Separate but together: life without shul
“The very moving announcement that all minyanim (prayer quorums) must cease in South Africa for the time being is heartbreaking,” wrote Adina Roth as she attempted to process the new reality. “My father is a daily minyan-goer, and I’m suddenly filled with deep sadness and empathy for our community – our men specifically – for whom the minyan is a source of so much community, chavershaft (camaraderie) and ritual.”
“Not being able to go to shul from one moment to the next has been really hard,” says Joshua Poyurs. “The routine of waking up and going in the morning and then returning in the afternoon is a way of framing and grounding your day. I also saw my dad at shul every day. In the morning before work, it allows you to think about your values and connect with people. It’s been really disruptive, but it gives you an appreciation for having a separate space set aside for davening.”
Says psychologist Ruth Ancer, “For many people, shul gives their lives a feeling of predictability, a sense of support, and a sense of belonging. The fact that they suddenly don’t have access to this may come as a huge shock. People may experience a big loss and gap in their lives, and a sense of disorientation. They need to find ways to tolerate that uncertainty, which will be difficult but important. Even though it’s a major shift and disruption, we need to remember that it’s temporary. People need to look at what’s missing, and try to compensate for it. We must still try find ways to connect spiritually and emotionally.”
Roth agrees that Judaism’s strength lies in the physical gathering of the community. “Our community witnesses all the life cycles in our lives, and holds joy and sorrow with us. Community is present at a bris (circumcision) and simchat bat (celebration of the birth of a girl), at Barmitzvahs and Batmitzvahs, at weddings, and G-d forbid, funerals, and during the shiva period. Without going through these rituals with community, we are stripped of something – in some ways the power of the ritual is undermined because we do it alone. I wonder whether we will need post COVID-19 Jewish rituals to celebrate smachot that happened at these times, and to cry with our friends and family who, G-d forbid, may have experienced loss.”
For Sarah Sassoon, “Our new minyan is our family. This is such a hard time. Whilst doing the right thing is important, it’s also important to grieve the very real challenge of upside-down lives.”
“Going to shul for Shabbos is a routine we struggle to change – even for a Barmitzvah or event at another shul,” says Monica Wolfson.
Says Maurice Oskowitz, “The suspension of minyanim is a compromise made with courage. This fortitude reflects leadership’s certainty in uncertainty. It does trigger fear, but ultimately restores hope.”
Juan-Paul Burke who attends the Pretoria Hebrew Congregation said that his first Shabbos without shul services “inspired personal growth. I prefer to daven alone rather than joining virtually. For me it’s an opportunity to daven at my own pace and sing from my heart. Davening at home was a happy experience with my family.
“This is a time to strengthen family relationships, reconnect with my deepest self, and act from there. In groups, I find myself caught up in what others think and hide my true self. I hope my true self will be strengthened to not try to impress others. It’s a humbling time, as if Hashem is saying ‘get rid of arrogance’. I still attend the rabbi’s daily shiur, now on Zoom. This helps to give structure to my day as it’s just before mincha, so I daven straight after as usual. We are bringing the honour of Hashem into the home.”
Says Tammi Forman in Cape Town, “Our shul, Beit Midrash Morasha, had an amazing community mincha and Kabbalat Shabbat service on Zoom pre-Shabbat. Today, I enjoyed shiurim via the World Mizrachi Facebook page. I feel sad but grateful for the practicality. It would be senseless to meet physically in these times. Our shul community is in contact daily via various platforms including supporting those members who are alone or in need. I’m so grateful for it.”
Ancer advises us to take a proactive approach to filling the space in our lives without shul. This could range from sticking to a similar davening or learning routine as before, or reaching out to the more vulnerable in the community. Attending virtual services and shiurim with the same people at the same time as usual will help fill that gap.
“But we must acknowledge that this gap can’t be filled completely – and that’s okay. It’s about holding that space, and tolerating and managing that uncertainty. It’s important to remember that this is temporary, and the community is still there to support one another. While we may be physically separate, we are all in this together.”