Saturday, August 29, 2009

How do you choose a minyan?

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

I’ve never had to choose a minyan; as a child I davened in my parents’ shul of choice, then I moved to a teen minyan, and upon reaching independent adulthood I became rabbi of a shul. There was never any question of where I would daven.

Now, I have the new experience of selecting a minyan for my family. Main minyan, family minyanim, shul and breakaway and shteibel, all is open before us. Which do we choose?

We’ve tried two minyanim already. We’ve discovered that we value a shorter walk, and sitting at tables rather than chairs. My kids feel more at home with Nusach Ashkenaz, although I enjoy aspects of Nusach Sfard. We want a minyan with minimal talking, a focus on kavvanah, and the presence of young children.

In particular, we want to daven with people whose davening priorities match our own, so that the davening experience is what we need for ourselves and our kids.

Illustration: Some time back, on a Shabbat when I was away from Allentown, I davened in a minyan that took the tefillah for the State of Israel very seriously. I noticed a man compel his kids to stand ramrod straight and recite the tefillah with him. Then, for Ashrei, he let them run around while he schmoozed with the fellow beside him.

That’s an example of what’s not for me. I say the tefillah for the State of Israel – but I also believe in the rest of the davening.

But it’s about more than just talking; it’s the feel of the shul, the experience as a whole. It’s about the way people approach davening, a sense that emerges from many factors, such as:

• How does the shul look during chazarat hashatz – are people staring off into space, singing along, reading parshah sheets?
• Do people come on time, or at some reasonable semblance of on time, or at 10:45 AM?
• Is the pace dictated by kiddush, or by leisure, or by kavvanah?

And so on.

In Allentown we valued the fact that we had a relatively quiet, davening-focused minyan, with people who genuinely liked each other, a good pace of davening, and a derashah I enjoyed. If I could find another Allentown here, that would be great.

The two minyanim we’ve already tried have their plusses, but we intend to try more in order to experience the scope of what’s available before settling down.

I wouldn’t want to find something that was exactly what we wanted – we can all use broadening – but, hopefully, it will be a minyan that helps us achieve the positive davening experience we want for ourselves and our children.

So here's my question for you: How do you choose a minyan?


  1. It has been a long time since I davened daily but for me it is relatively simple.

    I want a minyan that is involved, has kavanah and doesn't meander about. I find it hard enough to daven without adding to the distractions.

    I suspect that the hard part here is that it is such a personal thing. Hard to find something that everyone likes.

  2. I've been through this experience several times, and went through the process you now find yourself in. Here's what I found meant the most to me:
    1. The service/davening/nusach needed to feel comfortable to us.
    2. Congregation needed to be serious about davening (men & women)
    3. At kiddush, we were greeted warmly and truly felt welcome (including our kids)

    At least one of the congregations we joined at one time had very few children, but my children were incredibly welcome/loved by the people we saw weekly. It was as if they had extra sets of grandparents. ...and as teens, they had more opportunity to participate regularly than most teens get in larger congregations.

    When you find a place you like, I recommend more than one visit before deciding to stay with it. Good luck with this journey!

  3. interesting. no mention of how the minyan's rav fits into the equation. or are you looking for a rabbiless minyan to avoid sitting through the דרשה :)

  4. interesting that you don't include in your calculations whether you can have an impact on the people you will daven with.
    Joel Rich

  5. Is it a minyan you are looking for or a shul? There is a difference. The first shabbos after we moved into our new community we went to daven at a shul where we had some friends who davened there. We ended up staying in that shul until the death of the Rav a few years ago. Why? Because when my husband came in everyone, not just the people who knew him, said good Shabbos, asked his name and welcomed him. He got an aliyah that Shabbos. The rav personally came to welcome him to the shul.

    We came with three little children, and they were welcomed as well. They shul was set up to have areas that were child friendly. When I arrived the rebbetzin also came to welcome me personally and to play getting to know you.

    There was a simcha and big kiddush in shul that shabbos. Since we didn't know the baal simcha and hadn't been invited we were preparing to go home after davening. The baal simcha personally came over and said to please stay.

    The davening itself? Nusach s'fard, which was perfectly okay with us. A shteibel with a caftan and shtreimel rav and not one single chasidishe shul member. It worked for years. Quiet during davening. Yes, tables for the men. And not to be discounted, only a few blocks from our home, a real boon in super cold or super hot weather and also for the little ones who walked with us to shul.

    It is decades later and we are still close friends with many of the people we met that first Shabbos. Basically, it's the people that make the shul, not the nusach. And, as my dad once said, if you are really busy with your own kavana during davening you aren't going to have time or inclination to check on every one else's kavana.

  6. LOZ, isn't a rav and a d'rashah secondary at best? After all, the point of a minyan is to daven. Somehow I don't imagine, for instance, that in the holy hevra in Tzfat in the 1500s, that the Beit Yosef got up and gave a d'rashah. But the davenning was likely, based on some contemporary reports, out of this world!

    The question that is so hard to answer is: do the participants ASPIRE to t'filah? Is it what they are really there for? Is there a 'contract' to create a holy place and moment?

