Many shuls are struggling currently with keeping up viable minyanim during this pandemic era. Attendance is poor at daily minyan, but for many shuls, it has always been an uphill battle. What can we safely say about the minyan challenge? Is this a new phenomenon, and is this a simple fix that can be applied? What follows are some random thoughts on this topic:
1. Daily minyan participation has always been a problem. If you doubt that, please review the opinions of the Rosh and Rashba on Brachot 2a. There they discuss why davening times are very flexible and why they indeed require flexibility. I do not believe that the reason for minyan non-attendance is that people assume others will help make the minyan. I think the reason is Newtonian. Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest. Since minyan attendance is not a mitzvah per se, people find rationales not to attend. Is that a good thing? Not at all. But let’s be realistic and assume that most if not all Orthodox men (and many women) do daven three times a day. Minyan is just not high on their list of priorities.
2. If people have “excuses” for not prioritizing minyan attendance, it makes little difference if the day in question is weekday or weekend. Children still need to be fed, tended to, driven to school, etc., even on weekends. From what I see, the numbers of attendees at minyan only truly increases when the calendar registers a special event. The devoted congregants will come even on a cold weekday and those less involved will not come on a warm weekend day. For more gloss, see the Newtonian law above in paragraph 2.
3. It is likely true in most shuls that the minyan is held together by more senior members. Why are younger members often underrepresented? This topic is too mighty for my shoulders but perhaps Modern Orthodoxy has more work to do. I am proud to claim membership in this group but let’s be frank. We do Israel well. We do women’s education well. We do Torah U’Maddah (pretty) well. We could use some added oomph in the way we do shmirat hamitzvot. As one of my former congregants would say, “Got zol mir nisht shtraffen” for saying this. (Translation: May God not punish me for this deed.) It is sadly truer than it should be.
4. Will rebuke or speeches work and get people to come out? No. Next paragraph.
5. Years ago I attended a lecture by a prominent Democratic leader. She said that when she wants a favor on, e.g., a vote, she will go to talk to the party whose attention is sought, face-to-face. Why does she do this? Because, she explained, it is way too easy to answer a request in the negative when you don’t see the person. It is much tougher to say “No” to their face. If we want new people, young or otherwise, to come to minyan, we need to ask them directly. Before we can do that we need to get to know them. After minyan on Shabbat, why not tell the person next to you how nicely behaved his children/grandchildren were. Tell him how their progeny daven beautifully. Then you can get to your pitch with a small request. “We need people for outdoor minyan. If we asked you to be on a list for stand-by duty when the extra man is needed, would you agree? We would only call you X times per month if that is your request. Can we count on you?”
6. If we do want to sprinkle a mild dose of mussar (really mild), I will rely on a story told by talk show host and writer Mr. Dennis Prager. He once told of his exploits as a high schooler in the Yeshiva of Flatbush. Mr. Prager advised his rebbe of the following: “I will not be at Mincha. I am just not in the mood.” The rebbe stroked his chin a few times and then said in sing-song: ‘Dennis Prager is not in the mood to daven Mincha with the Minyan. SO WHAT?” As a nation, we have gone through so much and yet we have prevailed. We have a culture and lifestyle that is truly a “light unto the nations.” Our payback to Hashem is that we join with other Jews, when we can, for the purpose of sanctifying God’s name. It is cold outside. It is not convenient. It is too early. It is too late. That may all be true. So what? It is your distinct honor to be counted among our people. You make a difference in our personal and communal life. We can do it with or without you. But we would rather do it with you. And you will personally be thankful for having heeded the call.
It is an uplifting feeling to be part of a people who practice chesed, caring and tzedakah with a dedication that is most unique. May we take these virtues to our “House of God” as we join fellow Jews in tefillah b’tzibbur.
Rabbi Martin Rosenfeld lives in Fair Lawn. He is a former congregational rabbi and a family/divorce mediator and attorney.