Quite frankly, I didn’t think that this was an article for me to write. There were so many community clergy and lay leaders involved in the arrangements leading up to Yom Tov that I truly thought that another would take notice. However, after giving it a few weeks, I think that it is time to reflect on what actually happened in our community during this past Yom Tov season.
The Yom Tov season brought one of the most complicated and broadest challenges for almost every Jewish community in many, many years. At a time when the shuls would have normally been filled with members and their families, it became clear that davening inside the shul would be extremely limited taking into consideration the rules for COVID-19. It became necessary for people to utilize their backyards and driveways as additional areas to daven. Shuls and even individuals invested in tents to make sure that those in need of a “mikdash me’at” would have a safe place to be.
We then had to deal with the next serious question: Who was going to lead services on the High Holidays in 20 times (or more) the number of minyanim compared to previous years? Although a community like ours has always had people who volunteered to daven, how many people really knew how to daven during the Yomim Noraim? Calls went out all across the community. The gabbaim who took responsibility tried to find people who would “step up” and conduct services. By the way, do you know how to daven Shacharit on Rosh Hashanah? Do you know how to daven Musaf on Yom Kippur? Does anyone know how to maintain the age-old nuschaot, and at the same time use appropriate contemporary niggunim in the davening? Are there not some parts of the davening where the nusach has been transmitted from many hundreds of years ago? Is it not a real skill to know how to conduct services at any time of the year?
I taught about at least two, and maybe even three generations of graduates who have attended yeshiva day schools and high schools. Those graduates today are committed community leaders and have elected to take on responsibilities for the benefit of the klal. However, is there a school that teaches their students how to daven on the High Holidays or the Shalosh Regalim? Does someone teach young people the difference between the Chatzi Kaddish for Neilah and the Chatzi Kaddish for Geshem? Will some faculty member inculcate in his students a sensitivity as to which tefilot can be put to a song, and those which must maintain the dignity of their age-old nusach? Do we even know that it matters? We sing V’chol Ma’aminim to a Carlebach niggun. Are we one day going to do the same with Kol Nidre?
Baruch Hashem, we sing a great deal in our davening. This started more than 70 years ago and was one of the hallmarks for the establishment of the Young Israel movement. The “young” post-Holocaust generation was unwilling to sit in shul for hours listening to cantorial recitatives, and instead wanted to be involved and participate in the davening. Today, what we called cathedral synagogues (shuls with a very large main sanctuary, and where the majority of members come to daven at the same time) have given way to a “synaplex,” where shuls now offer many different options and times for the synagogue service. This is reminiscent of the large single-screen movie theaters of the past where the owners had no choice but to split up the space and offer many options so people could view the movie of their choice. Similarly, we can now attend the service and time of our choice. There may still be a “main shul,” but certainly in most communities there will be other options.
The art of davening for the amud in many shuls today is still governed by the same rules and customs as hundreds of years ago. I am well aware of the battle for time in our day school and high school curricula, however the actual skill of davening (or leining) seems to be a low priority. At the time of your son’s Bar Mitzvah, someone teaches him the parsha, and perhaps also teaches him how to daven Musaf on Shabbat. It is the broader knowledge necessary to understand what it takes to upgrade a particular service on a special Shabbat like M’vorchim HaChodesh, or a Shabbat that falls on Yom Tov or the davening of Chol Hamoed. Certainly the teaching of the myriad nuschaot of the Yomim Noraim and Shalosh Regalim davening seems to be nowhere in our school curricula or bar mitzvah training. Therefore it became a crisis this year —WHO would lead the davening in all of these minyanim?
In general, the art of producing an inspirational service for a kehilla today is the talent of a relatively small number of individuals. There are “musical” people who mastered nusach hatefillah, and there are people who learned the skill from their fathers. However, to really inspire a congregation, especially on the holiest days of the year, takes far more than mere musical talent. Not so long ago the Schreiber family of Teaneck sponsored some sessions with my good friend Cantor Sherwood Goffin, z”l. People were surprised to find out how critical maintaining the nusach is; one of the ways Jews around the world of similar mesorah (Ashkenazim or Sephardim of different geographical areas) are connected, especially on the Yomim Noraim. People also found out that inspirational davening is a real skill, a skill which needs to be learned.
Just ask people around Tishrei about their early davening recollections. What comes to mind first are the niggunim they heard in the shul where they grew up. They are often very unhappy at having to give up that experience as they have moved on to a different station in life and now attend a different shul. What often happens is that you can see a small smile when they realize how much of the Yomim Noraim davening anywhere offers a similar experience in the communal singing. The niggun of the start of Maariv, the holy chant of Kol Nidre, and the awesome music of Aleinu and the Avodah are just a few examples of what carries us through the Yomim Noraim both spiritually and emotionally. Those who are really students of the davening know there are almost a dozen different ways to sing the Chatzi Kaddish throughout all of the various tefilot, even during the weekday davening. Where and how do we teach and inspire our young adults who are motivated to learn this skill?
It is easy to say that the yeshiva day schools and high schools should take on this task. If they did, it would certainly help create many new qualified people. Remember, this learning experience self-selects. Perhaps where it is possible, schools could create an option for those interested. However, after experiencing the issues with finding qualified baalei tefillah this year, it would seem that the shuls might be interested in taking the lead and even partnering with others in the community. There are appropriate courses available in the Belz School of Music at REITS/YU. Those courses are relatively inexpensive and are quite thorough. However, that means that you need to be geographically located where that can be an option. In the new age of Zoom they are now offered virtually. Moreover, shuls in the same or even different neighborhoods can offer classes in Nusach Hatefillah, including the Halachos that pertain to that tefila. It would seem to me that the Orthodox Union, which established a program in the weeks prior to the Yomim Noraim this year (with the expertise of Chazan Yitzi Spinner) could establish an ongoing program (virtual at this point) that could be picked up by its constituent synagogues. These efforts need to be expanded and coordinated.
The skills involved in delivering an inspirational davening are only part of the story, although a very important part. There are broader questions about how we view the tefillah experience, how we create a tefillah experience for our children, and even where our children should be during the davening. Why are we so time-conscious of the davening, and why is it so difficult for many of us to approach the Ribono Shel Olam directly and beseech Him for what we want and need? Why is there no talking during the Mi Shebeirach for Cholim and often talking at other points in the service? These critiques are obviously generalizations, but not far from the truth. As someone who has chanted the Hineni tefillah 150 times, I have never heard one sound ever during that tefillah experience. I wish I could say the same for the rest of davening.
Perhaps this article will encourage conversation on the overall topic in shuls, schools and home. Having many more people who can create an inspirational davening will ultimately make the synagogue experience much more meaningful and inclusive for all.
Cantor Paul Glasser, in 2020, celebrated his 50th year of conducting services on the Yomim Noraim. He has also served as president of the Cantorial Council of America. Today, Glasser serves as the vice president for institutional advancement at Touro College and University System.