In our Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, one of our legendary baalei-battim was Dr. Simon Lopata a”h, who, among many other important characteristics, had a flair for the written and oral word. He listened carefully to speeches and if he had any comments, he would share them with the speaker. At least with me he did. In the beginning, I was sensitive to any criticism, “constructive” or not.
But then I began to realize that whatever comments he did share were extremely valuable. One of the pointers that Dr. Lopata had for me was to never start a speech with “I just want to say.” A speaker has to be confident and not start off as though to apologize for having to speak.
I feel like I am in violation of Dr. Lopata’s rule as it applies to this article. I will be making an excuse for not expounding as much as I would like to. I would also have wanted to spend time on the attack on our Orthodox institutions, be they chasidish or yeshivah universities. In a way, the attacks are very connected, as government tries to interfere with our religious freedom of education.
However, I need to start by saying that I am writing against a very fast approaching deadline. I did not realize that due to the Yom Tov schedule, the paper goes to print in a matter of hours.
Last week, I wrote about my “moving experience” with the fraudulent movers. This week, I write about an emotionally moving experience. As you likely know, this is my first year not being a rabbi during the Yamim Nora’im since 1977. People ask me how it is being a “civilian,” sitting in the “audience” instead of being in charge up front.
In truth, that change was not radical for me. You need to make peace with your current situation and accept your new role. The more difficult part was getting used to the new davening nusach. I davened in Passaic in order to hear our son Ari daven Shacharis for the amud. He did a magnificent job, if I must say so. The shul, Kol Yeshurun, led by Rav Aharon Cohen, has an atmosphere that is permeated with yir’as shamayim. Not a sound was heard from the crowd throughout the entire davening. The Sh’moneh Esreis are quite extensive, with everyone showing focused concentration on the words they were saying. (I need to get used to the extensive part – maybe the focusing part, as well.) Everyone chimed in with enthusiasm to join the many melodies that were used.
However, the most difficult part for me was the change in nusach. The “Hineni” introduction to Musaf was very different from the impactful ones I heard over the years from Oscar Goldman and Rabbi Shloimie Leibler a”h, followed by Paul Glasser and Dov Levin and Akiva yblch”t. “ Ochilah” was different, missing the same inspiration that I recall. “Aleinu” on the second day was quite different from the melodramatic one I grew up with. In fact, the entire nusach on the second day was something I never heard before, imported from Telshe Yeshiva and London.
It became very apparent to me the absolute insistence by the Mahari’l (approximately 14th century Germany), that one never change nusach during the Yamim Nora’im. Whatever you recall from your youth is the one that motivates you.
Cantor Sherwood Goffin a”h of the Lincoln Square Synagogue taught chazanus and wrote manuals on the topic. His number one concern was nusach. Stick to the correct nusach – everything else was secondary. This year, I have no trouble as a “civilian in the audience,” but I will need to make adjustments, becoming a loyal soldier to a new battalion.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.