It was a throwback to events of a half-century ago. It was a snowy day in Brooklyn, freezing cold, as we waited at our street corner for the bus to transport us to yeshiva for the day of learning, lunch, and recess.
But the bus never arrived. Instead of returning home, a group of us decided to trudge our way down Bedford Avenue to our seventh-grade class at a satellite location of Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway at Judea Center. Those of you in Brooklyn will not know where that is unless you lived nearby or were in my class in yeshiva. If that is you, then you are one of a very few students who were in those classes.
We finally arrived, only to discover that it was even icier in our classroom than outside, as we were informed by the custodian that the boiler in the building had broken down overnight. Even without a snowstorm that might have canceled bus service, we could always count on one or two days a year that we would not have school because the boiler in the building was not functioning. Those were like bonus days for us back then.
So if you are wondering how that image of sitting in a classroom wearing a winter coat and ski cap as well as a scarf tied around nose and mouth was conjured up, well, you had to be in an outdoor minyan with me last Shabbos morning in Woodmere.
When I arrived at the minyan a bit after 9 a.m., I noticed most men in long winter coats, down coats, or multiple heavy sweaters. Some were wearing sweatshirts with the hoodies pulled over their head and scarves wrapped around that outfit. There was one heater in the center of the shul, but it really was not getting the job done as the outdoor temperature hovered at about 40 degrees.
The heater featured an actual gas-fed flame in the center, with one of those present working to make sure that no one who passed by had their tzitzis from their tallis catch fire.
This is a pivotal period for the outdoor minyanim that dot frum communities all around the country. Interestingly, the minyan I attended last week in Woodmere offered an indoor as well as a more-populated outdoor option.
The question is if these outdoor minyanim will be able to endure when the cold and nasty weather arrives. On Friday night, I was at another outdoor Woodmere minyan hosted in tents behind two homes. It rained for a few days prior to Shabbos so it was a little muddy under the tents. But unlike the tents under which we davened during the summer, now we had tent walls to block the wind, if not the actual cold, from the outside.
What has become my usual daily and Shabbos minyan near my home in Lawrence is the minyan at the home of Hannah and Berish Fuchs. There is no question that if there was an outdoor-minyan competition, the Fuchs minyan would win by a large margin. The minyan had its roots, like many other outside minyanim. Today I think of it as the convertible version of outdoor services.
Although we are a few months down the road, it is important that we not lose focus. These pop-up minyanim were created out of necessity and, for many of us, because of a personal lifelong commitment to davening with a minyan.
The conventional wisdom at the time the shuls were closed due to the pandemic was to daven at home three times a day and just wait until something changes. Whether the situation changed or the people grew restless can be analyzed and discussed. At some point, here in Nassau County anyway, local government announced that it was OK to gather in small groups of up to 15 people or so. Still, the local shuls, after deliberating, decided to remain closed longer, and that decision alone can be pointed to as the key point where people decided to create capsule-like minyanim.
Over the summer, everything was wonderful. Some days and even nights were just too warm to daven comfortably, but that brought out fans galore and even an attempt to air-condition some tents — mostly unsuccessfully, because there were no walls to contain the cool air.
Here at the Fuchs residence we are still davening outdoors in the same place we started months ago, but now, thanks to the foresight and largesse of Hannah and Berish, we have had a shul built around us as we were sitting or standing in place. The outdoor shul now has magnificent floors and a solid ceiling, surrounded by glass sliding doors that turn the shul into a mostly outdoor venue on any day the weather is tolerable. There is also an air-conditioning and heating system as well as ultraviolet lighting that kills 99.9% of bacteria and viruses.
I know that you are probably thinking that if we had a shul built around us then it is most likely not an outdoor minyan anymore, so why not just go back to the shuls we all came from?
That’s an interesting question that I posed to some of the young men who are buying better tents and investing in multiple heaters to get them through the winter. I commented to them last Friday night that it is chilly outside and asked why they do not just go to an indoor shul. “No way,” said one of the organizers.
To me it looks like these pop-up shuls are here to stay, and it has nothing to do with what the already established community shuls have to offer us. This is one of the many positive aspects that have unintentionally been a result of events this pandemic. Other benefits so far include smaller weddings and online virtual dinners to benefit our major Jewish organizations.
It is additionally important that we continue to financially support the shuls we belong to. The idea of these satellite or outdoor minyanim has nothing to do with avoiding the responsibility of financially supporting them as important anchors of our communities. That is an important matter to note and will allay a great deal of the fears that congregational leaders have about having their old core membership splinter.
The outdoor minyanim are attractive and most likely here to stay because of the camaraderie and closeness they foster among neighbors.
We have moved appreciably closer to vaccines becoming available, thank G-d, which could be a game changer in the way we live. But the experts, if they are still calling themselves that, tell us not to abandon our social distancing, mask-wearing, and doing as much as we can outdoors. And that, of course, means our shuls that are close to us both geographically and spiritually.
Once this is all over — may it be soon — we hope to be able to get back to normal. And our new normal may include outdoor shuls, and that’s a good thing.
Larry Gordon, editor of the Five Towns Jewish Times can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org.