Creating Community: Prayer at Stern
When one thinks of any Jewish community, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a synagogue. As soon as Jews form a new community, the very first structure put in place is the synagogue, a place of prayer, Torah study, and social gathering. It is a communal space where Jews are invited to join together to worship their Creator, help those in need, and foster interpersonal relationships. And yet in my current community at Stern College, the synagogue – this vital component of communal life – is lacking.
The Stern community is hugely successful at the second piece of synagogue life: planning multiple events a day on both the Beren and Wilf campuses, between shi’urim, lectures, hesed opportunities, fun activities for the student body, and more. Stern is definitely not lacking in either educational or social means of creating a community. What Stern could stand to benefit from in order to build an even stronger community, though, is the fundamental piece of community life that is prayer.
Hazal took the principle of praying with a community very seriously. The Amora Reish Lakish states that one who prays alone, rather than with the community, is considered a “shakhen ra,” an evil neighbor,[i] and his opinion is codified in Rambam.[ii] The Shulhan Arukh and its commentators stress the importance and efficacy of communal prayer, ruling that one should always strive to pray with the community.[iii] These sources, however, deal primarily, if not exclusively, with the prayer of a tsibbur, halakhically qualified as a quorum of ten men, or a minyan. The benefits of praying with a group of women, then, do not stem from the recital of devarim she-bi-kedushah (“holy” components of prayer that require a tsibbur). There are other essential considerations in davening with such a group, and it is those that I would like to address.
From a logistical standpoint, having a set time for communal prayer each morning, and perhaps afternoon and evening too, would add structure to many students’ days. One need only enter the Beren Campus Beit Midrash any time from 7:00 AM to the following 2:00 AM (even during that halakhically awkward space between hatsot and minhah gedolah),[iv] to find many individual students davening. Students davening on most floors of the academic buildings, in the hallways and stairwells, and even in the cafeteria, are a common sight as well. I often find it difficult to wake up earlier than is necessary to just get dressed and make it to my first class, when I know that davening is in my own hands and I have nowhere formal to be to do so. This leaves me, and many of my peers, rushing through the words, cutting out major portions of the service, or davening hurriedly in between classes. Having a set time for prayer each morning would most likely compel many women to attend services consistently and provide structure to our day, an endeavor that should not be underestimated.
Some people might find this difficult to understand. Do women not appreciate the fact that they are not halakhically obligated in communal prayer? Is it not much easier to daven on your own, and on your own time? Many men might give a lot for this “privilege.” And yes, it can be quite convenient. But aside from providing structure to one’s daily schedule, there are many other benefits to praying in a communal setting, if not with a minyan per se.
Currently, if a Stern student wishes to pray with a minyan in the mornings, her options are essentially limited to davening at the Adereth El synagogue on 29th St. and Lexington Avenue, at 6:50 AM on Mondays and Thursdays and 7:00 AM the rest of the week. This is not ideal for most students, whose earliest class begins at 9:00 AM. Many women have expressed interest in having a later daily minyan at Stern, but this would involve recruiting male commuters each morning, perhaps along with the handful of Orthodox male faculty members who arrive at Stern early each morning, and would force the Stern community to be dependent upon these men in order for communal prayer to take place.
Stern’s weekly “Mincha With a Minyan” initiative is a prime example of the difficulty of relying on others to implement communal prayer. During club hour on Wednesday afternoons, rabbis and professors who are in Stern at the specified time come to the Beit Midrash to make a minyan for minhah. Many students come to the Beit Midrash at 2:45 PM, when the minyan is supposed to begin, and wait an average of twenty to thirty minutes before actually beginning to daven. In the meantime, the curtain is drawn in the Beit Midrash, forcing students out of seats they had been occupying, for the five to nine men to sit around and schmooze where students had been and should still be learning. The Beit Midrash becomes very noisy while all await davening to proceed, interrupting the learning going on there. It takes longer to form a minyan than to actually daven minhah.
Rather than “importing” men from outside the Stern community, praying in a communal setting composed of only Stern students will afford students the structure they seek and create stronger community as well as additional leadership opportunities within Stern. Stern women would be responsible for coordinating all scheduling, appointing various students to lead the group, giving brief divrei Torah, and perhaps providing students with the occasional breakfast. Students would feel a responsibility toward the group, and would work to ensure a positive, serious davening environment for all those who are interested.
Perhaps many students would initially be drawn to a daily minyan, which often seems more “legitimate” than a women’s service without devarim she-bi-kedushah. But there are surely women who would be interested in a communal prayer even without a minyan. Many girls’ high schools and seminaries have women’s davening every day, so many students are familiar with the concept and are comfortable davening in such a forum. This initial prototype is what most students know and are accustomed to, and once it were off the ground could easily branch off into different style services to cater to different streams of the student body: beginners, Sephardic, more traditional, more progressive, etc. If the initiative to daven as a community were properly advertised and instated, I am confident that many students would express interest in attending and committing to participating in this service on a regular basis. The essential need is for prayer with community, in whatever form the students choose.
When I first entered Stern, I was surprised that there was no set time for davening every morning. Having had daily communal prayer as a part of my schedule since kindergarten, as many of my fellow students have had, I was reluctant to let this tradition fall by the wayside, especially if there is no real reason to see it go. Had I been told on my first day of Stern that shaharit takes place in the Beit Midrash daily at 8:15, I would have assumed that this is the norm here and would not have hesitated to join. I believe that if such a service were instituted at the start of the year, or even starting this coming spring semester, that it would be met with enthusiastic response and attendance.
Creating a daily shaharit should not be too difficult to arrange; it just needs to be done. Student leaders are currently interested and enthusiastic in beginning this initiative, and it is in the works for next semester. I encourage Stern students to take advantage of this new opportunity and come together to make it a success for all involved. As the synagogue is truly the centerpiece of any Jewish community, all of its components, including the central aspect of prayer, should be an integral part of the community at Stern College.[v]
Elana Raskas is a senior at SCW majoring in English Literature and Jewish Studies, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Berakhot 8a.
[ii] Rambam, Hilkhot Tefillah u-Birkhat Kohanim 8:1.
[iii] Orah Hayyim 90:9-10. See Mishnah Berurah and Magen Avraham ad loc.
[iv] Ibid. 89:1 and Rema and Magen Avraham there: One may not daven shaharit past hatsot (six sha’ot zemaniyyot, or halakhically defined hours, into the day). Additionally, the Shulhan Arukh rules in 233:1 that one may not daven minhah before minhah gedolah (six and one-half sha’ot zemaniyyot into the day). There is therefore no prayer to be said in between hatsot and minhah gedolah.
[v] I would like to express thanks to R. Avishai David and R. Mordechai Torcyzner for their shi’urim on YU Torah (“The Incredible Power of Tefillah B’tsibbur” and “Tzibburology 4: How Communal Prayer Helps Community as well as Prayer,” respectively, both available at www.yutorah.org), which guided me to sources on the topic.