Mourning my morning minyan

I would like to share an important aspect of my Jewish life with you, which is primarily (but not exclusively) representative of traditionally religious N. American Ashkenazi Jewish communities. This slice of my Jewish culture is known as the Shabbat morning kiddush.

Essentially, the Shabbat morning kiddush is a social phenomenon, which takes place at synagogues (usually) after morning prayer services on Saturdays (the Sabbath). Somebody at the kiddush sanctifies the Sabbath by reciting a blessing over a beverage (usually: wine, grape juice, whiskey) on behalf of those attending and then recites a second blessing over a baked good (usually: a cracker), which is representative of a Sabbath meal. Then everybody eats food together (usually: crackers, herring, fruits, cheeses, nuts, and various desserts) and socializes with friends and new acquaintances.

Incidentally, the Hebrew root of the word ‘kiddush’ is Q-D-Š, meaning “holy” or “separate”. In the summer of 2019, when I sponsored (i.e. provided the food for) my community’s kiddush in my Papa’s memory, I had the following thought:

In theory, the purpose of the kiddush is to sanctify Shabbat, by reciting a blessing over a cup of wine, but on that early morning of Papa’s yahrzeit I saw this communal ritual in a different light.

While the words of kiddush are of lofty, holy intent, perhaps it is the gathering together in community and the sharing of simple, human pleasures that truly sanctifies the Sabbath and sanctifies our loved ones’ yahrzeits. For me, on that morning, and perhaps on every single day that I had recited kaddish throughout the year, it was my community that warmly embraced me.

– Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #50, Aug. 5, 2019

My early morning Sabbath minyan (prayer quorum)

During the year that I was reciting the mourner’s kaddish for my deceased father, I attended morning services every single day at shul (synagogue), as is traditional, but it was the Shabbat (Saturday) morning services that I most loved – because of the kiddush that followed.

I must emphasize that I am not a morning person. If I had my druthers, I would go to bed some time after midnight (after reading the news, writing some poetry, drinking an Irish coffee, etc.) and wake up after 9:00 AM, at the earliest. This is significant to know because my beloved Saturday morning prayer quorum, which I am about to describe to you, meets at 6:45 AM on Saturday mornings; and I would usually be there by no later than 7:00 AM every week. (The kiddush following services would generally begin at 8:30 AM.)

Precisely because morning people are uncommon, my 6:45 AM Shabbat morning minyan (prayer quorum) was an intimate affair. There were, according to my estimate, some thirty regulars, and we had twenty to forty people in attendance weekly at shacharit (morning prayer services). More than half of us would remain for the kiddush after services, but not all of us.

Those of us who regularly partook of the kiddush were of all ages and social classes, and most of us would sponsor the kiddush at least once annually in memory of a departed parent or to celebrate a happy lifecycle event with the community. It was cozy and comforting to see the same small group of familiar faces every week and very socially egalitarian. Men and women of all ages would have friendly, meaningful conversations over whiskey, and while many of us only saw one another for several hours once weekly, we felt ourselves friends. There was a lovely atmosphere of warm camaraderie and community. It was our space.

My Shabbat morning kiddush at shul (synagogue) was a major part of my life.


Kiddush vis-à-vis my religiosity

In many Jewish communities, there is a phenomenon known as ‘JFK’, which stands for ‘Just For Kiddush’. There are a good number of community members who are don’t attend prayer services on Saturday mornings; instead they show up ‘Just For Kiddush’. Some people look down upon this; others don’t mind it; and some embrace any form of community participation.

I have never been a ‘JFK’ Jew; I always felt it incumbent upon myself to attend services before kiddush, largely because the Orthodox Jewish prayer quorum requires ten adult males to be considered a full quorum for the purposes of prayers and rituals. Without ten Jewish adult males, a prayer group cannot, for example, read from the Torah Scroll, which is so very central to Jewish communal life. I have always been the community-oriented sort to take communal responsibility seriously, and I would have felt very self-conscious partaking of the kiddush without having participated in minyan beforehand.

In fact, looking back at it, I was motivated to attend morning services even during weekdays largely because I wanted to help my community form a daily minyan; the community provided me with something very important and special in my life, and I wanted to give back. In all honestly, this feeling of responsibility has always far outweighed my personal desire to pray, but it’s having this sense of community in my life that has been so very, very important to me.

Also, largely because our Saturday morning minyan was so early, and because our intimate little kiddush was privately sponsored by individuals every week (rather than by the entire community), almost nobody came to our early morning kiddush without having first attended the prayer services (even if some people would arrive later than others). In this context, I was not the only one who took communal responsibility seriously – almost everyone did.


COVID-19 maimed my minyan

If you were to ask me what I miss most from before the COVID-19 era, it would undoubtedly be my Shabbat early morning community.

When the pandemic first hit, the prayer services were moved outside, and attendance was limited to a small number of people. Also, one had to sign up in advance in order to attend. In Israel, the summers are hot, and there are plenty of flies buzzing around outside; sitting in the heat with a face mask on was hardly comfortable, but this was something I could have lived with.

What did the most damage to the minyan was the dissolution of our kiddush. At first, there was no kiddush at all. Eventually, a small group of attendees did start holding small kiddushes in the park outside, next to the synagogue, but this was hardly the same. Many of the regulars had stopped coming for services entirely, and even among those who signed up and attended, many were fearful of socializing and sharing food and drink with others. The sense of community I’d had and loved so dearly was gone.

The second anniversary of my Papa’s death was in July 2020, and I decided to send out personal emails to members of my Shabbat kiddush community with an invitation to join me after services at the park for a nice kiddush in memory of my father. I deliberately purchased disposable plastic containers and prepackaged all of the crackers, herring, cheese, etc. in individual servings so that nobody would be worried about COVID. I even made alcoholic hand sanitizer available.

On the whole, the event was successful, and I felt fulfilled. Back then, I naively assumed that COVID-19 would blow over and that my Shabbat community would regroup. For me, last year, hosting my guerrilla kiddush in the park was merely a temporary measure because I never expected the restrictions imposed upon Israeli society to become so protracted.

Even now, with so many Israelis having been vaccinated and ‘green passes’ being made available to those who have received the vaccine or tested negative for COVID-19, and even with infection rates in Israel decreasing, our little early morning Sabbath community has not been allowed back within the walls of our synagogue.

Now, I’m not upset at anyone for this because I get it – the pandemic has killed more than six thousand Israelis, and people are still dying… but the absence of my Shabbat community has left a major hole in my life, and I mourn its absence weekly.

This year, if minyan and kiddush aren’t reconstituted at my shul (synagogue) before Papa’s third yahrzeit (anniversary of death) in July… well… I don’t think I’ll bother with a kiddush.

My community doesn’t actually exist any more. 😞