Barry Yackolow of Marblehead has found himself thinking lately about a conversation he had with his grandfather, Milton Feinstein, about 25 years ago.
Feinstein, who died in 2001, lived in Florida and Salem, where a big part of his life was praying at the morning minyan at the old Temple Beth El in Swampscott.
Yackolow was in college, majoring in business, and happened to be visiting his grandfather in Florida. One afternoon – before they headed out for the early bird dinner – Feinstein offered his grandson some advice.
“You’ll see, Barry,” he started out, before outlining his notion of Yackolow’s future. Someday he’d have a business. He’d still be playing his drums. And – this part was key – he’d go to morning minyan to pray. “You’ll always have your temple,” he recalls his grandfather saying.
“I was trying to keep my composure,” said Yackolow, who had other plans for his future, such as moving to San Francisco with his buddies, and who now runs an online marketing advertising company. “I was thinking, ‘OK, Papa. Sure.’”
Now here he is, praying both morning and evening at the North Shore Daily Minyan, a joint service supported by two Conservative synagogues: Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, and Temple Sinai in Marblehead.
“My mom passed away a year and a half ago, and that brought me back to temple,” Yackolow said on a recent Thursday morning, shortly before the start of the 7:30 a.m. Torah service led by Rabbi Michael Ragozin of Shirat Hayam. “I found meaning in saying Kaddish for her,” he said, and he’s just kept going. “It gets you up and awake, and it reaffirms all the good values we all strive for in life.”
Yackolow is a “minyanaire,” in the parlance of the North Shore minyan — a core group of congregants and community members ranging from their 20s to almost 90 who assemble in alternating synagogues for non-Shabbat prayer services – in person or virtually – and gather for breakfast after Torah readings. Even if they are only able to attend online, they are still counted in the minyan.
At a time when surveys show organized worship – and communal life in general – are at historic lows in a changing and pandemic-ridden America, the minyanaires are among those bucking the trend toward increased disconnection in general and religious life in particular.
“It’s one activity you can engage in that’s good, there are no downsides, it hurts no one and uplifts everyone,” said Rita Schwartz, 67, who attends evening minyans at 7 p.m. – virtually – and leads the Wednesday night prayers. She started going to minyans in 1996 to say Kaddish for her father and has found it “immensely supportive,” she said. “I get a sense of community, and it lets me keep in touch with my spiritual nature.”
Jewish law demands communal daily prayer three times a day, and a minyan is the sacred community of 10 Jewish adults required for public worship. In Orthodox synagogues, those adults are male; in more progressive communities including Conservative, women are counted, too.
But many rabbis have observed that people are less inclined to attend minyans than they were in the past.
Part of the reason has to do with the passing of the generation that grew up accustomed to the obligation of saying Kaddish after the death of a loved one, or on the anniversary. It’s become an increasing challenge to find 10 participants “who feel the halachic obligation to observe the mitzvah of tefillah [prayer],” Rabbi Ragozin said.
There’s also been a significant decline in the number of Conservative Jews in the United States. According to a Pew Research Center survey released in 2021, for every person who has joined Conservative Judaism, about three have left.
“There is not this sense of commitment or fulfillment in it there once was, perhaps,” said Rabbi Michael Schwartz of Temple Sinai. “My sense is that it is sort of a generational thing. But it’s universal, in all religions other than orthodoxy – churches, synagogues, everyone. The numbers are declining in general.”
Then came the pandemic, a major disruptor of in-person gatherings of any kind and particularly across the religious spectrum. In early 2020, the rabbinic authorities of the Conservative movement recommended that communities gather virtually to pray on weekdays, with certain prayer modifications, even if those attending didn’t technically constitute a minyan.
Not all North Shore synagogues offer minyans, and for those that do, there’s no consensus on schedules, or on how and when to hold online or hybrid services. “Everybody does it their own way,” said Temple Sinai’s Schwartz. “The Conservative movement doesn’t have a Pope.”
Thus, Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly has a minyan Monday and Thursday morning in person and on Zoom. Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody has one every weekday evening and Saturday and Sunday mornings, both in person and online. Temple Achavat Achim in Gloucester has minyans in person and on Zoom on Shabbat mornings, and with Zoom only on Sunday mornings.
