So you want to start a shul, but for real this time? There are a lot of good reasons for wanting to start your own shul, including:
- Quarantine life
- Trying to start a new Jewish community out in the sticks.
- There not being a shul within whatever you consider reasonable walking distance from your home.
- Your current shul not being what it once was ever since the old rabbi left.
- Your current shul was so packed that if you didn’t show up a half-hour early, you weren’t guaranteed a seat.
- There was too much talking/not enough talking at your old shul.
- You don’t know anyone who davens there anymore.
- You want to be involved in shul politics, and no one in your current shul has been cluing you in.
Fortunately, anyone can start a shul, using everyday objects you probably have around the house! Plus a sefer Torah.
Where to Start
The most important factor in starting a shul is having a location.
The general minhag is to start off in someone’s basement. It’s never a living room or a spare bedroom — you want to be able to look out the windows and see legs running by during leining. This is where you’re going to be for the first few years, hiding from nosy neighbors who question the legalities of gathering in a private home to talk to the Creator of all things (mostly because you’re doing it way too often, in their opinion), remembering to duck when you get halfway across the beis midrash because of that pipe, and responding to your family members who ask, “Is there a women’s section?” with, “Sometimes.”
In the meantime, you’re going to put together a building fund, which you will work into every shul announcement and personal conversation with your family until people give you money just to get you to stop. But you won’t.
Once quarantine ends and people outside your family come, the basement will be way too small. You’re going to need to move to a rented location — usually a yeshiva lunchroom or a storefront or the living-room-dining-room-kitchen-pantry-hallway-foyer of an empty house, until such point when you finally get a building of your own, with one of those cool mechitzos where the women can see you but you can’t see them, but they can see you staring at the mechitzah and marveling to yourself about how you can’t see them while they wonder if you actually can see them, as opposed to that curtain you had in the basement that blew open every time someone opened the window. The women might even get to sit upstairs, so they can drop pekelach straight down instead of throwing them blindly on the people right next to the mechitzah, and also play “Where’s Waldo?” to help their toddlers find their totty, because he looks the same as everyone else from the knees down.
And there will still be a building fund.
Things You Need
Sefer Torah. This is a prerequisite to starting a shul and the reason that not every shmo who wants to leave his shul because he’s tired of hearing about the building fund doesn’t just start a minyan in his garden shed. You also need an aron of some sort, although you will probably start off with some sort of armoire with the shelves taken out, topped by a tablecloth that no one can figure out how to “open” without just removing the whole thing completely.
Siddurim and Chumashim. You want to get a few Siddurim of each nusach to make everyone feel welcome and also to confuse the newcomers.
“What nusach do they daven here?”
“It’s still undecided.”
All Siddurim should have a stamp warning the reader not to take the Siddur out of the shul ever, which everyone will completely ignore for Kiddush Levanah. Also, somehow, every Jewish home has one sefer that they at some point accidentally stole from a shul. Most shuls’ Siddurim and Chumashim are covered in black tape, so make sure to ask for that right at the store.
Chairs. Tables are a nice luxury, but every shul needs chairs, or else Tachanun, for example, is going to be difficult, involving a lot of grunting and people pulling each other up off the floor. The chairs should be the kind that make a ton of noise when you push them out or pull them in so the kids know to run in when the speech is over, and also so no one should completely hear Barchu.
You could see if your local chevra kadisha has all of the above items and whether they’re willing to loan them out to start you off. Except the chairs might be a little short.
Bimah. You can’t lein by balancing a sefer Torah on the back of a chair, and also, where will people bang before Shemoneh Esrei? On the back of the person in front of them? (Thump. YELP! “Morid HaGeshem!” If you can’t get ahold of a bimah or you can’t figure out how to maneuver it down the stairs of the basement, you can just spread a tallis out on a folding table and find a ba’al koreh who is either entirely not concerned about back problems or is vertically challenged. A good bimah will have a closet underneath from which the gabbai can get things during davening while the entire shul wonders what he’s about to take out next, like a really bad magic show.
Pile of irregular talleisim. Every single tallis should be slightly too short for the average human being, and also somehow be too slippery to stay on without constant adjustment, so that no one accidentally walks off with it. They should also all be yellow, for some reason. These talleisim are to be used by people who get called up to be the chazzan for Minchah or Ma’ariv and didn’t think to bring their own tallis, for people who are guests in town and just realized this morning that they forgot to pack their tallis, and for sticky little kids on Simchas Torah. The talleisim should be kept in the closet under the bimah, for convenience.
Shtender. The chazzan needs somewhere official to stand in order to differentiate him from the other people who daven loudly, so that everyone else knows whom to follow. If there’s no shtender, the chazzan can daven at the bimah, unless the bimah is a tallis on a table. Technically, the chazzan can hold his Siddur in his hands, because it’s not like he’s also holding a tallis bag and a Chumash, but on the other hand, it is a big Siddur, and also he needs his hands free to constantly keep the shul tallis from sliding off. In addition, the rabbi should ideally have two shtenders, facing in opposite directions, depending on how important it is that he faces everyone else when he sits down. He’s not the principal.
Mechitzah. You need some kind of wall or curtain or room divider for the women who come to Shacharis, the men who come late to Kabbalas Shabbos, and any shiur that wants to pretend that curtains are soundproof. The mechitzah needs to be sturdy enough to stand up to kids playing peekaboo with their mommies, but also able to come down so the women can roll their eyes at their husbands’ dancing on Simchas Torah and also see that their husband is not the only bad dancer. And also to be a captive audience for that song where one guy puts his arms through the other guy’s armpits and holds his Siddur, and the guy in front of him sings with a Sefardi accent — or, if the shul is Sefardi, an Ashkenazi accent, I’m assuming. That same joke every year is hilarious.
Coat racks. You also might want to invest in those hangers that don’t come off the coat racks. They’re annoying to use, especially for your shorter kids, but that way if someone comes to shul with a coat that looks like everyone else’s and says, “OK, well, I’ll just remember that my hanger was the 17th one in,” he won’t have a problem, unless someone gets fed up and brings a hanger from home. Most importantly, though, the coat racks should come from the factory with a few coats already hanging from them that belong to absolutely no one. They might be loaner coats, like the talleisim. But if they are, they should have those sefarim stamps in them, so people know: “Do not remove from the shul.” The talleisim should too.
You also need people. What kind of people? How many? The answers may surprise you. Stay tuned for next week’s article.
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of seven books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.