February 2, 2021
by Sondra Baras
Prayer is central to Judaism. Jews pray to G-d, talk to G-d, sing to G-d, informally and whenever they feel the need. Perhaps the Jew best known for his informal talks with G-d is Tevye, the milkman, from Fiddler on the Roof. My favorite is when he turns to G-d, after a particularly troubling crisis and suggests: “I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
But Jews place particular value on group or communal prayer. There are certain prayers that can only be said in public prayer and reading from a Torah scroll with the accompanying blessings is only done at public prayer services. And the kaddish blessing, recited alternately by the leader of the prayers and by mourners, can only be said in public prayer.
Ten men gathering in one place to pray is the minimum for a public prayer quorum, referred to in Hebrew as a minyan, and great effort is made to ensure that at least 10 men are present for every public prayer service. Considering that formal prayer services take place three times a day, seven days a week, this is no easy task. But it is the rare synagogue in a town with a decent size religious Jewish population that doesn’t have the minimum quorum each day. In Israel, of course, there are synagogues in every city, town and community and it is rarely a problem to get the minimum quorum together.
And then Corona hit and public prayer was challenged all over the Jewish world like never before. During the first lockdown in Israel, before and during Passover, we were limited to 100 meters beyond the boundaries of our homes and yards. All synagogues were closed. And given the ban against any kind of social gathering, it seemed impossible to have any sort of public prayer. And, the rabbis were unanimous that prayers could be said at home, that staying healthy was more important than gathering for prayer.
But the desire for public prayer runs deep in Jewish circles. Men who make it a point of never missing a public prayer service unless they are ill, were literally chomping at the bit. They missed the gathering in prayer, the ability to recite the Kaddish, the ability to read aloud from a Torah scroll. So they put their heads together and came up with a new concept — street and porch services. In Israel, nearly every apartment has a porch so those living in apartment buildings went out to their porches and prayed. From porch to porch, people recited the prayers together and local synagogues distributed Torah Scrolls to their members so that they could read the Torah portion from their porches, for the benefit of all porch sitters.
For those in private homes or duplex cottages, people stood in their front yard, on their front porch or in their driveways. Someone in the middle of the block would lead the service so that everyone down the block on either side could hear. There are people who did not miss a single public prayer throughout this period! Once the restrictions eased up, we continued to pray on the street but we could congregate a little closer to one another.
Our synagogues are still not open normally. For a few weeks in the summer, the synagogues opened but were limited in the number of people that could attend any given prayer service. So we scheduled services back to back, and some of the services were outside the synagogues, in front of the entrance, around the back, and on the porch. And many of the street services continued, which also accommodated the wishes of those who were hesitant to enter a building for fear of infection. But for the past few months, we are back on the streets and the synagogues are closed.
My father passed away in September, and I have been saying the mourners’ kaddish once a day since. I have found great comfort in the street service just outside my house. I regularly attend the afternoon service, which begins about 15 minutes before sunset. And just as the appointed hour approaches, the front doors open and the men start to gather. Most women do not attend these services and I am often the only woman present. But the men on my street have been so welcoming, to me and to each other. Before Corona, we all belonged to different synagogues, each one based on the custom of the country our families originated from — North Africa, Europe/North America or Yemen. We tend to form friendships and social circles with those in our synagogue. But today, we are praying with those who live closest to us. And while I may not have become best friends with the family two doors down, we now share a comradery that we never had before — we are praying together each day.
The desire for public prayer, the need to pray in a minyan, has proven more powerful than any of us could have imagined. During these rainy winter months, we have continued to pray outside, in the rain and cold. When it is raining hard, we will often gather under the porch of a neighbor, which will keep us dry during prayers but will not shield us from the wind. But at least it is not freezing in Israel. There was a photo making its way around the internet of a prayer service in Toronto in inches-deep snow.
What is it about communal prayer that is so powerful, that brings people out into the cold and rain to pray together when they could easily say the same prayers in the intimacy and warmth of their homes? It goes far beyond fellowship and community. With today’s technology, people can easily catch up and chat and feel connected via zoom. But we are not praying via zoom. We are gathering together.
Judaism is a religion with a unique theology and series of laws and customs. And each individual Jew can follow his faith and keep the laws and customs on his own. But Judaism is also a people; people-hood or community, have always laid at the foundation of Judaism. Who are we if we are alone? Who are we if we are not able to connect to our fellow Jew. We are connected to all humanity with a concern for each other’s welfare. But we are connected to our fellow Jews with a shared heritage and a common identity.
An expression of what we share is our ability and our deep desire to come before G-d as one people. Corona has presented us with many challenges. But it has also offered us opportunities — it has enabled us to rediscover that which we have long taken for granted — our community of faith.