January 08

Stacking the Plastic Chairs: Running an Egalitarian Minyan in Jerusalem

Ilana Kurshan

I had a roommate living with me for three weeks last winter. She didn’t make any noise, and never left any clutter - but living with her proved to be a challenge. I felt uncomfortable singing silly songs in the shower, or gossiping on the phone with friends, or walking around in a towel. My whole apartment seemed infused with an aura of holiness, and I felt obliged to act accordingly. When friends came over, they could not sit on my couch because my roommate was lying there, mummified in a few layers of white tablecloth. And yet when the co-coordinator of my minyan in Jerusalem returned from his vacation, and I returned the minyan’s Sefer Torah to him, I felt like something was missing.

For the past ten years, my life has been shaped by the minyanim in which I have chosen to daven. As a college student, much of my free time was devoted to "Egal” (as it was then called), the student Conservative minyan at Harvard Hillel. Each week, I and my fellow gabbaim (coordinators) were responsible for finding people to read each of the seven aliyot of the weekly portion, choosing service leaders, and buying food for the Kiddush following services (we used to boast that while we may have had only one Sefer Torah, our minyan had two ice cream scoopers). On Shabbat mornings, we came to the Hillel building twenty minutes early to set up chairs in rows and check that the Sefer Torah was rolled to the right place. During services, we rarely sat still, as we were responsible for making sure that everything ran smoothly - that the various service leaders knew when to lead the congregation, that the appropriate announcements were made at the end, and that all the plastic chairs were stacked and returned to the closet in the back of the room. Our minyan met not just on Shabbat, but on Monday and Thursday mornings as well - so I spent most of my Sunday and Wednesday evenings making phone calls to ensure that we’d have the required quorum of ten the following morning. As an organizer of Egal, I often felt like I was commanding a miniature army: rallying the troops, giving them their missions, barking out the occasional marching order.

I spent much of my time in college asking other people to do things on behalf of the minyan. Not surprisingly, members of the minyan came to expect this of me. I would call a friend to ask if she wanted to meet for coffee, and she would pick up the phone as if to pre-empt me: “Hi, no, I don’t want to come to minyan at 7am tomorrow!” I was often frustrated by my inability to separate my identity as gabbai from my identity as a friend, or even as a Jew. I could rarely focus on my own davening during shul - prayer seemed less a conversation with God than two and a half hours of stage management. And so on my last Shabbat in college, just two days before commencement, I vowed “Never again!” Never again would I serve as a minyan gabbai; after three years of leading and assigning, I was determined to be “just” a participant.

And so I was; for the next few years, I was happy to be one among hundreds of ordinary members of Kehilat Hadar, a large independent egalitarian minyan on the Upper West Side of New York. At Hadar, where it sometimes seems that every other person is either a rabbi, a rabbinical student, or the relative of a rabbi, there is no shortage of skills or talent. Occasionally I would read Torah, but most weeks I could just come (not twenty minutes early to set up, and not even always on time) to sit in my seat and daven. The wealth of talent at Hadar has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it means that people like me can come and simply participate, and that the davening and Torah reading are always of the highest quality. But it also means that those who want to get involved are up against a lot of competition, and that many are too intimidated to take part. (In the rare moments when a Torah reader would actually make a mistake at Hadar, I would sometimes wonder if the subways rumbling underground would suddenly stop dead in their tracks.) Many Jewish communities have heard about Hadar, but few have people with enough interest and skills to replicate its success.

I’ve learned this firsthand - ironically, in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life and the focus of our spiritual longing for over 2000 years. Here, I organize Kehilat Kedem, a small independent minyan that meets in a school building (we rent the space) on Emek Refaim, the main street of the upscale, heavily Anglo, and religiously diverse German Colony neighborhood. As an egalitarian traditional minyan in a country divided into starkly dichotomous religious and secular camps (and in which gender egalitarianism is generally assumed to belong solely to the latter), Kedem is an anomaly on the Israeli synagogue scene. Our constituents are mostly Americans living abroad - although we’d love to attract Israeli families to our minyan, very few are interested in what we have to offer.

One Shabbat morning a man in black pants and a white shirt came into our minyan apparently looking for another shul. He took one look in the room, and, unable to hide his shock, he grimaced and turned tail. I don’t think this man was prejudiced - he probably had never seen men and women praying side by side - but he was appalled at something that felt completely natural to me. When I tell the religious Israelis I meet that I organize a minyan and read Torah regularly, they often misunderstand, and assume that I daven in an all-women’s prayer group. I am proud of my involvement in Kedem, but also very wary of how I am perceived. And so although I was happy to house the Sefer Torah, I was uncomfortable carrying it to shul by myself; I worried that my religious observance might be inflammatory - that the sight of a woman carrying a Sefer Torah might be seen, by some, as a deliberate provocation.

At Kedem I am responsible for many of the same tasks as at Harvard Hillel: I find daveners and Torah readers (twenty-somethings rather than students), make announcements (in Hebrew rather than English), and buy food for kiddush (at the shuk rather than at Harvard Square’s Store 24). But there are important differences. Kedem primarily attracts rabbinical and yeshiva students studying in Israel for the year, which means that we have almost 100% turnover each fall. In addition to making our minyan more of a transient congregation than a stable community, this fact poses particularly difficult challenges for me and my co-gabbai. Each year, before the craze of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we need to identify the people who have the skills we need, and begin recruiting them to daven with us. We organize classes to teach people how to lead and read, but inevitably, they go back to America with their new skills, and we have to begin recruiting and training all over again. Moreover, it seems as if the same policy decisions are considered year after year: Should Shabbat morning services include a D’var Torah, and if so, in what language? Will the names of the matriarchs be recited in the Amidah prayer? In other minyanim, these questions are brought to the table, voted upon, and ratified; at Kedem, they resurface every year.

Through my work at Kedem, my whole life becomes oriented towards Shabbat - which is indeed just what the rabbis mandate. In our daily prayers, we precede the psalm for each day by counting that day with reference to the Sabbath: Today is the first day of the Sabbath; today is the second day of the Sabbath, and so on. This counting resonates deeply with me as each week I take stock of how many days I have left to assign all the aliyot and the davening for the upcoming Shabbat. On Sunday, when the week is still young, I send out an email to all of our regular Torah readers asking them to email me if they’d like to read an aliyah. On Tuesday I follow up with phone calls, and then on Thursday I send out reminders. By Friday, the sixth day of the Sabbath, I feel like I have prepared for the Sabbath, even if my apartment is a mess and I haven’t cooked a thing. The service parts have all been assigned, and so I am ready for the peace of Shabbat to descend.

Sometimes I grow frustrated with my responsibilities at Kedem, which have included everything from jumping a six-foot-high gate (in a Shabbat skirt, of course) to bribing a non-Jewish Russian custodian to turn on the heat in the dead of winter. But whenever I am tempted to give up, I remember how important it is to me to read Torah every week, and how this would not be possible if not for Kedem. I love feeling the rhythm of the year through the festivals and the cycle of the Torah portions. Though I try to assign as much as I can to others, I read at least a small section of the Torah portion each week, thus measuring out my life in parshiot. I practice while waiting in line in the supermarket or standing at bus stops, so that the words of Torah are always on my lips. For this pleasure alone, I think, I am willing to stack and unstack hundreds of plastic chairs.


Image by Noa Lieberman.


Ilana Kurshan is Book Review Editor of Lilith, a literary agent, and an editor. She studies Talmud at the Conservative Yeshiva.