Stepping Toward Minyan

If you had asked me, growing up, if the Conservative synagogue my family attended on Friday nights also offered a daily minyan, I would have answered, somewhat vaguely, that I thought a few old men got together for services on Mondays and Thursdays, and was that what you meant?

Because neither my mother, who would not have counted as one of the necessary ten in that non-egalitarian time, nor my father, spoke about or chose to go to minyan. Not even for Kaddish. When my paternal grandfather died, and then my paternal and maternal grandmothers, my father and mother faithfully attended Shabbat evening services each week for twelve months and rose each time for the mourner’s prayer. I understood that to be the way to observe a family member’s death in the Jewish tradition.

That is, until I met my husband and shared my family’s practice several months after our wedding.

“I’d say Kaddish for you three times a day,” my husband said. “That’s what Judaism teaches.”

While I was touched by his declaration, and at the same time absorbing the unstated implication that this would mean I had died first, and also wondering how many other newly wed husbands professed their love in the context of what, I hoped, would be a wife’s far-off demise, I realized I could not return the sentiment.

“Three times a day?”

He nodded yes and said he’d find a minyan.

Meals were the only thing I did in life three times a day. Daily prayers with a group of fellow Jews were not part of my world. “I can’t promise I’ll do the same.”

“That’s okay. You don’t have to.”

Fortunately, an accepting nature is one of my husband’s strong points.

I didn’t give Kaddish or minyan another thought for years. Then we moved to New York and joined a Conservative synagogue that holds an egalitarian minyan morning and night. But some days it’s a struggle to gather the quorum of ten and messages on the synagogue’s listserv often ask members to make a commitment so those observing Kaddish can do so.

The pleas are compelling. We’re one of the few congregations in the area where women can be counted for a minyan and say Kaddish. If we don’t have it, women will have no place to go. It’s not a lot of time. Even once a month would help. Done regularly, minyan can become a spiritual practice.

It may not take much time, but the timing of the services, at least for me and many parents, is especially lousy: 6:45 am and 7:30 pm with some adjustments for winter and summer. It’s prime time for families, when I’m busy preparing to get my daughter out the door in the morning and myself to work, or trying to reconnect with her during the evening in the short span between dinner, bath, and bedtime.

Still the need is there, and as my daughter grows older and more independent, I have more flexibility. I begin to wonder why Judaism requires a group of ten people for Kaddish. During my search, I find a commentary by Ismar Schorsch, the former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who writes,

“It is impermissible to read the Torah publicly or perform a wedding or recite Kaddish or other prayers with an extra measure of holiness without the presence of a minyan…Put differently, the demand for a minyan gives expression to the supreme importance in Judaism of community.”

So that’s it. Community. We have a responsibility to care for each other.

The listserv broadcasts another message that Wednesday nights seem to be especially tough for getting a minyan together.

This week my daughter’s on a sleepover Wednesday night, my husband’s at a meeting. I have a rare night alone. I had hoped to catch up with friends, write, read a few articles. And I will. But first I reach for my keys as I head out the door.

Once a month I can manage.

–Bonnie Beth Chernin

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