I don’t have trouble with religion. I mean, any religion. People who want to walk in the footsteps of their prophets and follow the laws of their God, are often the same people who donate to charity and work to make this a better world for others. If anything, I envy people of faith. Faith can be a consoler in times of trouble, bringing strength and peace in times of chaos and pain. But even the most religious people I know have bouts with doubt and uncertainty.
And I don’t have trouble with my religion, Judaism. I love Judaism — love its duality of being a people — a group — and a religion. I love the history, the art, and the literature. And I enjoy the company of my fellow Jews, our sense of humor and intelligence. I even love the “otherness” of the Jews, that thing making us forever on the outside, forever different, a people apart.
One of my favorite things about being Jewish is going to our minyan. A minyan is a prayer group. By our tradition, a minyan has to have at least 10 Jews in it to be a “kosher” gathering to worship God and have a Torah service. Years ago, our synagogue, Temple Sinai, which is a Reform synagogue, used to only have services on Friday night (and holidays, of course). But about ten years ago, a new rabbi ushered in having a minyan gathering on Saturday mornings. And since that time, outside of holidays when no minyan is planned, we have always managed to have a complete group — at least ten or more gathered. It is usually not a large group, consisting of about 20 to 30 people, mostly regulars who come weekly, some who come occasionally, some there to say Kaddish on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, and maybe a newcomer or two from time to time.
What makes the minyan different is that the group is typically led by lay people, and often the Torah reading is as well, meaning instead of the rabbi always in charge of praying, singing, and learning, the group is responsible. Officially, the minyan is not led by our rabbi, or the associate rabbi, or even the cantor, but our own members. So, the service is always a little different. Different leaders choose different prayers and offer different insights. Although we go through the formal parts of the services, there is always variety and group participation.
First, the Sha’atz, the leader for that morning, can share a little sermon or “sermonette,” sharing a story, some Jewish writing, or just a few thoughts that can (but don’t always) have a tie-in with the Torah portion we’re reading that week. As every Sha’atz is different, they each speak about different things. For example, one of the people who sometimes leads is very spiritual, so his sermonettes focus on the soul, meditation, silence — the Presence of God, if you will. Others talk about the values of Judaism, universal beliefs, comments on the writings of the rabbis of old, or even the importance against standing up to hatred — anti-Semitism and those who push division rather than unity. Many different people have served as the leader, men and women, young and old, and even duos of spouses or friends. My husband has led numerous times, and my son, Sam, has even accompanied him with his guitar once.
Another thing that I find marking this different from most services is we take a few minutes in one section and have a personal prayer moment. In those minutes, we stand silently — reading from the prayer book, or just pray what is in the heart and mind. Then, when each person is done praying, they sit down. When the last person sits down after finishing, we stand up again as a community, and go through the next section of written prayers together. As the one prayer I repeat over and over again is “Thank you,” I usually am the first one sitting down.
I have to admit, that my absolute favorite part of the minyan, hands down, doesn’t actually happen during minyan. It occurs immediately afterwards, when a few of us, usually 6 or 7 of us, gather at a nearby Starbucks. We talk and laugh, sometimes we cry, and drink coffee or tea or other frou-frou concoction with whipped cream on top. I revel in the company of these friends and fellow Jews — because let’s face it, I don’t have a lot of Jewish friends, and I enjoy the company of my people. Of course, although there is sometimes carry-over discussion, this gathering isn’t about religion. It is about fellowship, about being with my community, my people. I’ll raise my vanilla/hazelnut latte to that.