Making a minyan: Finding 10 people is ongoing challenge for St. Louis synagogues

Dr. Jerry Cohen, a retired podiatrist, no longer participates in the morning minyan at Kol Rinah but continues to attend Shabbat morning services with his wife, Marion, who here is wearing a “Minyan Man” T-shirt. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

When Herman Spector was approaching death in 2000, Dr. Jerry Cohen was one of the only people allowed to visit him at his home in University City.

Spector, who worked in the printing industry, was anxious and asked Cohen, a podiatrist, “Who’s going to take care of the minyan?”

By that, Spector, 81, meant the morning service that he helped organize at Shaare Zedek, a Conservative synagogue. For about a decade, six days each week, Spector picked up bagels and other breakfast items and then sat in the corner of the chapel reading the newspaper while others prayed.

He wasn’t really there out of a sense of religious obligation but rather to honor his late father-in-law. Like Spector, his father-in-law had for years helped make the morning minyan, a quorum of 10 Jews required for a person to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer praising God after the death of a loved one. (In Orthodox synagogues, it must be 10 males; at Conservative synagogues, the minyan can be composed of males or females.)

Despite his lack of participation in the actual prayer, Spector still counted in the minyan. And now he was unsure who would succeed him.

“I said, ‘Rest in peace. I’ll take care of the minyan,’ ” recalls Cohen, 94, who is from New Jersey and retains some of its accent.

Like Spector, members of Conservative and some Orthodox congregations across the United States are also asking: “Who is going to take care of the minyan?”

The question grows out of concern over the passing of the generation that grew up accustomed to the practice of saying Kaddish for 11 months after a parent dies or on the yahrzeit, the anniversary, of that person’s death.

“Every synagogue will, over the next five, 10, 15, 20 years, be thinking, ‘How do we make old forms of religious expressions speak in new ways to a new generation?’ ” said Rabbi Noah Arnow of Kol Rinah, the synagogue that Conservative congregations Shaare Zedek and Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel combined to form in 2012.

Amid a significant decline in the number of U.S. Conservative Jews — 570,000 adults in 2013, down from 723,000 in 1990, according to national surveys — synagogues face a continual struggle to ensure that they not only will be able to field a minyan a decade from now, but also tomorrow morning.

Using modern technology to ensure 10 minyanaires

Beverly Chervitz signed up to become a minyanaire — someone who is committed to coming to a particular service each week — about five years ago at Congregation B’nai Amoona. Then she was “bitten by the Torah bug,” she said, and decided she wanted to try to lead the morning service, so she started training with the Conservative synagogue’s cantor, Sharon Nathanson.

“Sharon gave me all the necessary music, and I just started [learning],” said Chervitz, 80, who spent more than 25 years working at Jewish nonprofits. After 10 months, “I was leading the davening, and it was like, I can’t believe it.”

But aside from time on the pulpit, one of her most rewarding moments, she said, came when after about a month of serving as a minyainare, she showed up and was that crucial 10th person. 

“Then I knew I was in the right place,” she said. 

But you can’t always find that last puzzle piece. 

“I think in a previous generation there was much more of a feeling of obligation of maintaining a minyan in a synagogue, and that feeling has lessened,” said Rabbi Edward Feld, who served as senior editor of the Conservative movement’s siddur (prayer book) published in 2016.

In response to that diminished connection, he and a committee of Conservative rabbis decided to add a prayer to the book that can be said when a minyan isn’t present for the Kaddish. 

“Our feeling was that people come to say Kaddish either during the year of mourning or on the yahrzeit, and there is a tremendous disappointment in not having a minyan and not being able to say Kaddish,” Feld said. 

In addition, some synagogues are now using modern tools to address the decline in attendance. In March, Kol Rinah started using Accuity Scheduling, a type of appointment software, for people to sign up in advance to attend a weekday service. That’s because the congregation would have 17 people show up for minyan one day and five people the next. 

