Through minyans, a better sense of my Jewish identity, responsibilities


Members of the Jewish community in Nove Zamky, Slovakia, speak about the town’s Jewish history at its Orthodox cemetery. (Alex Weisler)

Before this trip to Europe, I’m not sure I properly appreciated the value and simple beauty of the minyan.

Minyans are about collective responsibility, the recognition that there are certain Jewish rituals we are obligated to make communal.

Back in New York, I’m generally a High Holidays kind of guy in terms of my synagogue attendance — and on the occasional alternate Saturdays that I make it to shul, it’s pretty clear that I’m not a make-or-break member of my local congregation.

That’s not the case here in Europe. In fact, I’ve taken to carrying a yarmulke around at all times.

See, I’ve been corralled into some unexpected minyans over the last few months, and though I dropped out of Boy Scouts in the fourth grade, I remember the important thing: Be prepared.

My new career as perennial "tenth man" kicked off back in March, on a flight home from Kiev after a week of volunteer work in Chisinau, Moldova with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Penn State Hillel. In an experience I’ve dubbed my introduction to the "mile chai club," an Israeli man grieving the loss of his mother walked up and down the airplane aisles looking for Jews.

When he finally got ten of us together, we crowded into the space between the two lavatories in the back of the plane and prayed a quick service, reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish at 30,000 feet. It was one of the most moving Jewish experiences I’ve ever been a part of.

My next minyan was in July in Avignon, France, as I attended a conference on Jewish culture and innovation sponsored by the European Association of Jewish Community Centers.

And then they started coming fast and furious, with the most powerful pair of minyans coming just this week.

In the small Orthodox cemetery in Nove Zamky, Slovakia, a trio of old men from that small city’s still-active Jewish community walked our group through the graveyard. They pointed out the tombstones of famous rabbis and community leaders before pausing at the largest monument — a headstone that marked the communal grave of 16 young area men who were killed during the Holocaust when they deemed the coast was clear and returned from hiding. Soldiers ambushed them and forced them to dig their own grave before shooting them against the cemetery wall. You can still see the bullet holes.

Word spread that the trio was looking for a minyan so they could pray the Mourner’s Kaddish by the site of the young men’s murder. As I walked over to the wall, Central European University Jewish studies professor Michael Miller told me that there were exactly 10 Jewish men on hand. As one of the Nove Zamky men led us in a heavy Ashkenazic accent that bore his roots better than any passport, I felt proud of my religion and appropriately — but I also felt a slow rise of shame. I was the tenth man, and I almost didn’t attend the Slovakia trip: What gives me the right?

I felt that even more strongly this morning, when I got a late start in Belgrade and showed up to Sukkot services about 45 minutes late. An old man smiled when I walked into the shul and whispered, "You’re the tenth man! Go tell them," gesturing at the men gathered at the bimah. Sure enough, it was with my arrival that the congregation reached the quorum necessary to read from the Torah. I was honored when I received the first aliyah, but again there was that slow rise of shame: Did you need a shower this morning? Get to shul on time, Alex.

Of course, three months of bouncing around Europe is going to lead to minyans missed and minyans made. If I’d lingered in Budapest for Sukkot, perhaps I would have helped out some congregation there. If I wasn’t in Slovakia, maybe someone else would have been. And I bet there was another Jew on that plane back in March.

But that’s not the point, is it?

The point is that I was there, not someone else. There’s been a lot of times on this trip where I’ve been forced into a shy smile and sheepish grin as I’ve explained to one Jewish community or another that, yes, I work for a Jewish organization, but no, I don’t keep kosher and no, I don’t go to synagogue every week and no, I’m willing to travel on Shabbat and no, I don’t wear a yarmulke.

It’s enough to make you feel a little guilty for showing up — an "oh, they sent … you?" sort of feeling.

But I’ve never felt judged by a minyan — only welcomed and accepted.

Minyans are helping me learn to be less hard on myself and to stop writing myself off as not Jewish enough.

Because when it comes down to it, the question is: Jewish enough for whom?

I’m Jewish enough for me — and sometimes, showing up is all that’s needed.

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