Kavana and/or Convenience, Can You Have Both? A Measured Appeal to Those Who Attend Neighborhood Minyanim Instead of Shul
In recent years, there has been a proliferation of neighborhood minyanim that serve as alternatives to attending Shul. Some of these minyanim rotate between homes, while others are in fixed locations. Some meet only Friday nights while others also meet for Mincha and Maariv on Shabbos/Motzei Shabbos as well. All were started for convenience: for some the convenience of not walking longer distances, for others the convenience of a shorter, less formal service, and for some both.
I am sympathetic to the merits of such minyanim as I grew up attending one my entire childhood. We lived in the Northeast, close to a mile from Shul, with cold winters and regular snowfalls. With the rabbi’s permission, a minyan met in rotating basements. Besides the weather convenience, the minyan also provided the opportunity for young people to lead the davening, layn, and get kibbudim, opportunities often denied at the large shul. There is no doubt the minyan enabled and encouraged some who otherwise wouldn’t have davened with a minyan or even at all.
Personally, my first experience with Jewish communal leadership came as a teenager when I served as gabbai and made announcements at our local basement minyan. I am genuinely grateful for that experience and the lessons it afforded me.
And yet, as much as I see the merits, there are several halachic considerations and concerns regarding attending such minyanim. In an excellent article in the inaugural volume of Yadrim, the Torah Journal of our BRS Beis Medrash, Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz addresses many of them. Indeed, given the halachic and meta-halachic concerns, it is surprising how many people who are generally scrupulous and vigilant with not only keeping halacha, but observing minority opinions and stringencies, have no hesitation to host and attend home minyanim. Perhaps it is the absence at Shul of those who are admired for their religious fervor and davening with kavana that has the biggest impact and is felt the most.
Colleagues from across the country have described the same phenomenon we are seeing in Boca – the increase in neighborhood minyanim is, on a very practical level, impacting the attendance, feel, energy and experience of davening in the Shul itself. Having a large crowd with high energy is not just a nice idea in theory, but it is an important value.
The pasuk (Mishlei 14:28) describes an axiom of Halacha: B’rov am hadras melech, the larger the gathering, the more glory and honor we give God. With this in mind, the Shulchan Aruch (90:9) records that one should always try to daven in Shul. The Magen Avraham (90:15) offers this encouragement even if one has a minyan in his own home, ruling that one should still attend shul since more people will be davening together.
Beyond the halachic considerations mentioned above, we need to be thinking about the practical impact of attending home minyanim. The casual atmosphere in a home, the presence of countless distractions, and the informal nature of the minyan almost guarantee the quality of davening will be inferior to davening at shul. But even if it is not, or even if we don’t care if it is, we need to be sensitive to, and considerate of, the impact of our absence on the Shul itself.
To be clear, I am not addressing the phenomenon of those who attend Shtiebels as alternatives to traditional shuls. I am referring to people who belong to and are loyal to their Shul, pay membership, attend Shabbos morning and participate in programs, classes and events, but for convenience stay on the block or nearby on Friday night and Shabbos Mincha and Maariv. In our community, the existence of neighborhood minyanim doesn’t affect our budget or the size of our membership. But it does negatively impact both those who are still coming to Shul and I would argue, also impacts negatively on those who are choosing not to.
At times a home minyan is held for someone who is ill, debilitated, or unable to attend shul due to extenuating circumstances. In most cases, however, the motivation for the minyan is simply convenience.
In a recent column in the New York Times, The Tyranny of Convenience, Tim Wu writes:
As Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter, recently put it, “Convenience decides everything.” Convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences. Easy is better, easiest is best…But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear.
Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life…
We need to consciously embrace the inconvenient — not always, but more of the time. Nowadays individuality has come to reside in making at least some inconvenient choices. You need not churn your own butter or hunt your own meat, but if you want to be someone, you cannot allow convenience to be the value that transcends all others. Struggle is not always a problem. Sometimes struggle is a solution. It can be the solution to the question of who you are…
So let’s reflect on the tyranny of convenience, try more often to resist its stupefying power, and see what happens. We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest. The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity.
Yes, walking a few more blocks or participating in davening that lasts a few more minutes is less convenient. But since when is convenience the priority in decision-making or the core value in determining what we do, particularly something as important as where we daven?
I know convenience isn’t the only factor. Neighborhood minyanim breed friendships, camaraderie and provide a sense of sub-communities within the greater community. But I believe if we are honest, we would admit that those can be accomplished at other times and in other ways. It seems to me both from my youth as a participant and now as an interested observer, convenience is in fact the main driving force behind these minyanim.
As Tim Wu argues – it is time we liberate ourselves from the tyranny of convenience and allow ourselves to experience the satisfaction that results in having exerted a little more effort. Walking a few more steps, planning our erev Shabbos to be ready a few minutes earlier, spending a few more moments in song and communal prayer, are not only more elevating and more enriching, but doing them cultivates and brings out the best version of ourselves.
The walk to and from Shul often offers quality time, memorable conversations and positive interactions among family and friends. Embrace it, lean in and take full advantage.
What do our children learn if they see us consistently choose convenience over kavana, expediency over excellence, and comfort over community?
Contributing to attendance at Shul and by extension the quality of the davening is the very definition of being a good neighbor. The Shulchan Aruch (90:11) quotes the Gemara (Berachos 8a) that goes so far as to say that anybody who has a Shul in his city and doesn’t come to daven there is considered a shachein rah, a bad neighbor.
The Noda B’Yehudah (Tzlach drush 23) writes: “Whoever has a Shul available to daven in, but chooses to daven at home, is called a bad neighbor. Even if there is a quorum of ten people, it still cannot compare to tefillah in Shul. A Shul is a Mikdash and Hakadosh Baruch Hu resides there…The holiness there is similar to the kedusha of Eretz Yisrael. The prayers go up to Heaven…When one davens at home, he loses out on all these benefits.”
The Yerushalmi, commenting on the pasuk דרשו ה׳ בהמצאו, call out to Hashem when He is found, says Hashem is found in the Shul and that is where we should go when we want to speak with Him and want our tefillos most readily heard.
We need to ask ourselves – do we aspire to meet the Torah’s definition of a good neighbor or simply to do what comes most convenient? Is a closer location or shorter davening worth losing all the benefits of being part of the community of people davening in Shul, in Hashem’s home, where He Himself has told us He can be found?
And so, on behalf of our shul and shul attendees everywhere, here is my simple appeal:
If attending a local home minyan is more convenient, or gives your children opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have, by all means attend. If it is helping you build friendships and grow a sense of a small community within the larger one, I am not asking you to stop altogether. But I am asking you to alternate where you daven and make it a priority to be among those who participate in davening at shul by coming every other week or every third week, certainly at least once a month.
Free yourself from the tyranny of convenience by also coming to shul regularly. Your davening in Shul will enhance the experience for all who attend. Your presence will strengthen the mother ship of the community. But it will also help bring out the best version of yourself as you put kavana ahead of convenience and do the more correct thing, even if it takes a little more effort or sacrifice on your part.
Like a good neighbor, please be there, at least every now and then.