The Communal Shul

A Word with Rabbi Moshe Taub


  As First Published in Ami Magazine

 Shul Chronicles 103

 8:30 Basement-Minyan Chronicles

 Sometimes I feel as if I live in a time-warp. I left Lakewood in 2003 and have lived in a small community ever since.

 Technology has certainly kept me in the loop, but everything evolves, everything is fated to change.

 That is just the way it is.

 They say Los Angelinos all come from somewhere else, and I think most frum people of my generation, as well, all came from somewhere else. It was not always like this. I don’t know if this change is good or bad, but I want it recorded nonetheless.

 I seem to get this same sense, this same feeling every time I leave Buffalo for a Shabbos and return el mitoch hamcheneh, to a larger frum city.

 I want to be clear: I am not an adam chashuv, I have no right to define modern concerns within the klal. I just would like to have the conversation. I believe it is an important one to be had.

  The question used to be, “Where do you daven” Now its, “Where are you davening?”

 It’s subject to change, you see. Our options are so vast, the bonds so loose, the freedom so great that even the idea of belonging to a shul, a place where one raises their children from bris to bar-mitzvah to sheva berachos, seems so quaint.

 I remember when one of the yarchanim had an article a few years ago titled “The Breakaway Minyan in Halacha” and hearing friends laughing how a disgruntled rabbi probably wrote it. That wasn’t true, but even if it was why was that cause to laugh?

  Whenever such issues have come up in my tenure -–the breakaway minyan or comparable concerns - I find myself in a strange position; on the one hand I understand the optics would appear as if I am simply looking out for number one, on the other hand who else has the achroyus to protect the big picture, paid to care and ponder these concerns?

  It is a no-win.

 I often hear people complain how rabbanim are failing to lead, or to take charge of the real issues (what that ‘real’ issues are, of course, is subjective), yet by breaking down the communal shul what power are we even giving him to lead with, or the knowledge to discover how to proceed?

I grew up in Toronto. When my family moved there in 1981 ‘areas’ did not define community centers, rather they were identified by their shul. “They live by Bnei Torah”, “We are moving to the Agudah” etc.

  Maybe we were spoiled.

 A rav was sacrosanct, the rock of every family, the visitor of the sick, giver of shiurim. There was no such thing as asking someone else a shaila. If he was out of town you were given another number to call. Most notably, he was there for the long-haul.

But it was more than just the rav.

 If there was an appeal, you had to hear it; if there was a choleh, a death, you knew; if someone new moved to town, it would be announced and they would have a thousand invites. If you were going through hard times people noticed. When a part of a large communal shul everyone is invested in communal policy; it is also not as simple to ‘take sides’ in debates and protests that are above one’s pay grade, with the reality that you will never be challenged in person by the family whose life you took part in destroying.

 Most importantly, the shuls that I grew up in were made up by Torah yidden of all stripes.

 Maybe I am wrong, but today I get the feeling that people just want to daven. Announcements are too long, the rabbi’s drashos are too long, the davening is too long….the kiddush is too small.

 I once read that of all the concerns the Vilna Gaon had regarding the birth of the chasidic movement, he was most perturbed that many were starting their own minyanim (Otzros Gedolei Yisroel,  volume 2 p. 226 ff), tearing at the fabric, in his view, of a more communal existence. This is not a comment on that bye-gone battle nor an argument to go back to a one-shul-per-city policy, rather simply that we mustn’t fool ourselves into believing that a further breakdown is not worth talking about.

 This past year we witnessed a number of grand events, stadiums sold out to celebrate Torah study, and, to make ourselves aware of the bane of our time. These events were stupendous. But they also, to my mind, validated something else. All the asifas and gatherings demonstrated our innate desire as an am to be together, for camaraderie. To be a community once more. Not a community by zip-code, not a community by dint of buying meat from the same butcher, or sharing the same cookbooks, but a community in the way most of you reading this once knew it: by being a part of something, on a daily basis, that is bigger than ourselves, that will outlive us, and that we can pass on.

 And, as the siyum for Daf Yomi illustrated, that is made up of many backgrounds.

 I could give you, as we often do in these pages, halachik sources. I can quote from Rav Moshe Feinstein (orach chaim 1:46, see also ibid. 38; see also Netziv, Meishiv Davar 1:46, as well as the above cited article at length) who responded to the group who wanted to start a new shul because the rav decided to allow flags in the beis hakeneses, or, the Magen Avraham, Radvaz, inter alia, all of whom have dealt with these issues, as well as the myriad of sources regarding davening in a large minyan. But what is missing today is not a lack of awareness as to the halachik concerns (which is up to one’s local rav), rather the blind-spot to the socio-hashkafic ones.

 So instead of the usual sources detailed in this column, let me appeal to your better angels with two stories.

 The other week a chaver tov who now lives here in town was talking with me about the length of our shabbos davening. He understood that as a Young Israel this is how it has to be, and in a town this small this was nothing he could do, but certainly in a larger city, he rightly argued, I would have lost misspalelim to another shul. After we both bemoaned that reality –and how that was not true when we were growing up – an alarm went off in my head. I recalled reading a story by Rabbi Paysach Krohn; well, not quite a story rather one of his signature postscripts. Tonight, as I was working on this column I decided to call Rabbi Krohn. He was exceedingly gracious with his time, and knew exactly to what I was referring. This is what he shared:

  Growing up in Kahal Adas Yeraim in Kew Gardens there was a push to create a ‘Youth Minyan”. Here children would learn how to daven for the amud, lein, etc. In addition it would likely create a more ‘adult’ environment in the main sanctuary.  One Motzai Shabbos Rabbi Krohn’s father z’l related to his son that the rav, Rav Yaakov Teitelbaum z’l turned down the idea. After a phone conversation with the their rav he explained to his young son Paysach the reasoning their rav shared from a pasuk in Shmos (10:9). When Pharaoh relented and decided to let Moshe leave Mitzraim he asked who he would take with him, assuming that it would just be the adults (see pasuk 11). Moshe Rabbeinu responded, “b’naareinu u’vizkaineinu neilech…”  - we will go with our youngsters and our elders… Klal Yisroel, their rav explained, should rarely be seen as compartmentalized. The children need to see the wisdom of the zaides –how they daven and how they act, and the adults need to be galvanized by the sweet energy and innocence of the teffilos of children.

 We mustn’t segregate the two.

 Of course, the above story is to bring out a larger point and is not a commentary as to youth minyanim in general; such decisions are unique to each rav and their respective communities.

 The Mezritcher Maggid and the Baal HaTanya were once attending a chasunah. As they both came to the door at the same time the proverbial “You go first” debate commenced. Finally the Baal HaTanya turned to the Maggid and said, “I have an idea. You are a baal mofes. So why don’t I go through the door while you go through the wall. This way we can enter at the same time!”

 The Maggid smiled and said, “That is a wonderful idea, but I have a better one. Let us perform a greater miracle. Let us make the doorway bigger, hold hands, and go through together”

 A greater miracle indeed.

Daf Yomi takes place nightly at the Young Israel of Greater Buffalo, 105 Maple Road, after the evening services. For complete schedule call 634-0212 or visit their web site at 

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