A Jewish Story about a Rabbi facing losing his minyan

    June 2009            
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The Minyan (ten men)

By Martin Jaeger

“What kind of God do you believe in that would make us leave our children and grandchildren, and move to Chicago ?” Rivka asked her husband as they undressed for bed.

“We can’t blame this on God,” Rabbi Richard Coleman answered her. “It’s the march of progress. All we can do is live a righteous life.”

Rivka removed her wig and set it on her wig stand. “I know it’s not your fault. You’ve done your best.”

“I know that in my head, but in my heart I’m suffering. I’m just glad Chicago wants me. How many jobs are there for a sixty year old Orthodox rabbi?”

“I just wish you’d consider doing what other Orthodox synagogues are doing-- using boys from the Bar Mitzvah class to make up the minyan, instead of men.”

“Rivka. Rivka. The authorities forbid it.”

“That’s not true. Only your authorities forbid it.”

“They are the authorities I believe in,” he said lifting up the covers and slipping into bed.

Rivka looked at her husband of 35 years. The last five years had drastically changed him. His once smooth forehead now had deep furrows. His beard was pure white, his hairline was receding, he stooped more and, what was worse, an aura of sadness hung over him like a cloud.

“You always told me God would provide for us,” Rivka said. “Let Him, Richard. Please.”

He could not endure her unhappiness and avoided her wet eyes. “Don’t you think I’m brokenhearted, Rivka? I’d be leaving the members I’ve taken care of for as long as I’ve been a rabbi. I shared their losses, their simchas. I married them. I buried them. You’re losing one family. I’m losing two.”

Rabbi Coleman didn’t sleep well that night and when he looked in the mirror the next morning, his eyes looked like they were filled with red spider webs. At 7:45, he kissed Rivka on the forehead as she lay still sleeping, and left for the synagogue where the minyan waited. Like an old person wondering if death would claim him that day, he also wondered if this would be the last day he had a minyan.

For the last 30 years, since Rabbi Coleman had been at B’nai David, it had been losing members. The synagogue was located in Boyle Heights , near downtown Los Angeles , where the Jewish population had been diminishing for years. Now, it was difficult to get 10 men together for a minyan for morning and afternoon services.

Two weeks ago, the president of the synagogue, Michael Rappoport, had a grim talk with Rabbi Coleman about the dwindling membership.

“Rabbi,” he had said solemnly, “I know you’re doing your best, but we can’t go on like this. We’re going to have to make drastic changes if the synagogue is going to exist.”

Then he told the rabbi that the president of Beth Ami, a Conservative synagogue and he had, out of desperation, worked out an informal plan to merge. “We don’t want to lose you, so I’ve arranged that you can assist their rabbi.”

Rabbi Coleman was stunned. Not only would they merge with a Conservative synagogue, where women sit with men at services and they drive on the Sabbath, but the synagogue would be closed. After 30 years of Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, baby namings, and funerals there would be no more B’nai David.

“I’m sorry, Michael,” Rabbi Coleman said, “but you must know I can’t work in a Conservative synagogue. I’m an Orthodox rabbi and I intend to be one forever.”

“I know, Rabbi,” the president said, “but I just wanted to keep you with us somehow.”

“Thank you, Michael. I know you meant well, but I can’t do it.”

The president hugged the Rabbi with tears in his eyes and walked away.

Now, as Rabbi Coleman approached B’nai David, he was overcome with the same pride he enjoyed each morning and evening for as long as he could remember. The synagogue was built in1932 by the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who had settled in Boyle Heights . They had brought their Orthodox religious traditions with them from their distant homelands and built this magnificent white structure that stood two stories high and had fluted supporting columns. The upper floor, where the women sat on plain pine benches, was encased in walnut wood panels, and below, the men enjoyed roomier, red leather pews. The walls had stained glass windows depicting heroic times from the Bible. The contemporary architectural style these immigrants chose was different from the synagogues in Russia and Poland , because they wanted to assert that they had left the past behind. But their Orthodox rituals, which followed them every place they went, remained unchanged.

Now, 76 years later, the synagogue seemed out of place amid the surrounding one-story Hispanic stores and restaurants. At one time these stores and restaurants were owned by Jews, and the odors on the street were of corn beef and kosher dill pickles. Nowadays, the smells were of tacos and burritos and the sounds were equally foreign.

The synagogue had once been an integral part of the members’ everyday lives, where they prayed, laughed, and danced, but now it was a remnant of a lost community. B’nai David’s congregation, which once counted 450 families, now consisted of only 65 people.

