By Saul Golubcow
On Thursday evenings at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, I serve as the minyan captain. When my father passed away in 1986, I committed to coming to services every day for 11 months to recite the Kaddish, because the commitment was bred in my bones. As I attended the daily minyanim, I came to learn 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 often, eventually earning the requisite bars for a “captaincy.”
The millennium-old Kaddish prayer is not so much a prayer for the eternal wellbeing of the departed as it is expression of Zidduk Ha-din — the justification of God’s actions, an instruction and an insistence that in life bad events befall us, and through the joining with other Jews in the community experiencing the same loss, pain and even anger, we find ways to cope, discover reliance and build for the future.
Traditionally, to do so, we need a minyan, that is at least 10 Jews, to form a quorum.
Let’s not be disappointed that in many congregations establishing daily minyanim is motivated by the need to support those who come to say Kaddish, as opposed to coming to pray for prayer’s sake. Whatever the reason, coming together with other Jews to pray 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 a Jew comes to shul when in need of this community, then should we not respond, “hinnenu, we are here, what time does the minyan start?”
Death does usher in many to services, but everyday matters of life knitted within the minyan experience sustain them. The death of a loved one is always a shock, and whether one is comfortable within the service or has had limited exposure to Jewish prayer, each arrives bereft and alone. But in a short period of time, 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, enfolds us within its rhythm and takes us back to when we were children and held the hands of parents and grandparents. We may not have known exactly what it meant, but as we listened we were aware that something important, something serious, something powerful was being said.
Perhaps our Jewish hearts still yearn for the heimish, a sense of the old-fashioned, not stale or reactionary, but wholesome, vibrant and redolent of a child’s hand in the squeeze of a caring parent. We can find this personal and shared memory and experience as we join together in the minyan.
Those who come often during their 11 months, the “regulars,” form a club with open membership for each new arrival and continuity of the club’s existence, even as individual members’ periods of mourning end. The club meets for a few minutes before and after the service with the agenda repetitive: how the day went, well-being of family members, vacations, entertainments and the ease or difficulty of making this minyan.
For the past two pandemic-burdened years, our minyan has been meeting on Zoom where the agenda now includes streaming suggestions, vaccine status, mandate updates and connectivity frustrations. Watching, listening, I am regularly amazed at how the mundane can rise to the wonderful and, arguably, even the holy.
Further, what unites the regulars across gender, temperament, socio-economic and even political differences is the bringing of their fond and personal sense of heimish out of their past into a present where they are constructing their own texture for future memories and reflection. In particular, those with younger children feel pride as role models for the next generation.
When I was saying Kaddish for my father, my son, then age 2, would come on most nights 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 to their own past and to a new generation as hands gently reached out to pat his head.
I am pleased when death has not knocked often and there are not enough regulars to comprise the nightly minyan. But at these times, we count on the commitment of other congregants to make at least “not 10.”
Shortly before the start of the minyan, there can be a tinge of tension wondering if we will “make it.” Usually, a last-minute surge brings the numbers that we need. But in the few instances when we don’t make 10, a quiet 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 chesed, tzedakah and tikkun olam (acts of kindness, justice and repair of the world). If so, please consider that these cherished noble objectives that buttress our vision of being personally and communally responsible for building a more perfect Jewish world may be realized through the support of our daily minyanim.
Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac. An earlier version of this piece appeared in Voices of Conservative Judaism.