As I was leaving a house in Brooklyn this past week, out on the street, I noticed the host on his front balcony. I turned to thank him again when he nodded his head and signaled to me with his hand. He did not speak. I realized he was in the midst of prayer. That’s when I noticed the call and response of afternoon prayers emanating, in staggered fashion, from his house all the way to the end of his block. I looked up and saw stretched before me, one by one, each house with people outdoors, engrossed in prayer on their front porch.
On the street, I was standing in the center of a makeshift synagogue, smack dab in the middle of the melodious chants of prayer.
It was an ordinary day. A Sunday afternoon. It was a regular service. No Carlebach. No singing. No special inspiration. Just an unskipped mincha afternoon prayer.
There’s a pandemic? We can’t leave our homes? OK, so we’ll improvise a way to continue praying legally. That’s what this outdoor mincha service said to me.
Being that it was Brooklyn, densely populated with block after block of observant Jews, no one needed to leave home in order to be part of this minyan. It was completely legal.
As notices of synagogues reopening have been circulating, I know I shall feel wistful for the unconventional outdoor synagogues and prayers that have sprung up all around.
On Pesach, a video circulated from Israel of a cantor leading the Hallel prayers from a traffic circle. His “congregants” became the surrounding neighbors on their balconies responding with resounding “Amens” and yearning cries of “Ana Hashem Hoshia Na.”
A few years ago, on my way to the neitz daybreak prayers at the Wailing Wall, I was in line for security. A man ahead of me and an elderly woman beside me could be heard chanting the morning blessings. Somehow, from their body language and eye contact with the security guard, it was clear that they were regulars at the neitz minyan at the Wall.
I remember silently marveling at this quiet custom and commitment, daily daybreak prayers all the way at the Wall.
I remember thinking: These are the devotees, the Jews who are carrying on Jewish prayer and ensuring that, come what may, there will always, always be a quorum of Jews wrapped in tallit and tefilin, praying. Not just men, but righteous women, rising early, walking to the Wailing Wall, prayers on their lips.
After the Holocaust, my great-uncle married my great-aunt, who hailed from the same town. He realized who her father (my great grandfather) was. Certainly my gentle aunt was lovely in her own merit, but the clincher, after losing so much family during the war, was apparently his familiarity with her father and the link to life before the war.
Prior to the war, when my great-uncle was a young man, just starting off in business, as he was on the way to the train and it was still dark out, he would cross paths with my great-grandfather. He was on his way to kindling the fire in the town’s synagogue before the town’s people arrived for morning prayers. They exchanged only two words: “Good Morning.” But that memory alone was the tipping point among the many other charming qualities my great-aunt embodied.
Now, with the explosion and renewed commitment to prayer, I think of my great-grandfather. Before coronavirus, there were myriad conversations about how to improve Jewish prayer or how to motivate people or how to be more inclusive of people to make them comfortable in shul. To be sure, these remain important. But the coronavirus happened. Without any formal instruction, we started missing synagogue. We started praying more. Shacharit, Mincha, Ma’ariv. People’s balconies overflowed, streets overflowed, until it was entire neighborhoods, like a river, together yet apart in prayer. Echoing our Jewish prayers of the ages.
Organically, unconventional davening, outdoors, spoke to people. Balconies, streets and courtyards, overflowing with people and often families, became our synagogues. The texture of this new congregation became a patchwork of prayers. We learned that our Jewish people’s commitment to prayer is alive and well!
It has been a stubborn expression of persistence and improvisation. Like so many times in our desperate past, the Jewish people found a way to overcome limitations.
Due to the lack of proximity, in my neighborhood of the Upper West Side, and I assume in Denver too, it wasn’t legally possible to continue with communal prayers. But it has been nothing short of inspiring.
Even after having been exposed to it only vicariously, I shall still miss it.
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