Welcome back to our tutorial on how to start your own shul, which we began last week. It takes more than a week to start your own shul, so if you’re losing patience with this topic, starting your own shul is probably not for you.
Last week, we talked about how pretty much everyone could start their own shul. But I take that back. If everyone started their own shul, no one would have a minyan. But a lot of people could, at least. In fact, I think I’m going to have to start my own shul after the people in my current shul read this article.
So today we’re going to continue with:
The first thing you want to do when you start a shul is let people know you exist. The question is how to do that. You never see brand new shuls advertising in the newspaper like new supermarkets: “Grand opening!” And then you get to have balloons and a clown and samples of what the cholent is going to taste like… You can also write, “Buy one aliyah, get one aliyah free, of equal or lesser value!” That way, people will show up if only to find out what you mean by “equal or lesser value.”
I’m not sure why new shuls don’t do this. Besides the whole illegal-basement thing. The way shuls tend to advertise is they wait for a yom tov, and they get their name into the local advertising rag under “Neighborhood Davening Times”, and then people see the name of a shul they don’t recognize and say, “Where is that shul? They have some interesting times. I’ve never davened at that time before!”
People you need
Every shul needs the following people. If you don’t have all these people, get them, because they’re necessary for the function of a shul.
Rav – Every shul needs a rav, so the mispallelim have someone to blame when davening goes long, for sholom bayis reasons. Ideally, the rav should live on the exact opposite side of town from the shul, unless he’s the one who started the shul, in which case he should live upstairs. The rav should also know a non-Jew that he can sell his chometz to, or he should have a secret deal going on with the rav of another shul who does know a non-Jew.
Gabbai – This must be an active go-getter who did not know how much responsibility this was when he took the job, and is one bad day away from quitting. He would have quit already, but his sense of responsibility will not let him do that until someone else takes the job, and no one wants the job, because they’ve heard from him how much work it is. Other skills a gabbai needs are the ability to:
- Run an auction.
- Recite the beginnings of all the gabbai tefillos by heart so everyone doesn’t have to wait for him to find the page.
- Recognize when there’s a new face in shul and have the confidence to introduce himself and know for a fact that the guy won’t say, “I’ve been coming here for weeks.”
- Realize when the person he wants to give an Aliyah to is in middle of Shemoneh Esrei.
President – No one really knows what a shul president does, aside from giving a presidential address at the meetings, being the final say on all decisions unless you count the rav, and talking about how they’re going to build a mechitzah to replace the curtain, and the women are going to pay for it. The president can insist that everyone call him “Mr. President”, but no one will do it. FUN FACT: In some European countries, there is no shul president, but there is a shul king. He inherits the role from his father and has no actual power.
Candyman – This is a man who gives out some kind of candy that is ostensibly to keep the kids quiet in shul, but generally causes the noisy kids who would otherwise just be playing outside to traipse through the shul to get their lollies. Girls too, because for some reason there’s no candy woman. Though I bet there’s a carrot-sticks woman. The candy man has to keep the candies in his tallis bag, and will for some reason never sit on an aisle. The minhag is that he gives out some kind of candy on a stick (usually Dum Dums) so the kids can remove it for Kedusha and Amen. If he takes his job seriously, he should also have a thing of breath mints for the adults. And cough drops.) It’s unclear if any other religions have candy people in their houses of worship. I think it’s just Jews. This might be why religion is dying out in our country.
Guy who can’t stop pacing – Every shul needs someone who has to walk back and forth during davening, or, if he’s in middle of Shemoneh Esrei, hop back and forth. This guy will not have an aisle seat either. He should move at a slow, leisurely pace that is totally oblivious to how many people are behind him trying to get to their seat or come up for an aliyah, and right before he gets up to an area that the people behind him could maybe slide past, he should turn right around and walk back toward them. Should also have a shtender on wheels.
Guy who clears his throat every ten seconds – It’s not his fault, it’s probably bothering him more than it’s bothering anyone else, and he definitely doesn’t realize that he keeps confusing the chazzan. Someone should direct him to the candy man.
Someone who’s willing to daven for the amud when everyone else says no – This should be a guy who doesn’t get confused when people clear their throats and knows how to read all the little squiggles that the gabbai added to the shul’s official Chazzan Siddur. (“Why couldn’t they just buy the right siddur?”) And whose mind doesn’t suddenly go blank on every song he’s ever heard in his entire life when he gets to L’cha Dodi. In fact, a whole bunch of tunes should spring to mind, and he should select the one that no one else knows.
Guy who davens at the bimah so he can klop before Shemoneh Esrei – People may forget to stick things into their Shemoneh Esrei, but this guy never forgets to klop. Most shuls have several of these guys, in competition, and they klop one right after the other, in case the previous guys’ klops didn’t help. If anything, they should all coordinate and klop in Morse code so we know what they’re telling us to stick in. Or maybe klopping should be a kibud that they sell once a month, like ner lama’or.
Guy in charge of the coffee station – This guy is in charge of filling the urn 75 times a day, making sure that there are always both sugar cubes and sugar that is not cubed and that the spoon in the sugar is dry, smelling the milks a couple of times a day so that none of the other mispallelim have to, and making sure the kids don’t run off with all the stirrers. These duties will be his entire Shavuos night.
And there’s your minyan. You also might want to have:
- The guy who helps the kids do gelilah.
- Someone who can do hagbah when the sefer is heavier on the left.
- Someone who’s in charge of giving an open Chumash to the guy who just did hagbah.
- Someone who’s willing to leave davening early to set up the kiddush.
- Someone who likes to daven in the women’s section until the first woman shows up, to keep all the seats warm.
- A guy whose chair squeaks, but he won’t stop shukkeling, and he doesn’t want to ask someone to switch chairs with him because he doesn’t want to disturb anyone.
The next question you have to figure out is when exactly you’re davening. Most shuls start with Shabbos and then move on to other days of the week if there’s an interest. There’s no reason you have to do that. You can be the shul that starts with Tuesdays, and then everyone’s going to show up to figure out, “Why Tuesdays?” and you can say something like, “Well, we don’t have a sefer Torah yet.”
But even assuming you start with Shabbos, once people are personally invested in your shul you can have a vote about whether people want to daven with a minyan on other days too. (Make sure to phrase it like that before the vote so people raise their hands.) And that’s when you discuss whether you want to establish, say, a weekday Shacharis that’s more about what time it finishes than what time it starts. People have to get to work. Then you can say things like, “Shacharis normally starts at 7, but on leining days we start at 6:50, and on Rosh Chodesh we start at 6:40, and when there’s Selichos, we start at 6:35… We almost never start at 7.”
But Shabbos is simple, which is part of why everyone starts with Shabbos. They don’t say, “Well, it’s a longer parsha this week, so we’re going to start earlier so people can get out at the time they’re used to.” It wouldn’t be the worst thing. People want their naps. Also, that way you can tell your Shabbos guests what time to show up at your house if they daven in a different shul, and you don’t have to say things like, “The rabbi went long.” Instead, on Friday night you can get up and announce, “The rabbis’ speech is going to be long, so we’re starting a little earlier.”
“Great! I’ll notify the coffee guy!”