An Outdoor Tribute
By Larry Gordon
It’s the heart of winter, and, unexpectedly, those ramshackle outdoor minyanim still seem to be going strong. And now a Woodmere-based minyan has taken the step to name their outdoor shul for a young man who was one of the regular participants and who tragically lost his life last week after a battle with COVID-19.
The under-a-tent-without-walls minyan can draw as many as 30 people on Friday night and Shabbos morning, and it is now known as Ohel Yudi, named in memory of Yudi Sternfeld, z’l, who passed away last week at the age of just 31 years.
Yudi Sternfeld, z’l
“We have had a minyan here daily now for 180 days straight,” said Yoni Nierenberg, one of several founders of the minyan. He explained that the minyan began back when our shuls were mostly closed but at a time when we were encouraged to begin assembling in small groups of no more than ten people, socially distanced and wearing masks. Yoni said that to this very day that is the strict practice and policy at Ohel Yudi.
In terms of the future for the minyan, Yoni says that it will probably go on until such time that life can go back to the way we once knew it and we can attend shuls without concerns or restrictions. He adds that the catalyst for the minyan was mostly to serve those who are immunocompromised and have genuine concerns about davening indoors these days under the best of conditions. He points out that the neighborhood’s older residents in particular greatly appreciate having a safe, nearby outdoor minyan to attend three times a day.
“Yudi, who was married during the last year, became a fixture at our minyan and always had a smile on his face when he came to shul,” says Mr. Nierenberg. He says that the small group of friends and neighbors saw the new minyan as a unique opportunity to be taken seriously. “It wasn’t about not having to walk the extra half-mile to shul,” he says. “We took the idea of this special minyan seriously and were determined to elevate the quality of our davening and kavanah.”
We are coming up to a year since the coronavirus first began to wreak havoc in this country. One of the many ways to track how events unfolded over the last year is to trace the trajectory of our minyanim—from the time that it became imperative to close down our shuls, to the period of time when small outdoor minyanim were encouraged, to the stage that we find ourselves at today, allowing people back into shul, albeit with limitations and restrictions.
The discussion, or even the debate, about outdoor minyanim revolves around the following: Are people at the outdoor gatherings expressing their resistance to going back to conventional services in shuls, or are they at these minyanim as an alternative to davening at home alone?
I interviewed several community rabbis on the subject last week, and the opinions varied on this matter. “I think that 90% just don’t want to go to shul, and about 10% are davening outside for health reasons,” said one local rabbi. So, I pointed out, if those numbers are accurate then the outdoor minyanim are warranted if it contributes to the health of even a few people. The response was a hesitant yes, but maybe also no.
But not everyone agrees about that either. Another rabbi said, “Davening should take place inside shul, and outdoors is not a proper replacement for that once the shuls are opened.”
We are about eight weeks to Pesach, with spring not too far after that. We know from past experience that outdoor minyanim hit their stride once the weather turns nicer outside.
But now there is an outdoor minyan, albeit under a tent top, with a name: Ohel Yudi. People who knew Yudi Sternfeld were effusive with their praise for a young man who could never get enough of helping people. Yoni Nierenberg says that we know that Hashem takes nothing from the world unless he replaces it in some fashion. He expounds further, adding that we learn that a berachah is only found in an object that is hidden from our view. “The loss of Yudi from his family and our shul is [beyond our grasp and] hidden from our view, and what type of berachah will ultimately [be brought] into the world is still unknown, but we have emunah that Hashem will somehow fill this great void.”
Unfortunately, Moshe Schwartz, one of the elder statesman of this Church Ave minyan (there are several), passed away over last weekend. Yoni and his co-founder of the minyan, Eric Gellman, point out that one of the reasons that this outdoor minyan was founded in the first place was so that people like Mr. Schwartz, who had pre-existing health issues, would not have to spend his last month isolated and was able to join the minyan.
It’s people like Yudi Sternfeld and Moshe Schwartz, of blessed memory, who add a completely new dimension to the concept of outdoor minyanim. It is men like Yoni and Eric who placed the needs of others before what one might consider was in their best personal interest. Outdoor minyanim are a form of reaching out and keeping people at risk healthy during a difficult time.
You might hear talk about a backyard or tent minyan being an avenue of exploitation of the pandemic, that it’s a manifestation of lethargy and plain laziness about getting up early and going to shul. That kind of attitude is mostly tainted with cynicism, of which there is abundance these days.
Are these outdoor minyanim here to stay over the long term? Some will and some won’t. The new Ohel Yudi is most likely here to stay, mainly because Yudi Sternfeld touched the lives of those who davened there, through the seasons, in a lasting and even eternal way. That may be how long this minyan will function going forward.
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