Timing Is Everything


A Minneapolis newspaper a few decades ago told about a baseball fan whose love for the sport had limits: a time limit. He would attend a Twins game, sometimes with his son, and leave after two hours whether or not the game was over and regardless of the score.

A baseball game, this fan reasoned, should last 120 minutes. If the games were getting longer, a continuing phenomenon today, that was not his problem.

Now Steve Rosenberg is no sports fan ("I never watch games," he says) but he has imposed a similar limit. His arena: Saturday mornings in synagogue.

Rosenberg, in his 40s, arrived at his Orthodox shul in Westchester at 9:30 a.m. last Shabbat, at the start of shacharit. He walked out an hour later, before musaf. Services lasted another half-hour.

Even for him it was quick davening. Usually, he says, "two hours works for me." His concentration starts to stray then, at least an hour before most services end.

"That’s about when I finish giving out my lollipops," says Rosenberg, the shul candy man. He is always ready with a bag of sweets for the kids.

But that’s not why his internal clock tells him when two hours have passed. "The amount of energy you need to have kavanah for davening wanes after two hours," he says.

Kavanah is Hebrew for concentration or intensity of prayer, an important concept to a lifelong yeshiva student like Rosenberg.

He set his two-hour limit, gearing his time in shul around "important" elements like kedusha and the rabbi’s sermon, about three years ago, when he decided to leave early one morning and visit his mother on the walk home. The maternal visit and the shortened shacharit improved Rosenberg’s Shabbat, he found.

"I get a chance to enjoy it and not feel in any way that it’s a burden," he says.

Rosenberg is not alone. The growing length of Saturday morning services, and of worshipers’ impatience, is the stuff of countless jokes and private rabbinical discussions, especially in Orthodox and Conservative circles, where musaf and lengthy Torah readings often extend the Saturday morning service to three hours or more.

Few people let their feet do their talking like Rosenberg, but their impatience shows. By noon the fidgeting is noticeable.

"I hear it informally: congregants may grouse that services are so long," says Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. "I hear it even in my own synagogue."

"I don’t think people have a lot of sitzfleish," Yiddish for the ability to sit still, Rabbi Rosenthal says.

"I know that a lot of people prefer the early morning hashkamah minyan," an alternative service offered by many congregations with a faster pace of prayers, the Long Island spiritual leader says.

Considering services a drag, some congregants come infrequently: or not at all.

Recognizing a problem, a growing number of congregations have substituted interactive Torah discussions for monologic rabbi’s sermons. "Many synagogues have streamlined their services," Rabbi Rosenthal says. "They use as justification the statement in the Code of Jewish Law, ‘Better fewer prayers with more kavanah than more prayers with less kavanah.’

"I hear good things from the synagogues where they have streamlined the services," he adds.

To be in shul for 180 minutes Saturday morning, or not to be: that is the question two Long Island rabbis asked in a discussion cum dramatic presentation a few weeks ago.

Rabbis Gershon Schwartz of the South Baldwin Jewish Center and Mark Greenspan of the Oceanside Jewish Center addressed the topic "Three Hours and Getting Longer: What Do We Do with Prayer?" in a joint lecture sponsored by the South Shore Academy of Jewish Education.

The rabbis, classmates in rabbinical school 20 years ago, took "opposing" sides of the issue. Services are getting too long, said one. Our appreciation of tefilah, or prayer, is getting too short, said the other.

The point was to raise consciousness, not cut Shacharit, to "get people thinking about what goes on in tefilah," Rabbi Schwartz says. "Which we did."

Surprisingly, opinion was split among the 150 or so who attended the program. "There were people who stated very strongly they are not upset with the length of services," Rabbi Schwartz says.

They were mostly older people, he said, who grew up with long sermons and oratorical cantors. For the younger crowd, shorter was better, Rabbi Schwartz said.

"We live in a McDonald’s generation," fast food for the soul, Rabbi Greenspan says.

He says his sermons are shorter than those of his predecessors: 10 to15 minutes instead of a half-hour. He agrees that added speeches at simchas and explanations of the week’s Torah reading and prayers for the infirm, designed to make worship services a more-personal, more-understood experience, have added time to tefilah over the years.

But his focus with Rabbi Schwartz was on the meaning, not the duration of prayers.

"Prayer doesn’t play a meaningful part in the life" of most synagogue-goers, Rabbi Greenspan says. "I’m not sure that people believe that prayer really makes much of a difference.

"The problem," he says, "is to change the pray-ers."Rabbi Greenspan taught an adult education course on tefilah his first year at Oceanside Jewish Center. "A one-time shot is not enough," he says. "Synagogues need to offer workshops on a regular basis to teach people not only the mechanics of prayer but the kavanah of prayer. If they come … and have a personal experience, they’re going to come back."

Someone who understands prayer will come each week, no matter the length of the service, the rabbi says. But the service’s ideal length, he says, is 22 hours.

Or, for Rosenberg, two hours.

"We constantly are having simchas" (bar and bat mitzvahs, aufrufs, baby namings) "which is great," he says. But each event, and the rabbi’s individualized comments for the participants and visitors, adds up.

So he leaves early. No one says anything, no one follows his example. "Here, as long as you come to shul and as long as you’re happy, they’re happy."

"It works better," Rosenberg says. "If I walk out of shul with a smile inside, what better way to continue Shabbos?"