I see it differently. (Or maybe I also have… whatever. Forget it.)

Now, I see it differently — beyond the halachic implications of a makom kavua and what being a real member of a shul does for the rav-member relationship.

And this is my personal save-the-Jews epiphany, so consider yourself cornered (just, for accuracy’s sake, try to imagine it happening at the kabbalas panim of a wedding, when you just filled up a plate with sesame chicken and rice, let’s say, and you’re hungry after driving a few hours, and you know that soon they will clear away the food, and then you’re not eating anything nogeia until the main course, if you’re still there bichlal — talk about Klal Yisrael issues! — and the solution-sharer detains you before you managed to get a fork, and now you’re stuck with a heaping plate and no way to eat it).

Having your seat in shul provides something else: sheer comfort.

It’s been a long, difficult winter. As a great man remarked: The war in Eretz Yisrael is not the expression of Middas Hadin, but a symptom of it. The war is the most tangible and obvious effect of a period of hester panim, and it is felt in different ways throughout the Jewish world.

The only out that we know of is through tefillah — Yisrael, they have no strength other than with their mouths!

Having your seat — your shtender, your siddur, your stuff — gives a sense that this tiny spot belongs to you and you can freely share what’s on your heart.

The world has become scary, and it’s nice to have somewhere to run. Somewhere to speak, or to cry, or to feel.

And hopefully, somewhere to give thanks.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1008)

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