By Jacob Richman
Over the past year as a member of the Traditional Minyan, I have been questioned several times about why I am devoted to such a seemingly boring service. Since freshman year, I have actually been looking forward to the time when I could join this minyan as a sophomore.
After looking at the list of tefilah electives second semester sophomore year, I decided on Traditional Minyan for two reasons. First, as everyone knows, the Traditional Minyan is granted a treat, often sweet, by Cantor Alan Sokoloff every Friday morning. More seriously, as I scrolled through the list and read the descriptions of the other minyanim, I felt that this would better prepare me to be a part of and play a leading role in other Jewish communities. So, I was left with one choice-Traditional Minyan- and I feel that I have made the right decision.
Schechter Westchester’s Traditional Minyan is one of the oldest the school has to offer. It has been around for all ten years of tefilah electives. Sokoloff often tells his story about his daughter joining and he as well soon after. Sokoloff has been coming every week for ten years because he really enjoys being with kids who are interested in learning traditional Judaism. Both he and I are also pleased that the Traditional Minyan includes the Prayer for the State of Israel.
Whether it is a parent or a Camp Ramah director who is visiting, the Traditional Minyan has always been the home for Schechter Westchester’s guests. Every few weeks, you will notice a visitor walk in and immediately feel comfortable with the service. The minyan follows the traditional and standard practices, so it is very easy to follow along for any guest who davens. The visitors are also often impressed at the engagement and involvement of the students; students consistently lead the whole service from start to finish and take charge in choosing leaders. The Traditional Minyan has always been and always will be the place for visitors, and it has an extremely important job in representing Jewish life in the High School.
Friday is everyone’s favorite day. We start out with the usual Psukai Dezimra, but when the Yishtabach is recited, everyone gets the feeling that Shabbat and the weekend are near. Many will remember that as freshmen, we did the Shabbat nusach on Fridays. Well, that custom continues in the Traditional Minyan. On Fridays, we skip the full repetition in addition to the prayers after the Amidah. Rabbi Yitzchak Zilbiger will often invite other teachers to come and give a Dvar Torah that offers a reflection of the past week and provides a hopeful message for the week to come. We then end ten to fifteen minutes early and eat either munchkins, little bites, Klondike bars, bagels, cream cheese and lox, ice cream sandwiches or a combination of the above which are all provided by Sokoloff. We schmooze for a few minutes and get mobbed walking out the door by fellow students from other minyanot who want some snack.
In addition to the normal Monday and Thursday service, the Traditional Minyan adds in a few more prayers. We do a full Psukei Dezimra, similar to the one prayed at most synagogues every day of the week. We also do Tachanun every applicable day after the Amidah and a second Ashrei service, and Zilbiger gives a daily drash. Though sometimes political, it offers many interesting lessons that tie together all aspects of Judaism and Israel.
The Traditional Minyan service has a special sense of openness and silence. During the Amidah on Monday and Thursday, you may have some students murmuring or even having full conversations, but in the Traditional Minyan, it is silent. Not a single person talks out of respect for one another. This silence is also carried into the repetition. The only sound other than the Shaliach Tzibur is the “baruch hu baruch shemo” and “amen.” Having one of the largest rooms, the Traditional Minyan’s High School Beit Knesset is a large space with plenty of seats for every group of friends. Every morning, the sun shines through the large glass windows illuminating the room and Schechter Westchester’s beautiful campus right outside.
The Traditional Minyan is clearly not for everyone, and that is the point of having tefilah electives. But for the students who wish to be a part of a traditional community, with food, nusach, serenity, and Torah, why not join the Traditional Minyan?
By Taylor Salomon
You enter the High School Beit Knesset on a Monday morning to see a group of students mechanically reciting prayers with a far-off look in their eyes. You then enter the Video Conference Room the next morning to find students in a passionate discussion about prayer prompted by a hands-on activity.
You ask yourself which of these groups exhibits more kavanah in the prayers. I, along with the fifty other members of the Nefesh V’Guf tefilah elective, would say the second of the two.
Class of 2010 alumni, Clara Rotter-Laitman and Alex Golub, founded Nefesh V’Guf during their junior year, in hopes of creating a minyan that could provide more meaning to prayers than from what the traditional minyan did.
Student Life Coordinator Scott Scheff, who was a member of the first group of Nefesh V’Guf leaders said, “[We created the elective for it to be a more spiritual and meaningful tefilah experience, and we didn’t necessarily feel like we were getting it, at the time, in grade level davening or with some of the more traditional services that our school was doing at the time. It became a great outlet for us to pray and to reflect and to find meaning through a more spiritual kind of tefilah.”
Speaking from personal experience, making a connection to the prayers we say every morning is difficult, and rarely happens in our regular Monday/Thursday minyan. The flowery Hebrew of the prayers makes it difficult to understand and internalize without first having a discussion of the meaning and purpose of the prayer. In addition, the amount of emotionless recitation makes it hard to feel a connection while praying in a traditional minyan. One of the priorities of Nefesh, as the elective is affectionately known, is to give students a different format through which they can discover their own sense of spirituality.
Through hands-on activities that relate to a certain prayer every day, such as a blindfolded taste test for Bircot Ha’Shachar, or playing an icebreaker game for Modeh Ani, students are able to understand the prayers outside of their poetic format. The activities in Nefesh and their subsequent discussions aim to find meaning in the tefilot that we, as young adults, can incorporate into our daily lives, other than by rote recitation.
Additionally, the intimate Nefesh setting allows members to express their opinions on anything from the amount of work given in school to the existence of God, without the fear of being ridiculed. It is designed to provide a safe space for students where they can speak their minds without the structure or publicity of a classroom environment.
Also, because the small groups on Tuesdays and Wednesdays are student-run, there is no student-teacher dynamic that often places students in an inferior position. In Nefesh, the playing field is leveled, which helps create an open and comfortable discussion between peers.
As a former member of Nefesh and as a current leader, I have been able to benefit from both sides of this relationship. My role adds another layer of depth to the prayers, because I now have the new responsibility, and privilege, of helping others find meaning in prayer, rather than just discussing the prayers.
In addition, my bi-weekly meetings with Rabbi Sosland and the other Nefesh leaders have added to my general skillset as a leader, have improved my creativity when planning events for groups of people, and have taught me the ability to teach prayers to other students.
Being in this leadership position has also allowed me to create relationships with students that I had not crossed paths with before.
The energetic and exciting Nefesh environment is more than just a safe space; it is something that we, as students, are able to look forward to as a break from our work filled, draining weekday mornings. It serves as a pick-me-up for tired students to engage in an hour of fun, thoughtful discussion amongst friends.
Nefesh V’Guf is meant to help students strengthen their relationship with God and prayer. The ability of students to study and discuss prayer in an entertaining and open-minded context contributes to the connection formed by students between them and the traditions of their religion. Because of these discussions, students can integrate the importance of prayer and the presence of God into into their daily lives, where they had not found such a connection before.