The article “Making a Minyan” (July 17 edition), speaks to what has been an ongoing issue among St. Louis synagogues since the late 1980s. My observations come as being the last Shamash in the history of Shaare Zedek Synagogue. When I succeeded the late Rabbi Solon Chervitz, z’’l, in August 1998, my goal was not only to maintain a functioning daily minyan, but to grow it. Here are my rules of thumb towards making a successful minyan:
1. Commitment = mitzvah. Every shul should encourage a new bar mitzvah to make at least one morning minyan a week. Begin on Sunday mornings when one davens schacharis at 8 a.m. Let the new bar mitzvah daven Birkat HaShachar. Ease him into his new role as an adult Jew. Teach him the nusach. And in time, build a cadre of young b’nai mitzvot who can conduct services. For those shuls that are egalitarian, include the new bat mitzvah in the minyan. Make her feel welcomed. Accord her the same privileges you would to the new bar mitzvah — the key word being mitzvah.
2. Know your minyan and those who make up the morning and afternoon/evening minyans. When I was Shamash at Shaare Zedek, I took the time to learn the birthdays of my minyanaires. I learned their sweet tooth, and on their birthday, I threw a birthday party for them with their special pastry. See your executive director and have the birthday party paid out of petty cash.
3. Building bridges. Knowing your minyan extends beyond the obvious. It’s Friday morning. Do you have a minyan for Kabbalah Shabbos? Every Friday around 10 a.m., I phoned no less than 15 of my regulars to see if they would be in shul for Kabbalah Shabbos. I also phoned an additional five to six individuals in the early afternoon. If I didn’t call my regulars by 11 a.m. they called me to see if I was OK.
Is someone in the process of converting to Judaism? Are they engaged to a member of the synagogue? This is the time to invite the potential ger tzadik to Kabbalah Shabbos services with his or her fiancé. Seat the individual next to a regular and jovial member of the minyan — one who can teach. In 1999, a young woman who had made Kabbalah Shabbos services nearly every week had completed her conversion to Judaism. Near the end of Kabbalah Shabbos, the rabbi brought out wine cups and schnapps for a l’chayim. The entire minyan joined in. It was a joyous event for all. The result: The young woman became an active and productive member of the shul family.
4. Be inclusive. In 1998, the ritual committee of Shaare Zedek decided to count women. There was, however, one caveat: A single male voice had veto power. One day, the afternoon/evening minyan had only nine men. A female rabbi was in shul and I invited her to join us. No man exercised his veto power despite the fact that most of us had been raised Orthodox. Respect prevailed. After that first successful egalitarian minyan, I informed the chair of ritual that I had broken the rules in order that Kaddish could be recited. What came of my disobedience? Ritual repealed the veto, and the minyans at Shaare Zedek became “inclusive.”
5. Vacations. We all need a break from the day-to-day grind. To this extent, I purchased a three-ring notebook and inserted lined paper. When a member of the minyan is going on vacation or out of town, have him/her print their name in the book, the dates when they will be gone, and who is their designated backup charged with the obligation to make minyan along with that person’s phone number. I kept the notebook on the amud in the chapel and the individuals’ who made the daily minyans appreciated this approach and took it upon themselves to open the notebook and fill in the information.
6. The Minyanaires Club. In conjunction with the chair of the ritual committee and the rabbi, each person who attended two or more minyans per week throughout the year was inducted into the Minyanaires Club near the end of Shabbos morning services. The induction ceremony took place on the third Shabbos in May before summertime and vacations (Shabbos morning services did not count towards the two minyan rule). Shaare Zedek purchased 60 gold kippot with gold stars on the top. Those who were inducted into the Minyanaires Club were called up to the bimah and presented a gold kippah. Remember: It’s the little things in life that have the greatest impact on one.
7. Always say, “thank you.” Being kind is easy. Take time to let those who attend minyan know that you are grateful for the commitment they have made. Saying thank you builds good-will and keeps congregants.
These are but a handful of suggestions. Make your minyans meaningful by encouraging commitment at bar mitzvah. Make the minyan Hamish — for a shul is a family. Take time to celebrate life cycle events. And most of all, say “thank you” to those who make saying kaddish possible my attending minyan.
Rabbi Joseph Fred Benson is a native of University City and grew up at Shaare Zedek Synagogue. He served as Shamash there from 1998-2000. He is the retired legal historian and archivist of the Supreme Court of Missouri. Rabbi Benson lives in Jefferson City, where he teaches Hebrew to adults and performs life cycle events throughout mid-Missouri.