When the Rabbi entered the sanctuary, there were nine men already assembled wearing their yarmulkes and tallises. They talked raucously among themselves until they saw the Rabbi and then became silent. Already in his black hat and tallis, Rabbi Coleman began the service. The prayers went smoothly enough and after he finished the last words of the Kaddish, he kissed the Holy Book, and inwardly said a final prayer. Dear God, I want to thank you for this wonderful minyan. Ten fine men, even if I include myself, and may it be so forever. Amen.

The nine congregants put their books neatly in the holders behind the pews, took off their tefillin, shook hands, and departed through the large wooden doors--everyone except Steven Klein. Steven, twenty eight years old, six feet tall, dressed in a dark blue suit, with a black yarmulke, and white prayer shawl, had been attending services for the past 30 days straight, according to custom, because his father died.

“Can I talk to you, Rabbi?”

“Of course,” the Rabbi said. He knew what Steven was going to tell him, and he expected the worst. “I’m always happy to talk. Come into my office.”

The polite young man followed him inside, took a seat across the desk from the Rabbi, and sat back in his chair. He surveyed a room with shelves brimming with books, walls covered with Hebraic art, and photographs of past and present members of the synagogue.

“Would you like a glass of tea?” Rabbi Coleman asked. “I always like a pick-me-up in the winter. The cold goes right through me. Of course you wouldn’t know about that,” he grinned and his cheeks puffed up.

“Oh, it goes through me too, and I would love a cup of tea.”

The rabbi poured tea first for Steven, then for himself. “So, Steven, what did you want to see me about?”

Steven seemed tense. He fidgeted and pulled on his tie. “Well, Rabbi, as you know my 30 days are up today.”

“Yes, I know, but I was hoping you’d stay on.”

“No, I’m sorry, Rabbi. I’d like to, but the synagogue is too far a drive and my wife and I just joined a Conservative synagogue near where we live. I came all this way out of respect for my dad.” His eyes eluded the Rabbi’s.

The rabbi tried not to show his disappointment.

Steven eased back in the chair and folded his hands on his lap. “Rabbi, I know that things are rough now.” His voice was low and he spoke deliberately. “When my father was the minyan captain, I’d hear him pleading for people to come to services…I felt terrible for him.”

“It wasn’t always that way.”

“He even worked me over,” Steven rose up and said with a smile. “I know it’s not your fault, Rabbi. You Bar Mitzvahed me. But times are changing. Maybe if we were allowed to drive on the Sabbath, I’d come. I know a lot of people I grew up with feel the same way. We live too far away to come during the week, and we can’t drive on the Sabbath.”

“I understand.”

“I feel bad—no disrespect rabbi—but I guess it’s just too difficult to be Orthodox these days. We are not allowed to cook on the Sabbath, or turn on the lights, or…”

“Yes, I know. But that’s what it means to be Orthodox. And now this synagogue may be reaching its end.”

“Is that possible?”

“Yes, I think it’s a fait accompli.” His voice trembled slightly.

“Oh, Rabbi,” Steven said, “I feel so bad for you. What are you going to do?”

“I may have to move to Chicago .”

“There’s no synagogue in L.A. that wants you?”

“Not in L.A. , not anywhere in the country, but Chicago .”

“Now, I feel even worse about not being your tenth man.”

“It’s worse than that. Henry Schreiber is eighty-eight and can hardly walk.”

“But this mustn’t happen,” Steven said. Suddenly his eyes widened and began to sparkle. “Rabbi,” he said, “it’s funny, but, I just had a strange idea that popped into my head. It could be a solution…it’s different. You know how some Evangelicals use TV to reach a bigger audience? Well, why don’t you do something like that? Then the members won’t have to drive to services, and you’ll have no problem getting a minyan.”

“TV is a little out of my league.”

“But that’s the beauty of the twenty-first century. You don’t need to go on TV You can do it on a computer.”

“How do I do that?”

“It’s easy. I’ve got a friend in the computer business, and I’m sure he can set you up so the members of the synagogue will be able to watch your services on their computers.”

“I understand something about computers, but I still don’t see how this works.”

“It’s like a TV program. A camera photographs you and instead of seeing you on a TV tube, the congregants see you on a computer screen. All you need is a web site.”

“This is getting very complicated. Web site. How do I get a web site?”

“My friend will set it up for you. You can have a service twice a day, and even show a Bar Mitzvah or a wedding to your members, their relatives, and friends. You can be viewed all over the world.”

