The Super Bowl is approaching. I am a New York Jets fan, so the Super Bowl has never meant anything to me in my lifetime. Instead, I’ll quote Jason Gay, writing last week in the Wall Street Journal:
“I’m worried about the Super Bowl party because as a society we are standing at the abyss of group fun. Personal devices, entertainment-on-demand and the related demise of monoculture have turned us into a nation of screen-bound introverts. A pandemic didn’t help. The movie theater business is dying before our eyes. It’s never been easier to be an entertainment recluse, watching serial killer docs under the covers.
It’s convenient, but it’s bad. Social scientists have warned us for years that we’re raising communities of strangers, divorced from rituals like barbecues, church and boring town meetings. We meet neighbors only briefly while in line for power washers at the big-box store. This distance builds loneliness, and worrisome habits like eating microwavable mini pizzas and typing lengthy online missives about Florida politics.
Watch the Super Bowl at someone else’s house? And be forced to put on shoes and pants?
Today we watch what we want, where we want, wearing whatever we want, on our time, not anybody else’s. If we want the buzz of human contact, we can turn to the wasteland of social media where there are plenty of strangers willing to make fun of whatever’s on the screen.
It’s not enough. It’s not a full life. We need to feel each others’ warmth.”
In many ways, I feel the demise of the super bowl party described above can be applied to shuls nowadays (L’havdel elef havdalos). A minyan can be accessed in a manner similar to as described above- what we want, where we want, wearing whatever we want, on our time. Where to daven has become a menu of convenience. One reason for this is that the role of davening has shifted from a locus point of spiritual vibrancy to a stoic membership in an ‘important communal lifestyle institution etc.’ It is the reason why many backyard and house minyanim are flourishing instead of people returning to established institutions. People desire to walk out of shul feeling elevated and less anxious than when they walked in. To have a meditative experience. If davening is a checklist of obligations, where the ‘way things are done’ reigns supreme, where people look at you for what you are wearing instead of for who you are, it will turn people off.
Some of the loneliest moments of my life have been in shuls. There may have been many people in the room, but everyone was alone. The Gemara states that the power of communal prayer is strong enough to overturn a sealed decree. The Gemara questions that we learn elsewhere that the prayers of sailors on a capsizing boat can only avert an unsealed decree?
The Gemara answers: “They have the status of individuals.”.
Why does this group of sailors not have the status of a community?
There were once some Mir Yeshiva students who approached Rav Lazer Yudel Finkel to ask for a raise in their stipends. Rav Lazer Yudel said no, as there were better uses for the Yeshiva’s money. The students responded that in a dispute between the majority and the individual, the halacha follows the majority. “We are the majority,” they said, “and we hold that the amount should be increased.” Rav Lazer Yudel replied, “There are more of you than there are of me, but each of you wants money for your own needs. I am one person, but my decision to keep the funds is out of concern for everyone in the yeshiva. I am the majority and all of you are the individuals here.”
The Sochatchover Rebbe Rav Shmuel Bornsztain, in his epic sefer Shem MiShmuel, explains the above Gemara that when the storm threatened the boat, every person on that boat began thinking of their own welfare. They were not a community, but just a collection of individuals. A group of people in a Starbucks or aboard a plane are not a “community.” Community is defined not by the room that has us together but by the space we make for each other in our hearts.
People are going to Super Bowl parties less often because they are perfectly happy to watch the highlights on their phones and keeping up with the conversation around the game on social media. People are no longer part of a growth-oriented shuls because they are perfectly happy to catch a minyan wherever most convenient. At the same time, shuls have become merely places to be used, instead of places to be a part of. What shul to go to has become a question of where I get the most value for my time. It is a consumerist mentality at its essence.
To the extent that we see a shul as a place for each of us to contribute to our community, as opposed to a vendor with boards and presidents who fulfill our communal and spiritual needs, a shul will thrive. Shul should be a place of giving, not just taking. It’s not enough to go to shul. It’s not a full life. We need to feel each others’ warmth.
Imagine an unaffiliated Jew entering your shul for the first time. Sort of like someone with little football knowledge going for the first time to a Superbowl party. Is there a space for them? Are they welcomed with a smile and food and brought into the excitement? Or will they just sit in the corner left to figure things out for themselves? People who are highly competent in their professional and social lives find it off-putting to enter a space where they lack rudimentary knowledge. Jack Wertheimer quotes a rabbi in his book ‘The New American Judaism’ saying “When I give a class on how to lift the Torah and dress it, how to light a Hanukkah Menorah, or make a Seder, people do not come. It’s not because they know; they’re embarrassed that they don’t know”.
If shuls prioritize procedure over atmosphere and energy, younger people will become less and less interested in attending. In its place, people will turn to creating alternative spaces flowing with energy, acceptance, and growth. It may start off in backyards and homes, but they will go on to outgrow their spaces. It should not be discounted as “just not wanting a Rabbi” or as “laziness”. It is a yearning for something organic and real.
This is not limited to shuls. Schools too for example can become so focused on rules and instruction that they can become void of loving and vibrant absorption. Structure and guidelines are crucial, stifling conformity is not. If the goal is just communicating information to students, then students can make a strong case they can learn the material on their own. Information from the highest caliber educators is readily available online, and technological advances will only accelerate. It’s the warmth, encouragement, and glow of a teacher that genuinely moves people that is irreplaceable.
It is imperative to infuse culture and excitement into our communities. If your child is excited about Mahomes (or you are), find a way to channel that excitement into Mussaf. Don’t go to a shul where it’s most efficient or convenient for you to be ‘yotzei zein’. Find (or start) a place with the plush chairs, extra legroom, the large playground, the place that imports the most fantastic kugel from Lakewood (s/o to Ahavas Yisrael SSJC in Kemp Mill!). Infuse singing with awesome harmonies into the davening. Be a part of the atmosphere as much as possible. Sit closer to the front. Stop turning down the gabbai’s requests. Pitch in for the shul to hire a babysitter, expand and glorify the women’s section.
There is a whole new level of energy when at a game with fans from the other team are there. Let’s create spaces where a “Chavakuk” (Carlebach/Breslov/Rav Kook) guy and a Brisker look forward to singing a Lecha Dodi together. A place where what nusach you daven or yameka type you wear doesn’t define you. Spaces where men, women and children are enthused and excited to partake in an integral role in the game.
The concept of ‘halftime’ has great pertinence as well. Rav Aharon Tashman, the beloved shoel u’meishiv of Passaic Mesivta, once stated that “bein hazmanim is a zman of bein”. Breaks are not merely times to catch your breath but worthy entities with their own systems, rules, and culture. It is up to you to create your show on your vacations, evenings, and weekends. What song is your ‘soundtrack’? Who would you have singing it? What commercials and food would you serve at halftime? Is it a show you would want your children to view? What halftime adjustments will you make? How will you leverage and transform your first-half mistakes?
The world is at the two-minute warning of the 4th quarter. Our tzaddikim teach us that we are living in “ikvasa d’mishicha”, as exile wanes and Geulah is imminent. What is your/our 30-second message to the world? After thousands of years of wandering, our time is here to broadcast the Torah’s messages and values to millions of people watching, and fly victoriously on the wings of eagles to Israel and Mashiach.
Fly, Eagles Fly!