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The Minyan Juggler

Moishe Metzger, the indefatigable gabbai of the revolving-minyan Shomrei Shabbos shul in Boro Park, proves that a person can be in many places at once. He’s at every one of the simultaneous minyanim — making sure each starts on time, seeing to it that an aveil gets the amud, manning the pushkes, replenishing the coffee, and whizzing around to accommodate the 3,000 people who come through those doors every day

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t’s not often that the way a writer scores an interview is an integral part of the story, but then again, it’s not often one meets someone like Moishe Metzger.

I had assumed that getting an interview with Moishe — gabbai extraordinaire of Boro Park’s famed Shomrei Shabbos shul — would be much like getting an interview for most other profiles. Silly me. It’s not that he plays hard to get; for one thing, he’s not playing, he’s truly one of the busiest, most single-mindedly devoted people you’ll ever meet. And besides, he’s not hard to get, he’s downright impossible…

Since I work in Boro Park and often daven Minchah at Shomrei Shabbos, the iconic makom tefillah at the corner of 13th Avenue and 53rd Street, it stood to reason there’d be ample opportunity to approach him about an interview — or so I thought. Knowing with whom I was dealing, I had honed my pitch down to a one-minute sound bite. But after numerous failures to get even a word in edgewise with Moishe, I realized that with an endless stream of three simultaneous minyanim to tend to, he simply doesn’t have that one minute to spare.

So I did the only thing left to do. I sat down and typed out a two-paragraph interview request and handed it to him in shul as he whizzed by one afternoon, pushkes in hand. A few minutes later, having read my little note, he graciously acceded to sit down and talk, and we agreed to set it up for the following week.

So far, so good. I knew mornings and afternoons at the shul were out, but I assumed we’d meet one evening at his home. No such luck. Getting this man to free up even a half hour of his day for me turned out to be even harder than getting the interview. Then it hit me: how about meeting during the half-hour between chatzos and Minchah Gedolah, a seeming twilight zone when the last Shacharis minyan has just begun, and the first Minchah minyan has yet to commence?

Moishe’s curt reply? “That’s when I take a half-hour nap in my little office upstairs across four chairs. The second I lie down, I’m out cold.”

Pressed to explain, he says this is something he learned from the shul’s longtime rav, Rav Yehudah Tirnauer ztz”l, who passed away last year and was succeeded by his son.

“I was very close with Rav Tirnauer, who became the first rav in the history of the shul in 1974. Back in those days, I was his regular driver, and one day he taught me something that he said he’d been doing his whole life and that would be worthwhile for me to do my whole life, too. He said to me, ‘Moishe, do you want to be able to have 25 hours in your day? Then sleep two hours less at night and get one hour of sleep during the day, and you’ll see your body will be satisfied.”

Moishe adds that he’s been following that sage advice ever since, and “it really works, but the only drawback is that if you don’t get that one hour during the day, you’re finished, you’ll be worse than a shikkur.”

With the early afternoon knocked out of contention as a potential timeslot, I began to sense this interview would never come to pass. But “hope springs eternal,” as the poet said, and I found another time that was, to borrow the Gemara’s phrase, “neither day nor night”: 11 p.m. on Motzaei Shabbos, the first night of Selichos. By then, even the latest Maariv has long been davened, and Selichos is still some hours away. When a call to Moishe confirmed he was in the shul and ready to schmooze, I jumped into my car and 45 minutes later entered the basement of the nearly empty four-story shul — a rare sight, indeed, for this beehive of mitzvah activity — to find Moishe seated, counting out several high stacks of tzedakah dollars.

Actually, any Motzaei Shabbos at this time might have been a good time to speak, except that, as Moishe confides, that’s one of the two evenings each week he dines out with his eishes chayil, just one of the ways he expresses his appreciation for her steadfast support of his devotion to the klal.

“Flowers every Erev Shabbos helps a little bit too,” Moishe adds with an impish grin.

Moishe is as vibrant now at 60 as he was when he began his full-time gabba’us at age 30, and based on appearances alone, he could easily pass for someone half his age. It’s not only the fact that he’s in constant motion, the very definition of a “multitasker”; he also cuts an impressive figure with his sartorial choices. Many a newcomer to Shomrei Shabbos has done a bit of a double-take upon realizing that the clean-shaven, well-dressed fellow wending his way through a gaggle of mispallelim isn’t a local businessman catching a Minyan on his lunch break — he’s the gabbai.