“But how would I know if I had a minyan?”

“Ah, that’s the beauty of it. He’ll set it up so you’ll know how many people are watching, and if they’re men. You might even have hundreds of people tuning in every service. Maybe thousands. Just think, Rabbi, you’ll never have to worry about a minyan ever again.”

“But would it be kosher? I mean a computer synagogue? What would the rabbis say?”

“It’s all in how you define a synagogue,” Steve said. “Is it a building that that has four walls with front and back doors? Couldn’t services be held outdoors?”

“Outdoors…under certain circumstances, but I’m not so sure about a computer.”

“I’m sure some traditionalists will think you can’t do it, but others will see it in terms of people getting together to pray. As long as you’re true to your traditions, why should it matter if it’s by computer instead of in person?” He gave the rabbi a few moments to digest all he had said, and then finished with, “Why not give it a try?”

The rabbi never thought of himself as an iconoclast, but only as a dutiful soldier who followed orders. “It’s a big jump.”

“So is forcing your sixty-five Orthodox congregants to join a Conservative temple. The Talmud may not have contemplated computers, but what’s wrong with them?”

Rabbi Coleman felt like Tevya. On the one hand, it would be a way to save the synagogue, but on the other hand, what would the rabbis say? There would probably be a fight about it for years. Would it be an affront to God to put His synagogue onthe internet?What about tradition? And what would his congregants think?

I could reach all of those who lived too far to walk to a synagogue on Shabbas or to drive to the synagogue for daily prayers. Could anything that would bring people closer to God be a bad thing?

The rabbi took a few breaths and smiled. “I don’t know, Steven. I’ll have to think it over.”

How does one evaluate such a thing?

Steven stood up. “Of course, Rabbi. If you decide to give it a try, give me a call, and I’ll get my friend over as soon as you want him.”

Both men stood. The rabbi walked over to Steven, and they embraced.

As Steven ambled out the door, he turned to the rabbi and said, “I hope you decide to do it for my sake.”

Rabbi Coleman returned to his desk and, although he had paper work, he couldn’t concentrate. The idea of a virtual synagogue kept leaping in and out of his frazzled mind and, as it did, his feelings alternated. Confused, one moment, he was elated the next, and then disheartened.

When he next looked at his watch, it was 10:00 a.m. and time to call Chicago .

I don’t want to move to Chicago . How can I leave my precious little Ashley, David, Eric, and Dustin? How they love to pull my beard and sit on my lap and listen to my stories. Who would spoil them like I do? Who would love them as I love them?

Finally, he lifted the white portable phone and anxiously dialed Rabbi Zimmer in Chicago .

After they exchanged pleasantries, he asked Rabbi Zimmer if he could have a few more days to make up his mind. That seemed like the only sensible thing to do. Rabbi Zimmer agreed but cautioned him that there were others who wanted this job, and he needed to make his decision soon. When Rabbi Coleman put down the phone, his breathing slowed. He knew he had been given a reprieve from the inevitable.

The rabbi checked the watch that Rivka had given him for his twenty fifth year anniversary as a rabbi. It showed 11:30, and time for him to meet his closest friend, Rabbi Reuven Horowitz, for lunch. They had lunch together every week and alternated selecting restaurants. Today, it was Rabbi Horowitz’s choice. He had emigrated from Rumania and liked an “old country” atmosphere and traditional cooking so he picked Fisher’s Rumanian Restaurant, a Glatt Kosher restaurant on Fairfax .

Rabbi Coleman arrived early and took a seat in a back booth. While he waited for Rabbi Horowitz, his mind wandered back to his conversation with Steven.

As doubt’s tentacles crept throughout him, Rabbi Coleman reexamined his motives. Am I doing this just to avoid moving to Chicago ? Am I doing this for Rivka, or, is it for the congregation?

“What’s up?” a voice interrupted his thoughts. It was Reuven.

“What’s up with you? How are you, my good friend?”

“You ask a lot of questions. You must be a rabbi,” Rabbi Horowitz said, taking a seat opposite Rabbi Coleman.

The rabbi always broke into a smile when he saw Reuven. Friends for 40 years, they had been inseparable for the four years they were in seminary school, sharing the same room and each other’s lives. Reuven had introduced the rabbi to Rivka, and was now the rabbi of a small Chabad Synagogue in West Los Angeles .