Minyans are in-person only at Chabad of the North Shore in Swampscott on Mondays and Thursdays at 7:30 a.m., Shabbat mornings at 10 a.m., and Sundays at 8 a.m. At Chabad of Peabody, minyans are held on on weekend mornings, “and occasional evenings when someone needs to say Kaddish,” according to Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman.
There is no consensus in the rabbinic world, around the question of Zoom – the best way to use Zoom in minyans, whether Zoom attendees can be counted as part of the minyan, or whether a minyan on Zoom really constitutes a minyan.
“As soon as you say, well we can conduct a minyan anywhere in the world, it doesn’t matter if you are physically there, you are treating minyan not as part and parcel of the community, but for [people’s] own individual needs, almost like it’s entertainment,” said Rabbi Alana Suskin, a Maryland educator and writer who has been ordained both as a Conservative and Orthodox rabbi, and who recently taught a course on minyans at the Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies.
“There is a sense that it turns things into a performance, and prayer is not a performance. You can’t watch it; you have to do it. You are not fulfilling your obligation.”
Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody believes you are fulfilling your obligation if services are virtual – if certain conditions are met. The synagogue has upgraded its electronics, installing two large screens on either side of the pulpit so those attending the minyan can see who’s on Zoom.
“If they are going to be counted in a minyan, we have to see their mouths moving,” the rabbi said. “We have to see them saying “Amen.” We have to see them standing and sitting, if they can. We won’t take the Torah out unless there are 10 people in the sanctuary, even if 20 people are on Zoom watching us.”
“When COVID hit, we closed down on a Friday and by Tuesday we were online,” Rabbi Ragozin said. “We just went to Zoom. I believe it’s much easier to pray with a book in your hand, so we started giving out prayer books. We’ve given out at least 100.”
Rabbi Schwartz acknowledges there is nothing to compare to praying “in a holy space dedicated to prayer. There is something magic about being with other people in prayer. But sometimes I can pray really well at home on Zoom. It’s not as easy or as natural for me, but there are times when I feel spiritually connected.”
But the North Shore minyanaires don’t seem to concern themselves with this sort of spiritual cost-benefit analysis. In-person, Zoom, hybrid – to them it’s all “just good,” as Rita Schwartz likes to say. “It brings the community together to check in with God and say, ‘Here I am, and there You are.’ It is a uniquely nice experience.”
“There is always somebody to tell you that you’re doing it wrong,” noted Brian Cohen, 56, a self-described “morning minyan guy” who is president of the Congregation Shirat Hayam Brotherhood. “I’ve always been very cognizant of the minyan but with the passing of my mother, I became a regular to say Kaddish for her, and I enjoyed it so much, I kept going.”
Even though he attends only on Zoom, Cohen said minyan has helped him forge a stronger bond with members of the congregation.
The most senior North Shore minyanaire is Sheldon Brown, 89, a retired professor at North Shore Community College who joined Temple Sinai in 1984, and was asked to lead the Shacharit prayers on Wednesday mornings. Earlier in the morning, he’d go to the Jewish Community Center to swim, “then run home and grab a breakfast, get to the temple at 7:30, lead the minyan, and afterward make it to my 8:30 class.”
He found it “cumbersome,” so he switched to Sundays mornings, and still leads the minyan on Zoom. “It is my way of life,” he said. He had no problem at all switching over to Zoom. “It wasn’t really a hard adjustment for me. It was a necessary adjustment.”
For some, it is a new way of life. Nick Dionne, 27, of Danvers, was one of about eight who attended the Thursday minyan at Shirat Hayam in person, in addition to four others online. Among them was the never-miss-minyan Jay Epstein, a dentist, who always calls in on his iPhone to be sure the group adds up to 10.
Dionne, who works in construction, showed up in work boots and his company’s T-shirt one morning. He was raised Christian but became interested in Judaism when he got engaged to a Jewish woman, and converted in May. The engagement didn’t last, but his commitment to synagogue and minyan did.
Doris Villa, 76, is another regular – and another convert – who’s becoming proficient in Hebrew. On a recent Thursday, she’d been up since 4 a.m., baking for the group.
After the Torah reading, after Rabbi Ragozin paraded the Torah around the chapel, after Dionne held the Torah so it could be covered, after the Zoomers said goodbye, the rabbi brought the service to a close.
“What did you make today, Doris?” he called out.
“Banana nut muffins,” she called back.
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com