Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Decline of the Main Minyan

A short while back, Gary Rosenblatt’s column included a quote from Rabbi Stephen Listfield, who is serving this year as interim rabbi at a Conservative congregation in Massapequa, who said, among other things,
“If people who lead busy lives are going to come to a three-hour service in Hebrew at the same synagogue every Shabbat, they need to hear a message beyond ‘be a mensch.’” 
What caught my attention most was the description of Shabbat morning davening as a, “three-hour service in Hebrew”, and the focus he placed on the “same synagogue every Shabbat.” Clearly, these details present challenges for shuls, and not only in the Conservative community. Unknowingly perhaps, Rabbi Listfield hit on a very charged issue in Orthodox circles as well.
Looking back, Shabbat morning davening in my shul usually lasted the better part of three hours (beginning at 9am, lasting usually until noon, including a drashah, announcements, etc.). I was really busy during that time, speaking, overseeing the davening, often running to youth groups, asking questions, making up riddles. For me, because I was “working”, I never felt the length of davening to be burdensome. (I also never fell asleep during the rabbi’s speech either.)
But now I can’t imagine attending a davening that would take that long. There’s no drashah during davening, misheberachs often take thirty seconds or less, and chazzanim rarely yodel on and on. Davening at my shul almost never lasts longer than two hours, and if it gets close, I get antsy. I can say with certainty that if it did, I wouldn’t daven there. (And many people prefer a hashkamah minyan that takes even less, usually an hour and a half.) There is a short shiur after davening ends, and I can choose to stay – or not, if I’m tired, busy, hungry, or just not interested.
This phenomenon is clearly not about me. People are abandoning the “main minyan” in droves, preferring a more personal davening experience that lasts less time and more reflects their spiritual needs.
When I lived in Detroit, walking to shul each Shabbat morning from my home required that I personally pass (or at least came very near) at least three Orthodox shuls, shtiebels or minyanim. Pretty much every member of my shul did the same, and as time passed, many stopped passing these shuls, preferring to daven in them for one reason or another. They ran the gamut from a kollel, to a yeshiva minyan, to a basement shul, to a more liberal minyan that allowed women to do gelilah. A minyan even opened in the building of the old mikveh, which shared a parking lot with us – literally fifty feet from our front door. This minyan catered to “young men,” run by a charismatic former kollel fellow, offering a shiur and most importantly, cholent every Shabbat morning.
Since I’ve left even more shuls have cropped up. Chabad and Aish Hatorah opened shuls in a neighborhood adjacent to our community. An older shul refurbished, and the new rabbi began to attract people to the shul. And it’s not only in Detroit.
When I would return to Silver Spring and visit the Shomrei Emunah where I davenened growing up, I found the main minyan both shocking and depressing, a shadow of its former self. It had become a refuge for mainly the elderly and retired, especially the older women. (Many retired men had long since abandoned 9am for 7am.) This is not to say that the shul has withered – far from it. It boasts many other minyanim, from Sephardic hashkamah to the “young couples minyan” (read here: we don’t want to daven with the old folk) to the 9am youth minyan.
I just spoke with my uncle, who’s a member of Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, who told a similar story. The shul boasts eight small minyanim (he daven’s at a small “yeki” minyan). But the old “main” minyan? Empty.
Unless you live in the tri-state area (and probably there as well), the main minyan is suffering. And now that I no longer have a vested interest, I’m not so sure that this is such a bad thing. Large minyanim seem to attract people who want to talk more and daven less. Decorum is always challenging, and I always cringe when someone has to get up and “stop” the davening because of noise. It’s truly sad. People want a spiritual experience when they go to shul, and they find davening more meaningful in a small, more intimate group of people who are looking for the same kinds of experiences. One person might need more translations while another might find it annoying and distracting. Quite simply, the Orthodox community has become large enough that one size no longer fits all.
What does this mean for the large, community shuls? The way I see things, they must adapt and conform or they’ll suffer. I remember once complaining to Rabbi Anemer zt”l about the proliferation of minyanim at YISE in Silver Spring, and he said explicitly, “This is what people want, and unless we give it to them, they’ll find it somewhere else.” He simply was not attached to a single, large, centralized minyan. (Looking back, he was truly a visionary in many ways.)
Large Orthodox shuls must continue to transform themselves from a single, one-size-fits-all approach, to the multiplex model, where people can find what they’re looking for religiously under a single roof.  Kids coming back from yeshiva don’t want to daven for three hours on Shabbat morning. They want to daven, have some cake, and then learn with a chavruta for an hour and perhaps have a serious shiur. And if the shul won’t give that to them, then they’ll daven at the kollel. And a young father who’s become a ba’al teshuva won’t find that minyan helpful either. He needs a slower, explanatory service.
This presents real challenges for rabbis trying to maintain a sense of cohesion and unity among a larger “congregation.” In essence, rabbis of large shuls really aren’t rabbis of one particular minyan. They must find ways of reaching each unique constituency, even if it’s not through a single speech on Shabbat morning. Many of my friends and colleagues do just that: they shuttle between minyanim, speaking at four different times on a Shabbat. They might start at the hashkamah minyan, give a shiur to the young parents, and end with a drashah in the “main” minyan. But it’s not really a “main” minyan anymore. It’s just one of many.
If true then, these rabbis really aren’t “shul” rabbis at all. They’re really “community” rabbis, catering to a number of different “communities” (or congregations) which happen to be under the same roof. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder: why do these shuls have to be in a single location? What’s the difference whether they’re all in the same building? Could we envision a model where a number of smaller shuls unite to hire a rabbi to serve their needs, giving shiurim, answering shailot, coordinating programs and community initiatives? What’s the difference what minyan the rabbi davens in if, for the majority of a community the rabbi does not daven together with them?
Again, I look back at Rabbi Anemer. He somehow managed to lead a shul with two separate branches – one larger – and one much smaller – for many years. He simply couldn’t be in both places at once, and the membership pitched in and grew from it. The shul still boasts numerous shiurim delivered by the many capable learned members, and I never really felt slighted that the rabbi wasn’t in our shul on any given week. That was how it was.
I a sense, that’s exactly what we have here in our yishuv. We have a rav who delivers shiurim at numerous locations including our shul. He addresses vital communal needs, like mikveh, kashrut and the like. He works with the youth. But he doesn’t daven in our shul.
That’s also the way things were in many European communities. Many shuls didn’t have their own rabbi. The community had a rabbi, who set the tone, answered questions and addressed communal needs. That’s how it was. And maybe that’s how it will be again.
Why can’t a group of like-minded minyanim hire a spiritual leader together? They can have the best of many worlds: the intimacy of a small shul, but the benefit of needed spiritual guidance and leadership that they wouldn’t be able to afford on their own.