The rabbi looked across the table at his old friend, whose hair and beard was pure white. Sunlight streamed on Reuven’s face and he looked at peace. Soon they began talking about the days at school and their mishegas, chiding each other as if they were still in their twenties. The waitress approached the two men in black hats and white beards, set down a dish of new pickles and sauerkraut, and took their orders.

As she left, Reuven said, “Well, you know all about me. What’s happening with you, Richard?”

“Well, Reuven, today I’m having a crisis. Don’t let this calm exterior fool you. Inside I’m a raging inferno; I’m up one minute and down the next.”

Rabbi Horowitz knew about the merger plan and the Chicago offer, but not about Steven’s computer solution. “Today, after services, I had a talk with a young man who came up with an ingenious way to save my synagogue.”

“And what’s that?”

Rabbi Coleman hesitated a moment, slightly embarrassed to tell his friend about the new plan. “He wants me to have services on the computer.”

“On the computer?” Rabbi Horowitz was dumbfounded.

The waitress brought the drinks and Rabbi Coleman took a sip of his tea, while Rabbi Horowitz stared at him, waiting for an explanation.

“I know it sounds crazy, but he says he can get someone to hook up my computer so that the congregation, or anyone else for that matter, can watch our services.”

“This is a joke, right?”

“No. No joke. I’m actually considering it.”

“But what kind of mishegas is this? Having a service on the computer?”

“I think it might work,” Rabbi Coleman said.

His friend shook his head disparagingly from side to side as he examined the Rabbi closely. “Richard, I’m surprised at you. You know the rabbis won’t go for it. We believe in a place of worship like the building you have. You know that,” he said looking into Rabbi Coleman’s eyes. “I don’t fully understand your plan, but one thing I understand is that you aren’t going to have a building, and that’s all they need to know.”

“Certainly a building is customary. But what about praying outside. Isn’t that as valid as a building?”

“Maybe according to the Conservative, but not to the Orthodox. We have our tradition, and praying on the internet isn’t one of them.”

The waitress appeared with a steaming, hot plate of stuffed cabbage for each of them.

Rabbi Horowitz dug in without hesitation, but Rabbi Coleman suddenly wasn’t hungry.

“Reuven,” Rabbi Coleman said, “I’m also Orthodox. But are you saying that you and the other rabbis would rather see our congregation destroyed than hold a service without a building?”

“We believe in the sanctity of the building.”

“But our synagogue’s forefathers didn’t.”

“What do you mean by that?

“When the immigrants who came to Los Angeles and formed the first congregation of B’nai David, they decided to keep the Orthodox religious tradition, but abandoned the building style from the old country. They wanted to be Americans and wanted the synagogue to look American.”

“Yes, but to go on a computer…”

“It’s just another step. I’m doing what the founding congregants did. I’m following that precedent.”

“I don’t think the rabbis will bend on this one. I suppose there will always be some rabbi who will disagree with the majority, and you could hang your hat on him, but I think it’s wrong,” His friend looked like he wanted to grab Rabbi Coleman by the shoulders and shake some sense into him.

Rabbi Coleman ate the last forkful of stuffed cabbage and said, “Well, I’m still thinking about it.”

The two men paid their bill and walked outside together.

“I know you don’t want to move to Chicago ,” Rabbi Horowitz said putting his hand on his friends shoulder, “but this other thing…it’s not for you, Richard. You’ve been a great rabbi all your life – don’t do this crazy thing. Don’t ruin a lifelong reputation.”

“I don’t care about my reputation. I only want to do what’s right. I just don’t know what that is,” Rabbi Coleman said.

The two men in black hats hugged, emerged from the restaurant, and took off in different directions.

Walking to his car, Rabbi Coleman heard his good friend’s unsettling words again, “This isn’t for you, Richard.”

Yes, of course, Reuven was right. To take such a chance, to do something so daring, would take someone who had the energy and skill to make it work.

How could I become an internet rabbi? The whole thing was, as Reuven had said, crazy.

The Rabbi felt he was on the edge of a precipice as he tried to reconcile his choices. One wrong step and he would fall into a black hole.

And yet….

He stopped and stood still for a moment inhaling the fresh air, cleansed by the morning rain. Then he exhaled. A few puddles, which were easy to avoid, remained on the ground. In them he could see the light blue sky and wispy clouds huddled together. He stared straight ahead into the future, and asked himself, “What would God want me to do?”

And he knew the answer to that.

Ironically, he had been battling change until now, and suddenly it was going to be his ally.

He sashayed through the parking lot avoiding the puddles, as if he were twenty four again. He couldn’t wait to get home to Rivka.


from the July 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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