  7. Jack-
    Definitely personal, but I do see common denominators in the comments here.

    Thanks for commenting; I'm impressed that you found all of that, and it gives me hope for my own search.

    I would love a great derashah at the minyan, and I think I'd probably appreciate it more than most do, but I'd choose a minyan with better kavvanah or a minyan with a better derashah.

    Yes, that's a springboard to a much broader topic. I would worry about the fate of Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.

    Interesting. I think I take the greetings for granted, because I have a community position that encourages people to greet me. But I'd agree it should be an important factor.
    But re: kavvanah - We daven as a community, and my own experience is that the kavvanah of others influences my own.

    R' Mordechai-
    Indeed! (on the 2nd half of your comment)

  8. When we moved from Indianapolis (after 8 years of only one minyan) to Chicago, I was like a kid in a candy story. I went minyan hopping (and still do from time to time).
    For a Shabbos minyan, what I looked for was:
    -A place where my kids are welcome and comfortable
    -Not too much talking
    -Nice hashkafic mix of people
    -Friendly folks during kiddush
    -A nice d'var Torah/Halacha said weekly
    -A Rabbi that was a good match for my family
    -Good amount of seforim available

    The minyan I attend is housed in a shul that currently has 3 other Shabbos minyanim and I can safely say that most of the above items have been met.

    In your position, Mordechai, you've got the whole "public image" thing to think about as well.

  9. True, Life is always a dynamic balance. My perception is that we live in a time when way too many people are only concerned about their din as a yachid, not enough as members of a tzibbur.

    Or as the famous story goes "you mean you knew and didn't tell me?"

    Joel Rich

  10. The following are not in any particular order:

    1. My biggest priority is the size of the mechitzah. Having experienced places with mechitzot you are more likely to trip over than notice I find it much easier to daven with Kavanah when people are not as distracted by spouses conversing over the dividing line. Once I am no longer able to see the other side I don't particularly care how big the mechitzah is.

    Other than that:

    2. Lack of very small children. One of my biggest pet peeves are parents who insist on bringing children who are not capable proper decorum. I don't blame a 1-2 year old who cannot be quiet because they usually do not have the maturity to do so for a couple of hours straight without constant attention from a parent. It is not only distracting to other people, but I feel it does a great disservice to the child himself in that he becomes accustomed to talking in shul, which makes it much harder get him to be quiet later on. I am all for having children who can, and indeed do, keep quiet.

    3. Being wished Good Shabbos. It seems to be a trivial thing, but being ignored when coming to shul hurts. It then becomes ironic when the president gets up and asks people to join the shul.

    4. Time of davening. I'm not exactly a morning person, but I do need to daven at a minyan that davens on time (i.e., within the Halachically required time). I will let someone else write about the Halachic propriety of davening after the zman.

    5. Mode of dress relative to local standards. It is one thing to not wear a suit in a country where it is not common to do so, but to me it is a bit inappropriate to purposely dress down for Shabbath when one has for years been wearing a suit. This goes especially for kids, whom I have seen in places wear weekday clothing. I feel this does the kids a disservice in that it fails to teach them proper respect for the shul.

    6. Proximity. Wearing a suit, tie, and hat in 95 degree weather and 95 percent humidity when walking up hill both ways to/from shul (like in Monsey, where the laws of physics do not seem to apply) is not very comfortable. Carrying that stuff is not much better.

  11. Neil (re: closing comment) - You bet. Not quite a civilian.

    Joel - Very true. Cf. the great article by R' Ilan Feldman a couple of years ago, on the parking lot kabbalat shabbat.

    Marc - An interesting set of criteria; have you found a minyan where you can be comfortable?

  12. I have indeed found a place where I am comfortable, or at least will be when the heat gets below 85F. I am not going to blame the Rabbi of the shul for the outside temperature. My only issue (which I would have with just about any shul here) is that I grew up wearing a suit and tie on Shabbath, which is not all that common here. I will not condemn a shul for having a dress code that conforms to national standards, though it makes me uncomfortable wearing a suit (which may seem to suggest I am trying to out-Dati others) or not wearing a suit (as I have been wearing a suit all my life). I have adopted the approach of not trying to be more Dati than the Rav of the shul.

  13. Marc, I have the opposite requirement: I have no interest whatsoever in davvening (praying) in a synagogue that has a "Berlin Wall" mechitzah. Any shul that considers it more important for the women not to be seen than for the women to be able to see is not acceptable to this particular woman. I, too, strongly prefer to davven in a shul where people are quiet and take the davvening seriously, but I think that's that a separate issue from the height of the mechitzah. Or does it only bother you when men talk to women, but not when men talk to men?

    "Lack of very small children. One of my biggest pet peeves are parents who insist on bringing children who are not capable proper decorum." Guilty as charged. I came to shul with our noisy son for years, taking him out of the sanctuary whenever he caused a disturbance. The alternative was to stay home for six years, and, in all honesty, I felt that that would be like being penalized for having had the chutzpah (nerve) to perpetuate the Jewish people. I've never found a good work-around for being a person who loves going to shul, on the one hand, and being the mother of a pre-schooler, on the other.