Jewish Prayer
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The COVID-19 pandemic closed synagogue doors across the world.

Some Jews never go to synagogue; some go on festivals or every Shabbat. Some Jews say their prayers in the synagogue every single day. At least, they did until a few months ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic closed synagogue doors across the world. By late May, constant shul-goers have gone without seeing the inside of a synagogue for more than two months, as long a period without public prayer as they had ever endured.

They still pray. Only now they pray, or “daven,” without a minyan — the quorum of 10 Jewish people needed to pray as a community.

Shul-goers in liberal streams of Judaism attend Zoom services, which have won devotees.

“I have virtually participated in and/or listened to many services in the past eight weeks of being confined,” said Suzanne Levin of Pleasant Ridge, recently widowed. “Some with temples/synagogues I previously attended, and some with places new to me. I actually attended three seders in three time zones on the first night of Pesach. One weekend I said kaddish for my husband three times in about 16 hours. I have found it comforting.”

Another pleased worshipper, Lena Vayneberg of Hazel Park, also approves of the new virtual format.

“I really, really enjoyed Zoom and Facebook (Facebook more than Zoom) synagogue events. I hope they continue after quarantine is lifted,” she said.

Some shul-goers of the more Conservative streams of Judaism have gone “cold turkey,” replacing public with private prayer. That has been the case for Rebecca Tron of Walled Lake.

“My Conservative congregation (B’nai Israel of West Bloomfield) holds Zoom services on weekdays but not on Shabbat, so that’s when I daven alone,” Tron said. “I miss the prayers that require a minyan, and I miss the communal experience, especially the sound of singing together.”

But, Tron added, “It’s sometimes nice to take my own time on the prayers … and to think up my own d’var Torah.”

Prayer Enhanced

Shmuly Yanklovitz, an Orthodox rabbi and dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona, acknowledges the loss, but looks for gains as well. He recently asked his rabbinic colleagues: “In what ways was your davening enhanced (if at all) over these past months?”

The question circulated among shul-going Jews in Metro Detroit and around the world.
Parents of young children struggle to find quiet space for prayer. Nathaniel and Shaina Shevin Warshay, former Detroiters who now live in Jerusalem, tried a few systems before they found one that worked.

“Nathaniel has been getting up early to daven before the kids get up. For the first few weeks he was trying to daven while kids slowly got up and wanted breakfast, and it was not working so well,” Shaina said.

But young children complicate synagogue attendance as well. Jeffrey Dorfman of Cape Town, South Africa, reports that “with young children at home … we had fallen into showing up late for shul.”

Now, saying his prayers at home, Dorfman has “reacquainted himself with old friends”— prayers from early in the service he usually missed when he came to shul late.

Those with quiet homes, though, might miss other aspects of the communal prayer.

“I miss the community of ‘being in shul’ and listening to others while davening,” said Micki Grossman of West Bloomfield.

Barry Dolinger, rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence, Rhode Island, reports that when he prays alone, he misses the connection with his local congregation.

“But,” he said, “I feel much more connected to imagined ancestors, whose prayer experience I presume to have mirrored … in relationship to the actual celestial day. And I wish the streetlights would just go off so I could actually see the night sky unabridged.”

Praying with a community imposes time constraints. Prayers start at a certain time and proceed at a certain pace. Without a congregation, some people have decided to coordinate with nature, saying the morning service at sunrise, the afternoon as the day wanes and the evening service at night.

Others enjoy freedom from the alarm clock and pray whenever they happen to awaken. One suburban Detroiter sets his alarm clock to right before the last time for the morning Shema.

For Rabbi Stephen Belsky of Oak Park, Shabbat and weekday services also feel different. He finds it “easier to relax, concentrate and say everything on Shabbos without worrying about getting out of sync with the shul.” However, he finds it “much more difficult to concentrate during the week.”

Robert Buxbaum of Oak Park prefers prayers at home but misses the synagogue. “My main prayers are better at home, I find,” he said, “but there are some aspects of the shul service that I miss a lot: the learning, the camaraderie, the Torah reading.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has loosened Michigan’s stay-at-home restrictions to allow for gatherings of 10 — enough for a minyan. However, most shuls remain cautious and have yet to reopen their buildings.


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