  1. A friend sent this to me. Nicely expressed. My home congregation's minyan is dying as well, but we have alternative places to go other than Chabad and an equally fragile Conservative Minyan. The President and Rabbi constantly exhort men to show up and for a while they get by. They never quite say let's analyze the experience that people have and make it more attractive to come.

    When new to the WWW in the mid-1990's one of the first sites I tapped into was that of my hometown "Your Monsey" They listed dozens of daily minyanim. All this while I assumed the minyanim were scattered so that men could select based on location and convenience for getting to work, rather than having to shlep to shul, maybe compete for parking space and then go to work. It never occurred to me that they were developing these boutique minyanim. But at least they were ahead of where my guys are, telling the congregation's men that they owe the congregation their presence but never changing the mode of thinking that the congregation also needs to adapt to making the effort a satisfying one, perhaps adapting time and location at least.

  2. You mention too quickly the consequent loss of being part of a larger community. In my yishuv, we have a shul for almost every block. When your shul community is only the neighbors on your block, the people that you can help, learn from, share in smachot, etc (and that can help you, etc) is limited. What kind of mensch is that?

  3. Rabbi Spolter,

    Thanks so much. Wonderful piece. A shul can be Jewish space where different sub-communities are birthed and co-exist and pitch into a greater kahal.

  4. I think that it depends on the community. Where we are, we have lots of minyanim, but they couldn't and wouldn't hire a Rabbi for all. We have a Rav Sh'chunah, and of course he gets questions, but it is as individuals, not as a congregation. Each shul got started as a break away (the main minyan kept geting too big for the premises it was on), usually by 'like-minded' people many times w/ the attitude of "we don't need a rabbi, and besides, we have rabbis who daven w/ us." Then there's the Ashkenazi vs. Sefaradi vs Teimani (both flavors) vs Yerushalmi vs Tunisian vs etc. So basically, those that felt that they wanted a Rav, 'hired' a Rav from w/in the community to help guide them (like my shul did, as well as a couple of others, tho it's funny, an Ashkenaz shul hired a Sefaradi Rav, and a Sefardic shul hired a Teimani abt Kibbutz Goliyot!)


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