From amid a sea of black and white, Moishe emerges like a cloudburst of color, in a finely tailored suit whose color is not limited to the grays, blues, and blacks that are the standard frum hues of choice, complemented always by an equally stylish ensemble of cravat, belt, and pocket square (and peeking out from under his pants cuffs is a pair of genuine leather boots).

I probe for some information on Moishe’s background, seeking clues for the influences that helped mold such a surpassing dedication to serving others. To be sure, shul askanus is in the Metzger genes. Moishe’s father, Reb Reuvain z”l, was the president of Shomrei Shabbos for quite a few years. Boro Park born and bred, Moishe attended Torah Vodaath for high school and, having graduated two years ahead of schedule at 16, he headed off to Cleveland’s Telshe Yeshiva for two years that were, he says, “two of the best years of my life, just Torah, no distractions,” learning under “the two best rebbeim I ever had,” Rav Pesach Stein and Rav Gavriel Ginsburg, zichronom l’vrachah.

At age 18, he returned to New York, learning in Torah Vodaath and completing an accounting degree at Brooklyn College’s night school. I recalled hearing years ago that the Shomrei Shabbos gabbai was also a business professional. What I didn’t know until now was that he retired from his accounting career all the way back in 1980 to devote all of his considerable energies to building Shomrei Shabbos into what it is today, a central address for tefillah and chesed in America’s largest frum neighborhood, a shtiebel on steroids, if you will.

This much is certain: he didn’t trade in the business world for the shul in order to take it easy. Considering the ground Moishe covers in an average day at the shul, having an accounting practice would be a relaxing vacation by comparison. He’s at his post between 5:30 and 6 each morning, having risen an hour earlier. Before davening, he goes to the mikveh, a hanhagah that, he’s proud to say, he hasn’t missed since two years before he got married.

From the time he arrives at shul in the early morning until well into the night — he stays until at least 8:30 or 9 each night, shortly after his nocturnal counterpart, Hillel Moses, takes the reins — Moishe is on his feet, orchestrating a literally nonstop assembly line of spirituality. At the same time, Moishe is overseeing and replenishing a constant supply of ruchniyus disguised as gashmiyus: a dedicated room in the shul’s basement dispenses some 700 cups of coffee daily and an endless supply of cake, sandwiches, and donated hot food for the enjoyment of both the indigent and anyone just needing a coffee and a bite to eat to get through the day.

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oishe first introduced food and drink in the shul in 1996, and doing so came at a steep price in terms of his own ruchniyus.

“Before that time, I had been learning the daf a total of four times a day; once in Rav Yankel Horowitz’s morning shiur, a second time with Rav Steinwurzel at 8 p.m., a third with Rav Moshe Meir Weiss at 10 p.m., and a fourth time listening to Rav Mechel Zilber on tape. But when we started with the food, things got too crazy and I had to give up the daf. ”

Why? I ask. His answer is touching in its simplicity: “Because helping others is more important than helping myself.”

I ask Moishe to give me some numbers to help quantify just how massive an operation this is. The figures roll off the erstwhile accountant’s tongue: “Three thousand people come through our doors each day. There are minyanim for Shacharis on three levels from amud hashachar, which in the summer is at 4:30, until chatzos. From the time of Minchah Gedolah, a half hour after chatzos, and onward, there’s a minyan for Minchah starting in one of three places every seven and a half minutes, until it’s time for Maariv. [Actually, this being Boro Park, there are simultaneous minyanim for Minchah and Maariv for some time following shkiyah —Ed.] Maariv minyanim begin in the same three places at five-minute intervals, stretching until between 3 and 4 a.m.”

And how many “amein, yehei shmei rabbas” are answered, how many kedushos are intoned, how many thousands of dollars of tzedakah are received for every conceivable cause by the scores of ever-circulating collectors, who at times seem to outnumber the potential donors? All that is anyone’s guess.

Whoever thinks it’s impossible to be in two, even three, places at once, obviously never met these fellows, because Moishe, like his night-shift soulmate Hillel, are at every single one of these minyanim — making sure each starts on time, seeing to it that an aveil gets the amud, manning the pushkes, finding people rides to parts known and unknown and on and on.

