As the congregants of Young Israel shifted uncomfortably on the carpet floor of their cavernous sanctuary this past Tisha Ba’Av, lamenting over the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, their voices sailed above the stained glass windows, up above the tiered women’s balcony, and still higher up a flight of cracked ceramic stairs, until they arrived at an empty room on the top floor of their Upper West Side building.
There, behind a locked door, stands a lonely Ark made of oak. There is no Torah inside, and there are no chairs or tables facing it. Nobody opens it on Shabbos, and no children kiss its curtain as they pass by with their hopeful fathers. There it stood, alone and empty, listening to the bitter tunes of grief from the minyan directly below it.
On the 17th of Tammuz, the Young Israel of the Upper West Side locked that door and asked my minyan to pray elsewhere. I’m not too familiar with the details of the financial circumstances surrounding the decision, but, suffice it to say, it was not a financial decision. If it was political, it’s beyond my interest to dissect the subtle motivations of men who make such decisions.Artwork by Chezi Gerin
What this means to me is that once again, I wake up on Shabbos morning and ask myself : Do I go to this shul and see people I like at kiddush, or do I go to that shul and possibly have a heartfelt davening, or do I stay home, drink some coffee, read the newspaper, and avoid the whole thing? Like many others, I either drag my feet to a minyan that does little to inspire me, or pray by myself in slippers.
For two years, I didn’t have to debate. I went to this minyan along with other men who felt like they had maybe found a spiritual home on the Upper West Side. I fell into a shabbos routine, finally. I found a place I could go that made shabbos more meaningful and less like a confusing burden. For somebody who actively avoids community and communal responsibility, that’s saying a lot. The guys there were likeminded, the prayer was heartfelt, and living on the Upper West Side made sense for reasons other than dating and being social.
And, I was not alone. The minyan grew, not because of the kiddush, but because we had a leader. We had a Rebbe who wasn’t trying to be anything, and wanted nothing from us. He expected only things from himself, and from the Nation of Israel, and his authenticity was contagious. Men from the minyan would nod at one another as they passed by in the streets, unaware of names or professions, but certain they had a connection deeper than specifics.
They had found a home, a community. They had been reignited.
Now, once again, I wander. The faithful have continued praying together despite the challenges, and have become stronger for it. Others have rejoined the minyans they left. Most stay at home, reading the newspaper, and drinking coffee.
In the Times of Israel, Nathan Lopes Carodozo declares that the reason young people no longer join synagogues is that God no longer resides there. He resides in coffees shops where friends discuss their beliefs, in living rooms where life and relationships are passionately debated, in bedrooms where lonely souls scream out in search of answers.
We are in a failing relationship with shul. A relationship cannot sustain itself without proper communication, and we find ourselves in a situation where leadership and young people cannot properly communicate. There is a formula being followed, inherited from another generation, which is no longer relevant to the needs of young people. How many minds wander to thoughts about career, anxiety, love, fear, joy, regret, happiness, while somebody stands on the bimah and speaks enthusiastically about the importance of Israel? How can our leaders communicate effectively if they don’t know what to talk about?
The web of social media has ushered in an age of democratic education: Anybody with a good opinion can be heard, and those who disseminate falsehood can be exposed. We spend our time learning from each other, and forming niche groups around what matters to us most. Rather than sermons and communal gatherings, millennials are empowered by viral content, instant communication, and quiet conversations with a likeminded friend over a drink. We teach each other, and we develop together with those to whom we relate. However, what works so well within the framework of the social and business marketplace has failed to be adopted by Modern Orthodox institutions. In a world where everything is trending towards personalization, the Modern Orthodox experience stands out as a singularly monolithic and depersonalized experience. Where is the room for nuance of personality, desire, history, and preferences, which is so prevalent in every other successful product that young people use daily? Where is the intimacy and sharing, which have proven themselves so compelling on the social platforms that are changing the world?
Old men with old ideas are grasping, struggling, clawing for a generation that has no interest in them. Shul is dead: it’s empty, it’s crying. Don’t give me a kiddush, give me truth! We will settle for nothing less, but we will take your cholent and kugel for free while we snake through the crowds in search of a soul that will recognize me for who I truly am.
I am not certain what will happen for our minyan. For now, we have temporarily relocated to the basement of PrimeKO on 85th Street. I am certain, however, that the empty room at West 91st Street is the holiest place in the entire building. I am certain that God visits each Shabbos morning to hear His praises, and leaves saddened and confused by his stubborn children in the cavernous room below it.
Michael is a co-editor of Altar Journal, a writer, and graduate student in ITP at NYU's Tisch School of The Arts. To read his works of fiction, check out Radzyn.
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