“We realized that we were having uneven minyan attendance and thought that there could be a technical fix for this,” Arnow said. The software designers “did not have minyanim in mind. It’s designed for signing up for office hours or for exercise or yoga classes.”

The synagogue falls short of a minyan about once a week. (There are typically 11 gatherings for services each week outside of Shabbat.) Arnow said that the software is not a “perfect match” and that its usage requires “a bit of a culture shift.”

“There could be an app that I think could work wonders for congregations if it was designed well and if the culture of a congregation was able to embrace it,” Arnow said. 

Six months ago, Traditional Congregation, which sits between the Conservative and Orthodox streams, began using the messaging service WhatsApp to address the minyan shortage. About once a week, the congregation would have fewer than 10 people for a minyan and would then have to make last-minute calls to people who lived nearby, Rabbi Seth Gordon said. If that didn’t work, services would be called off and people would pray alone. 

The congregation is now urging members to use the app to commit themselves to attend a particular service. If fewer than 10 people sign up at 6:15 p.m. for a service that begins at 6:45, the congregation now tells people “we’re not going to make it tonight. Because we have people that may live 15 or 20 minutes away, they need to know,” Gordon said. The new system has been “fairly effective,” he added.

U. City Shul, an Orthodox synagogue, also uses WhatsApp if it is short a person. However, most, if not all, members live within walking distance, and making a minyan is typically not a problem, Rabbi Menachem Tendler said.

Still, using tech tools has potential drawbacks. 

“Many people, though not all, are committed to coming because they want to help,” Gordon said. “It’s not that they are coming out of a personal sense of religious obligation. They are coming out of a communal sense of support.” 

So with the app, when they know there are enough people for a minyan, they won’t come because the minyan has been made. 

“There are times maybe when had we not been using the app, maybe somebody would have come,” Gordon said.

Simpler days are gone

Even if a software developer were to create the perfect app for minyans, that only solves part of the problem.

As the years pass, fewer people are growing up in households where saying the Mourner’s Kaddish is part of life, said Rabbi Carnie Rose of B’nai Amoona. He said his synagogue has enough people for a minyan about 95 percent of the time. 

“The further we move along in terms of acculturation or assimilation into American culture, the more we move into a situation where these traditions aren’t so important to people,” he said.

And Jews, who used to live close to synagogues in part so that they could walk to services on Shabbat, are more spread out than older generations. Often, this means a 20-minute drive before say, 7 a.m. or 6 p.m., depending on the synagogue and time of year. 

“That phenomenon of the retiree who lives within a stone’s throw of a shul and has it in their kishkes to come to daily minyan, those individuals are now unfortunately fewer and further between … so that creates a challenge,” said Rabbi Ze’ev Smason, who first came to Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, a modern Orthodox synagogue, in 1999. 

When people ask him if the shul needs help making a minyan, “I tell them that we only have a challenge making a minyan on days that end in the letter Y,” he said.

Irwin Rosen, 81, a retired pharmacist, has been a member of NHBZ since age 10. He goes each morning despite a curvature in his spine that hampers his walking. On Shabbat, when he doesn’t drive, a friend pushes him in a wheelchair. 

“I get up at 6 o’clock (on weekdays),” Rosen said. “I’m there at 6:30, and I get home at 8, so it starts my day off great. I enjoy the camaraderie and the prayer.”

Smason sees participating in a daily minyan as not only important because of the Mourner’s Kaddish, but also because “there is strength in numbers, and God listens to our prayers more carefully when we pray together in a community.”

Cohen, the podiatrist, is now among those who no longer attends the daily minyan. For years, he picked up bagels and lox from Kohn’s Kosher Deli and brought them to Shaare Zedek six mornings each week. He said he did so primarily because of the promise he made to his friend Herman Spector. But Cohen no longer drives.

Arnow said that since Cohen stopped attending morning services at Kol Rinah, “We haven’t found one single person, so now we have a rotation of different people. One person is responsible for taking care of Monday morning, Tuesday morning, Wednesday morning. It’s quite something when five people are needed to replace one person.”