And then, each fall and spring, there are the drashos. Beginning on Rosh Chodesh Elul and continuing until Succos, and then once again from Rosh Chodesh Nisan until Pesach, Moishe achieves a homiletic feat probably without parallel in the annals of rabbinics: he prepares a fresh new drashah each day, each one containing a sharp dvar Torah about tzedakah or chesed, a brief discussion of one of the myriad services the shul provides to the community and a pitch to either buy a seat or contribute to ma’os chittin, depending on the season.

Moishe distills all of this down into a micro-drashah that he can deliver in its entirety during the time it takes for the tzibur to say aleinu, with time left over to conclude with his trademark, “Have a pleasant evening, thank you for listening.” He then delivers this speech throughout the day at every one of the dozens of minyanim over which he presides, each time as if it were the very first.

In each day’s drashah, Moishe highlights yet another facet of Shomrei Shabbos’s unique menu of services, and he never seems to run out of material. One day, he focuses on the shul’s “niche” tefillah opportunities: recital of the whole Sefer Tehillim with a minyan every Thursday night, as well as on Purim and Hoshana Rabbah nights at chatzos; Selichos and the leining of Vayichal every Monday and Thursday during Shovavim and Bahab; Yom Kippur Katan tefillos every hour on the hour on Erev Rosh Chodesh; and Tikun Chatzos throughout the Three Weeks.

On yet another day, Moishe’s topic is the chesed the shul does for those needing a Maariv minyan in the wee hours of 2 or 3 a.m.: a chassan after the wedding is over, a just-arrived traveler from overseas. And a third day might find Moishe talking about Shomrei Shabbos’s contributions to shalom bayis, with tongue only partly in cheek. After all, he says, a fellow who’s just exchanged angry words with his wife can cool the domestic tensions by stealing away to the shul, sipping a tea while looking in a sefer until he’s ready to return home with a smile.

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as there a particular person or event that inspired him to a life of such supreme devotion to klal needs? Indeed there were both, as Moishe explains.

“Many people don’t know that this shul was founded in 1919 by members of First Congregation Anshei Sfard, who were dismayed that their shul sponsored a ‘hashkamah minyan’ at 6:30 Shabbos morning, after which the mispallelim would go to work. Listen, it’s not for us to be dan l’kaf chov; they felt it was pikuach nefesh, and in fact, they would continue keeping Shabbos upon their return home from work. So a group of members rented space in the basement of the Eitz Chaim school for their new congregation, called Chevra Shomrei Shabbos Anshei Sfard, and made it a condition of membership that one had to attend the 9 a.m. Shabbos minyan.

“The new shul was very successful, and after only three years was able to buy a building with a 20-year mortgage, which has been paid up since 1942. But from its founding, the shul never had a rav.

“All that changed when Reb Shmuel Chaim Shechter became president and decided we needed a rav. In 1974, he heard that Rav Yehudah Tirnauer was looking to leave his position in Washington Heights due to that neighborhood’s deterioration, and he began an intense campaign to bring Rav Tirnauer to Boro Park. He spoke with members privately, he ran after them, he cajoled, he pleaded — but he wasn’t making much headway. Finally, he decided to bring it to a vote. The shul held its biggest meeting ever, with 100 members in attendance. Lo and behold, the vote split evenly down the middle, 50 for and 50 against hiring a rav. So, you want to hear hashgachah? The shul constitution stated that the president has no vote except if needed to break a tie — and the rest is history.

“I remember, as a bochur, watching Mr. Shechter put his whole life into that cause, devoting two or three entire years to something nobody thought he could achieve. I was greatly inspired by him and his fighting and winning against all odds, and looking back, that’s when I decided I could do something similar.”

For all the rewards that Moishe reaps from being able to help countless Yidden every day, the position also brings its share of aggravation, whether it’s one guy taking an amud that’s not his or another fellow deciding to change the shul’s minhag on saying Tachanun. But come what may, says Moishe, he has one ironclad rule that helps him cope: “When people get me upset, I don’t keep grudges overnight. The next morning it’s washed away.”

For Moishe Metzger, a new day means a new, more upbeat attitude. And, of course, if Pesach or Succos are just around the corner, a new fundraising drashah too.

(Originally featured in 'A Face and a Place,' Succos Supplement 5772)

 

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