40 Men but no minyan, and a sukkah in the living room: the challenges of bringing Judaism back to the Jews of Europe
Oped by Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein | Maariv| 3 February, 2020
Despite the worrying rise in anti-Semitism, non-Jews in Poland and Germany are gravitating to synagogues for lectures and even for prayer services – and in growing numbers. Some are perhaps future converts; many are motivated simply by an attraction to or an affinity for Jews and Judaism. But their presence demands that rabbis consider the boundaries of their participation.
I thought about this as I flew to Warsaw 75 years to the day after the liberation of Auschwitz. I’m the grandson of Holocaust survivors and acutely aware of all that was, of Europe’s Jews and Jewish life, and all that was destroyed. But my destination was powerfully satisfying. I was on my way to a rigorous two-day seminar for emissary rabbis serving Jewish communities in Poland and Germany.
These rabbis are among the finest young spiritual leaders Israel has produced. They were dispatched to their pulpits, together with their equally talented wives, by Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel Rabbinical Emissary Program. Daily, they confront acute halachic (Jewish law) and communal challenges that in some cases have not been on any rabbinic agenda for centuries. And that’s good news. These challenges are a sign of life and growth where there could have been none: two countries saturated with so much Jewish blood.
But the challenges are real. And unexpected.
One seminar session, emotionally challenging, featured the stories of Jews from birth, men and women with Jewish mothers who, only as adults, and often as the result of connections on social media, are first seeking their roots and getting their first tastes of gefilte fish and the weekly Torah portion. And just as gefilte fish may be an acquired taste, taking on the observance of Torah and mitzvot does not happen overnight.
To best guide these individuals in their first steps toward a Jewish lifestyle, we grappled with the theological implications of performing a mitzvah only partially. We consulted the writings and commentaries of our holy predecessors across the millennia, asking is there any virtue in taking just two out of the four species on Sukkot, of constructing a sukkah in the living room, conducting a Seder days after Passover, wearing non-kosher tefillin, or reciting the Friday-night Kiddush over non-kosher wine. Is “all or nothing” the proper approach? Or is it more properly, “something is better than nothing,” while on a path that aspires toward more complete observance? Together, we studied and debated.
Another challenge these rabbis face comprises aspects of all the above, though especially the matter of non-Jews attending services. Having been raised in functioning Israeli communities where a minyan and communal prayer is a given, they now lead services in synagogues where 40 people may be present on a typical Shabbat, and yet they lack a minyan of 10 Jewish men above age 13. Yet, the rabbis vividly describe the joy they take in seeing a Jew kiss the Torah and read from it, albeit without the blessings offered in the presence of a minyan. Or how they appreciate the sincere offer they receive to attempt to gather a kosher minyan. It is proffered by the lover of Israel, present right on time in synagogue and not Jewish at all, offering to make phone calls on Shabbat to Jews who choose to spend their day off elsewhere.
Stories and situations like these are commonplace in these ancient, yet nascent Jewish communities. These young leaders work to bridge the gap between Jews and Judaism in places which could have been devoid of both. For centuries, I’d imagine, Jews couldn’t much relate to the prophecy we read on Passover in which Ezekiel foretells the resuscitation of dry bones to life. But after spending two days with the current rabbinic leaders of Poland and Germany, I see that one need not blindly believe in miracles to see them fulfilled nearly every day.
Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein is director of training and placement at Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel Rabbinical Emissary Program which trains rabbis to effectively strengthen Jewish identity and existence in more than 160 communities across the Diaspora.