July 20, 2024
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July 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Many shuls are currently dealing with a crisis: empty seats. This reality is a secondary effect of the pandemic and is causing shuls to re-examine and reimagine how to make the synagogue experience more enticing for their missing-in-action members. This approach is understandable because you cannot have a congregation without congregants. Similarly, you cannot have a farbrengen without farbrengeners, kumzits without kumzitsers or meshugas without meshuganers.

Obviously, one of biggest challenges to packing the pews is the advent of the backyard minyanim, which have spread almost as widely as the pandemic itself. In many cases, these quaint congregations have created gregarious gatherings of similarly-situated, like-minded neighbors who have essentially transformed their already heimishe homes into mini-mishkans. Each impromptu sanctuary offers a more intimate setting, one that typically gives each participant a heightened sense of ownership in the davening. The result can be beautiful to behold and thus, on some level, it is unfortunate that brick and mortar shuls effectively seek to curtail these priceless pop-up parleys. In some ways, putting an end to such a kiddush hashem is as unproductive as (i) dismantling a perfectly kosher eruv (which would be almost as bad as expressly banning strollers and babies), (ii) eliminating the post-high school gap year (possibly the top perk of a yeshiva education) or (iii) discontinuing kosher-for-Passover Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda (possibly the top item that makes the Pesach culinary experience far less challenging).

That said, some may argue that, as a result of Covid, there now are too many backyard minyanim, so much so that some shuls are finding it hard to get a minyan on shabbos, let alone a capacity crowd. For such vacant synagogues, this makes davening rather difficult because you cannot have a shaliach tzibur without a tzibur. This also brings up at least one philosophical question: if a chazzan davens in an empty shul and nobody is there to hear it, should he wait for an “Amen”? Discuss.

Anyway, if a synagogue wants its flock to flock back to shul, then one potential strategy is the use of mind games. It is fair to assume that some backyard minyanim are attended by the rebellious who have an innate “break away” mentality. Synagogues may be able to capitalize on such mutinous mindsets by employing a form of reverse “break away” psychology. For example, if the shul formally acknowledges that the backyard minyanim are the new normal, then ironically those minyanim would become the establishment. In that event, the rebellious among us might reperceive the synagogue as a bastion of defiance. This could spark a new revolution wherein davening in synagogue becomes in vogue for the too-cool-for-school renegades.

There are other ways to encourage congregants to revisit the big tent, but some methods might scream desperation. For example, here are a few over-the-top ideas that might have some congregants returning in droves:

1. The Kiddush Minyan: You should daven before or after because the only thing happening during this minyan is a non-stop, nearly-gluttonous food-fest.

2. The No-Announcements Minyan: This group is so morally-opposed to announcements that they will not even announce that there are no announcements.

3. The East-Meets-West Minyan: A group of Ashkenazim and Sephardim who daven together in perfect harmony. As a compromise, they read from a Torah that leans at an angle, at the midpoint between horizontal and vertical.

4. The Cavity Minyan: There is at least one candyman in every row, each dispensing sweets like they’re going out of style. It’s a dentist’s dream.

5. The Late Minyan: A bunch of tardy speed-readers who daven like they are cramming for a test. The habitually last-minute intensity leaves them so emotionally drained that they head straight home for a semi-earned shabbos nap from which they awake barely in time to catch mincha.

6. The Presidential Minyan: Every member is officially given the title of “Shul President” so that everyone simultaneously feels like a big macher.

7. The No Rabbi Minyan: Every halachic issue is decided by games such as rock/paper/scissors, duck/duck/goose and zoom/schwartz/figliano.

8. The No Chazzan Minyan: Anyone can daven for the amud, even the off-key, tone deaf and those who sound like a grager.

9. The Reverse Dues Minyan: They pay you for coming to shul and, not coincidentally, there isn’t an empty seat in the house.

10. The Everyone Gets an Aliyah Minyan: Imagine Simchas Torah on a weekly basis.

Final thought: Seeing an empty shul that used to be full of people can be a depressing sight, even more depressing than seeing an empty tzedakah box that used to be full of money, an empty crock-pot that used to be full of cholent or an empty smile that used to be full of love.

By Jon Kranz


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