On Thursday evenings I serve as “minyan captain” at Congregation Beth El, in Bethesda, Maryland. When my father passed away in 1986, I committed to coming to services daily for 11 months to recite the Kaddish because, growing up, this practice was bred in my bones and those of my contemporaries. As I attended the daily minyan, I learned a good deal about myself, my place in the Jewish community, and how the individual and the community reciprocally support and make each other stronger. After the 11 months ended, I found it impossible not to come whenever possible to evening minyanim, eventually earning the requisite bars for a “captaincy.”
The Kaddish is not so much a prayer for the eternal well-being of the departed but rather an expression of zidduk hadin, justification of God’s actions. It is an insistence that despite life’s bad events, by joining with others in the community experiencing the same loss, pain and even anger, we praise God’s rightfulness and find ways to cope, discover reliance, and build for the future.
To do so, we very much need at least 10 Jews to form a quorum for the recitation of certain prayers, including the Kaddish. That a daily minyan is motivated by the need to support those saying Kaddish should not be a source of disappointment in our motivations for praying. Whatever the reason, coming together with other Jews as a minyan forms a caring, reciprocal community of shared emotions, interests and supports. As the Talmudic sages may have said, kal v’chomer, even more so, if Jews come to shul when in need of this community, then should we not respond, “Hinnenu, we are here, what time does the minyan start?”
The reality is that death does bring many to services, but I believe that it’s the everyday matters of life knitted within the minyan experience that sustain them. The death of a loved one is always a shock. Whether one is comfortable with the service or has had limited exposure to Jewish prayer, at the beginning of the mourning period each of us arrives bereft and alone. But in a short period, for those who continue to come, the minyan
unites the mourners with each other and with the rest of the community.
The Kaddish, with its Aramaic, lilting cadence takes us back to when we were children and may have held the hands of parents and grandparents, not knowing exactly what it meant, but aware that something important, something serious, was being said, enfolding us within its rhythm. I think our Jewish hearts yearn for a sense of the haimish, a sense of the old-fashioned, not the sentimental or reactionary, but something wholesome and vibrant, something redolent of a child’s hand in the squeeze of a caring parent. Jews find this shared memory and experience as they come together in the minyan.
The phenomenon of the minyan’s regulars – the community within a community – never ceases to make me smile. Those who come regularly form a club with open membership, and each new arrival ensures the club’s existence into the future, beyond when someone’s period of mourning ends. The club meets before and after the service with a repetitive agenda: how the day went, the difficulty of the commute, the well-being of family members, vacations, entertainments, and the ease or difficulty of having made this minyan. Watching and listening, I am amazed at how the mundane can rise to the level of the exceptional and even the holy.
What I sense unites the regulars across gender, temperament, socio-economic, or political differences is that they bring their personal sense of haimish out of their past into a present in which they are constructing their own future memories and reflections. Those with younger children feel pride as role models for the next generation. When I was saying Kaddish for my father, my son, then two years old, would come and roam around the chapel. At moments, I felt uneasy that he might be distracting others, but then I would look at the adults’ faces and see smiles of connection as hands gently reached out to pat his head.
I am pleased that there are often not enough regulars so that we count on the commitment of other congregants to make at least 10. Shortly before the start of the service, there can be a tinge of tension wondering if we will make it. Usually, a last minute surge brings the others that we need. In the few instances when we don’t make 10, a disappointment settles within those present, as if there is something amiss with the orderliness of our Jewish world. As a community, we pride ourselves on gemilut chasadim, tzedakah, and tikkun olam. I maintain that these noble objectives, which buttress our vision of being personally responsible for building a more perfect Jewish world, may be realized through commitment to our daily minyanim.