Prayer outside synagogue in Betar Illit
Prayer outside synagogue in Betar IllitFlash 90

Neighborhood, ‘makeshift’ minyans - the surprising, soul saving ‘hit’ of our downbeat corona days

This article comes to sing praise to our backyard, curbside minyans, to the men who steadfastly maintain them, often under trying circumstances, and to explain why they have become such an important, coping social resource in these trying days of corona.

In one sense these makeshift minyans have ‘come out of nowhere’. Before corona we all prayed in well built, well furnished, sturdy, central synagogues. But suddenly, one gloomy day, we were ‘exiled’ from these established homes.

But G-d did not desert us in this ‘exile’. And just as every Tishrei we construct flimsy sukkot and yet feel G-d’s closeness, we similarly got the inspiration to establish neighborhood minyans in some of the strangest of places.

And G-d rewarded this pro active, creative coping. Our curbside minyans have become a tremendous source of ‘light’ and inspiration during our gloomy, cloudy war of attrition, ‘no end yet in sight’ battle, with corona.

The very high degree of affection and loyalty that these neighborhood minyans have created in such a short time was well proven during the Tishrei holidays. I live in Psagot. Our kehila had the option to pray in sizable numbers (according to regulations) , congregating on the grass outside the central synagogue. But virtually everyone preferred to stay loyal to their local minyan, and the number of people who prayed in the vicinity of the central synagogue was rather sparse.

No question about it. In this Tishrei test of loyalty, the backyard minyan beat the central synagogue ‘hands down’. In Psagot most minyans have adopted a special nickname, and one claims that their prayers ‘are the sweetest’

What is the ‘secret’ of the success of backyard/curbside minyan’s success?

It is not immediately obvious why these makeshift minyans have been so successful. It is certainly no ‘picnic’ to sit for two hours on a shaky, too small, plastic seat, struggling to hold both a siddur and chumash simultaneously in your hands. One can be easily distracted by the little kids running in between chairs, and by the ear racking noise of nearby traffic.

It is not easy to have proper intention when you have to move your chair three times in two hours in order to remain in the shade.

And it is not easy to concentrate when it is cold and damp outside, early in the morning, or when the streetlight does not provide enough light during evening prayer.

And yet all these very real hindrances have become very diminished in significance seemingly because of the great satisfaction that we receive when meeting together and praying in our local minyans. Why? What is the secret behind our local minyan experiences?

In time of crisis we have a need to pray with others

I would like to discuss four reasons that our local minyans give us much needed social resilience and comfort.

-The first reason is that in time of distress one feels an instinctive need turn to G-d and to pray with another nine men, and not alone in your study or in the corner of your living room. The corona crisis has created amongst us a subtle sense of desperation, and thus has given birth to an unspoken need to cry out for help. At these moments we instinctively seek the help of G-d and others, and thus feel the need to pray together, in order to help us attain a stronger sense of confidence and hope

-In time of severe social distancing we have a need for togetherness and solidarity

In times of severe social distancing and isolation praying with a minyan grants a critical sense of solidarity and togetherness. Due to social distancing, caution, and quarantine, we do not see the friends we were accustomed to seeing at places of work or recreation, or at organized social activities. Because of fear of infection, we see our children and grandchildren less. And when we do interact, we are literally ‘hidden beyond a mask’, hindering our ability to get emotional sustenance from the interaction.

So we try to replace these deficits in social relationships by praying with a minyan, three times a day.

The minyan is in reality a low calorie social engagement diet. There really is not so much social interaction. People come, pray and leave, but it is enough to keep us ‘socially alive’.

-In time of severe social restrictions we become more passive in our social initiatives and enterprises. The minyan is our way to proactively ‘fight back’.

The regulations curtailing social activities and enterprises have severely restricted our ability to show initiative and pro actively cope in order to maintain our quality of life. Also, we are all waiting, with a certain sense of helplessness, for a vaccine to relieve us of this current social misery. Maintaining a local minyan, worrying about proper equipment, integrating different customs of prayer, adjusting to varying weather conditions and maintaining membership has given all those involved in minyan maintenance a real sense of accomplishment, a feeling that unfortunately that has become all too rare in corona times.

-In times of historical crisis, we become immersed in the moment of the trauma, and lose historical perspective. The minyan helps remind and bind us to the historical destiny of our Jewish people

When a person is seriously ill, or in intense emotional crisis, he loses his sense of time. He lives from hour to hour, from day to day. Next week is a long, long way off, and next month seems impossibly over the horizon.

This seeming ‘never ending’ corona crisis, with its almost daily changing of regulations, and with its ‘one step forward and two steps back’ pace of coping, has seriously eroded a proper sense of historical time. The corona crisis has kept us seriously disoriented with regard to our sense of time. For example, my brother passed away in America due to corona over six months ago. I so so much want to visit my two remaining brothers, but have no idea when that will be feasible. We cannot plan. Our future has become so uncertain.

Our minyan helps us cope with this crisis generated distortion of historical time perspective .Praying with a minyan impresses on us that we are not alone but an integral part of the historical, covenantal Jewish collective. If we read our daily prayers seriously, three times a day we are taught that we are called upon to see the corona crisis as only one minor (maybe very minor) station on our historical march to Redemption. Daily participation in the minyan helps restore a much healthier historical time perspective.

Summary: Our local curbside, backyard minyans are so successful because they are like a ‘military field hospital’ in our backyard maintaining our social-emotional health in time of plague.

Our backyard minyans can be compared to military field hospital set in our neighborhood for emergency care in time of plague. Three times a day we enter and receive infusions of hope, togetherness, camaraderie, solidarity, spiritual strength and direction, a sense of accomplishment and a replenished time perspective of bonding with our covenantal Jewish destiny.

But let us also pray that we will soon be able to dismantle this ‘field hospital’, that the corona crisis will end, and we will return to pray in our central synagogues. Hopefully when we return, we will bring with us all the strengths and qualities we developed by running our curbside, backyard minyans.

G-d wants us to return and become united gain in our central synagogues, because the future will not be about ‘surviving corona’ but about returning to our original humongous task of the redemption of the Jewish people by building a thriving state in our Land. And to accomplish the task of redemption we have to stand and act united. For that, we have to be united in central synagogues, with inspired, centralized spiritual leadership.