After a lot of give and take and even more debate, we finally made it back into shul, and, hopefully, with G-d’s help, we will be able to stay there. But we’ve discovered that it’s one of those things that comes under the heading of “now, wait a minute, not so fast.”
It’s the summer here in New York, and on most days it is just delightful outdoors. It is additionally enjoyable to daven in that type of environment.
We are in an age where we are adapting to new ways and routines for many things, so whether and how and where we daven with a minyan is very much at the top of our personal and communal agendas.
Things are shaping up at this point in one of two directions. There are those who are both relieved and grateful to be able to be back in shul. Then there’s a number of people who are committed to davening outdoors for the foreseeable future — and perhaps even beyond that.
I’ve been speaking with people at random about their current minyan habits and their future minyan plans. This is hardly a local issue, but rather a global one. I have a first cousin, Rabbi Yossy Goldman, who has been a shul rabbi in Johannesburg, South Africa, for about 40 years. The shuls down there have been closed since before Pesach. The shul-going population is not as voluminous there as it is here, not even close. But there are groups, he tells me, who assemble to daven outdoors. However, it is winter there so it’s about 35 degrees in the morning in Johannesburg. That might be us in a few months.
I met a friend on Sunday who lives in Cedarhurst and as part of our short conversation I asked him, “Are you davening indoors or outdoors?” He gave me an incredulous look and said that his shul is open and of course he’s inside. He sensed that I wanted to hear more so he added that there’s an outdoor minyan on his block but he usually does not participate.
Reuvan Kesharim of Far Rockaway started a WhatsApp group known as “Minyan Fanatics,” at about the same time that authorities in New York City and Nassau County gave their OK for minyanim to gather outdoors and with a limited amount of people, somewhere between 10 and 20 in each minyan.
Shuls are now allowed to function at 50% of capacity, with proper social distancing and face masks recommended. Some shuls that have indoor minyanim offer a simultaneous outdoor minyan for those who prefer to daven that way. Other shuls have designated mask sections and no-mask sections, but that is another complicated story.
When it comes to the Torah reading, many minyanim do not call any of the congregants to the Torah for an aliyah but rather the ba’al korei is the only one standing there and recites the berachos before and after each aliyah. In some shuls and outdoor minyanim there is a partial Plexiglas partition between the Torah reader and the person taking the aliyah, and that seems sufficiently safe for some.
What will be the fate of these outdoor conclaves with their tent tops, fans, tables, and chairs once we get to the point where shuls receive authorization to be open at full capacity? Will people still choose to daven outdoors?
The probable answer is that some of the more ensconced minyanim will be around for a while and might even be considered micro satellites of the shuls that many of the members were davening in before this all started.
It’s not just about starting a new shul, which some might even suggest is the last thing needed in some neighborhoods. At this point, even more important than wearing a mask, according to some infectious disease experts, is the need to social distance. Many of these same experts have said that if you are six feet apart from the person next to you then a mask may not even be imperative. To play it safe, especially if you are particularly vulnerable, it is best to keep your mask on as much as you can. So while it is best to wear a mask whenever possible, according to the experts, the restrictions seem to be relaxed a bit when you are outdoors as opposed to davening inside a shul.
For now, these outdoor minyanim are making an important contribution to the process by making sure that our shuls are not filled wall-to-wall with people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. That is vital, as it facilitates proper social distancing, which has proven to be key to reducing the spread of the coronavirus.
My schedule over these last couple of months has afforded me the chance to experience several outdoor minyanim with various styles and customs. After davening at home for many weeks both over Shabbos, yom tov, and for the daily tefillos, the news that minyanim would begin to be organized, albeit outdoors, was exciting and even liberating. We were making progress against the scourge of this awful virus.
So let me describe the ongoing outdoor experience that I am having and why I have developed a preference for it and look forward to sustaining this style of prayer in the future. I spend some Shabbosos in Woodmere where I was inside a shul just once but have participated in several outdoor minyanim.
On two occasions over the last few months I was at an outdoor Shabbos minyan that did not have a sefer Torah, so we had our minyan without Torah reading. The next time I was there was a few weeks later; they did have a sefer Torah but no one at the minyan knew how to lein that week’s parashah, so we had a minyan without Torah reading.
Outdoor minyanim are contributing to community safety by preventing crowded shuls. But they have the added benefit of free fresh air. Many people have the impression that the virus has the ability to bounce off walls and linger in a room as opposed to just flying around outdoors. You’re not going to see a simple sentence like that in any medical textbooks, but, then again, maybe you will.
On the sensitive matter of masks, my observation is that some outdoor minyanim require that everyone wear masks all the time, and if you remove the mask you run the risk of being asked to leave. More often at these outdoor minyanim there is a mix of masks, some only covering the mouth and exposing the nose and others straddling chins, apparently only subscribing to the symbolism that the mask offers and little more.
Let’s be clear. If wearing a mask reduces risk for you or anyone else, it is important to wear it and wear it right. Unfortunately, especially here in New York, people have problems following direction. But the problem is not the shuls. More than anything else it is the bars and clubs in New York that are really not supposed to be open but are gathering places for mostly young people who are flouting the policies set up my Mayor de Blasio.
Still the policies in shuls on this matter are diverse. Shuls in Boro Park and Flatbush are fully open and have been for a while. After talking with people who attend those shuls I am told that the shuls are full and, in most, masks are rare. Still there are a few shuls — in Midwood, in particular — where masks are mandatory.
In the community known as Shaare Tikvah in the Shomron, where our friend Ron Jager resides, only ten people are allowed in shul, with the rest praying outdoors. My cousins who live around the world tell me that in Melbourne, Australia, all the shuls are closed but 440 miles away from there, in Sydney, they have just begun to open.
The option for outdoor minyanim was born out of necessity, and some people are not all that anxious to let go. It can be noisy outside, but you manage to get used to it. I sometimes daven at a beautiful outdoor minyan where a dozen fans are spinning and where three outdoor air purifiers and blowers are humming away as well. On Tisha B’Av, which was a Thursday, a few of the nearby homes had the gardeners out in full force with lawn mowers chiming in to add to the noise level.
In the Five Towns, a 787 jet on its way to JFK airport occasionally flies over and the noise reaches an extraordinary crescendo. So we get used to the noise; it’s part of our new reality, along with the masks and social distancing and our new long-term outdoor shuls.