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Get Away to Get Together

I feel it’s time we graduated from bochurim trips to their grown-up version: shul expeditions


Bochurim and road-trips have been grist for the mill of this column over the years.

(Yes, I am smiling at having used this expression. I don’t really know what grist is, but the expression is satisfying and feels right and I will continue to use it until some letter-writer informs us that actually, it has its source in avodah zarah, secular culture, some hateful anti-Semitic practice, or whatever.)

I feel it’s time we graduated from bochurim trips to their grown-up version: shul expeditions, in which shul members join their rav for a few days in Eastern Europe or the Holy Land for chizuk/tefillah/shared learning.

These shul trips have little in common with the teenage getaways, and in some ways, they are the opposite.

Where bochurim davka want to wing it, and a vague awareness that there is a Chabad in the state they are visiting is enough to reassure them that they will be able to eat, daven, and live, balabatim prefer to know if there will be refreshments on the bus between Krakow and Lizhensk and will there be real milk for coffee.

Bochurim are thrilled if one of the guys has a battered guitar to add to the vibe, while balabatim trips usually have professional accompaniment, a vest-wearing kumzitzer there to play “Shaarei Shamayim P’sach” while they sway back and forth.

Bochurim don’t carefully plan rooms, but for balabatim trips, roommate arrangements require way more sensitivity and diplomacy than Yamim Noraim shul seating.

Bochurim need a car in an original, eye-catching color, an upgrade because someone worked hard when they were 15 to get platinum elite status for this very purpose, and one dramatic blowout or over-heated engine along the way so that they will have a story to file away for when they start shidduchim.

Balabatim need a comfortable bus with Wi-Fi.

This leads us to a question: Bochurim work hard — very hard — all zeman, and it’s important for them to not just get away, but to feel like they got away. But why do balabatim have to go away together?

Mimah nafshach, if they have the vacation days and funds, shouldn’t they be going with their spouses? And if they already did that, then why is another getaway necessary?

To understand it, we might have to reexamine our perception of the shul and the role it plays.

IN our confusing world, the shul has become the last frontier, the best answer to questions. And there are so many questions.

Rabbanim of 2023 are on call in ways that their predecessors never were, paskening not just about spoons and pots, but also about disorders and therapies. Once, it was about making questionable keilim usable — now, it is about making shattered keilim whole.

A strong shul is necessary for survival. We live in a world without much appreciation for nuance, so when it comes to stuff not covered in the Shulchan Aruch, it gets murky.

Take a current example, like musical Selichos, which to some is an outrageous breach of mesorah, and to others, the perfect refreshment for the holy thirst of this generation. Some are okay with a kumzitz pre-Selichos, and others think it’s silly to get excited about the topic at all when there are bigger issues facing Klal Yisrael.

But if you have a shul — a strong shul, with a strong rav — you are blessedly free of the back and forth. If the rav is strong, it’s because he knows not just halachah, but also his people, and both types of knowledge inform his decisions.

Selichos is the example, but the issues are everywhere — technology, politics, science — each presenting real hashkafah questions. If you belong nowhere, and you make decisions based on social pressure — or worse, the opinion of a commenter with a bogus name on a frum website — you might be getting it wrong. But if you belong to a tzibbur led by a responsible talmid chacham, the answer will be right for you.

(Now, no human being is perfect, and there will always be other rabbanim gifted in ways your rav is not — better speaker, bigger posek, more insightful in chinuch or shalom bayis, more capable organizer — but each talmid chacham has his strengths, and by focusing on those abilities, you have made your rav stronger. By standing firm and conveying pride in their word and opinion, you have also made your family richer and more confident.)

But the rav is only half the story. The other crucial component of the shul is the people. To have the confidence that comes with being part of a shul, the members have to feel a connection to each other. Only then can they access the safety and comfort that comes with that marvelous entity called a tzibbur.

It’s very hard, in 2023, to build and nurture that connection. Back when we were kids, we saw a generation that lingered in shul after davening, compressing sponge cake into schnapps cups of Southern Comfort, Canadian Club, or Johnnie Walker (no one even knew that they made whisky in Scotland), while these days, the tallis is folded and the phone powered back on in one motion.

Then they learned together, one group in one shiur, while today our yeshivah-educated generation learns with individual schedules and goals, so the shul shiur has been replaced by Daf/Oraysa/Dirshu, printed tests and schedules and apps that are holding your spot so you can finish yesterday’s shiur. (A good thing!)

Everyone is busy, busy, busy. Moments in shul are used prudently, maybe a quick good morning on the way out. And it’s all for good reasons.

But a tzibbur also needs time and space to become!

Families need shared vacations to bond, and corporate partners engage in team-building exercises; if you believe in a shul, you know that it is no different.

Yes, there are plenty of kivrei tzaddikim in Queens and New Jersey, but those sites don’t involve travel. People need to get away together, step off the merry-go-round of work-learn-family-simchahs-shadchanim, and share experiences with other people.

And whether davening in Kerestir, crying in Auschwitz, or getting brachos in Bnei Brak, the destination on the brochure is not the goal. Davening together in a desolate beis hakevaros in Eastern Europe creates a connection, but it’s also sitting together at an airport gate, finding ways to keep spirits high when there’s a delay, sharing the hilarity of that moment with the Polish taxi driver or the Hungarian bellhop, the memories of that bleary-eyed 4 a.m. kumzitz when you finally arrived at the hotel, or the conversation that went down on the fifth consecutive day in the back of a coach bus.

It isn’t easy for a wife who is trying to keep it together while her husband is away — must she also be forced to see a clip of the men dancing between the vats of a Golan winery?

Look, it’s better that she doesn’t see it, but if she does, perhaps this perspective can help: The men are not away to have fun, even if they are actually having fun, and the wife, back home, is the big winner, because her husband is the one who will come home bearing (a useless, over-priced gift from the airport gift shop and) the confidence that comes with belonging.

It’s been a long galus, but this nation finds ways to endure.

The shul is one of those ways, one more cord keeping the Succah’leh fastened to the railing.

The winds blow fiercer than ever, but the Succah’leh, she still stands strong.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 980)

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