Bigger Isn’t Always Better

When a client invited me to make a presentation in Lansing, Michigan in February, I was excited at the invitation. As always, my acceptance was conditional on having a place to say Kaddish.

“Before I can agree to come, I need to be sure there’s a synagogue with a morning and evening minyan where I can recite Kaddish,” I told my client. I explained to her the significance of my quest and my need to research places where I could pray.

“May I get back to you in a day or two?”

“Absolutely,” she said without hesitation. “I’m in awe of what you’re doing. I never heard of anyone doing this before.”

I discovered that neither of the two synagogues in Lansing had weekday minyans. Flint, Michigan, over an hour’s drive from Lansing, had a Conservative shul with both a morning and evening minyan.  It appeared that I would have to fly into Flint and commute to Lansing.

I felt the stress move into my neck and back muscles as I thought about driving between the two cities. The time between the end of services in Flint and the start time for my presentation in Lansing was precariously tight. In my 20 years as a consultant, I had never been late for work, and didn’t want to start now.

My ongoing internal debate began to give me a headache. Should I accept the assignment, knowing I’ll feel the stress of the commute? I was unfamiliar with the morning traffic patterns between the two cities, but I assumed that an accident on I-69 would put the kibosh on any chances I had to be punctual. Or do I decline her invitation? I couldn’t silence my brain.

Then I got the call that changed everything.

“Hello. I’m Allan Falk, the ritual committee chair of Kehillat Israel Congregation in Lansing. I understand you called our congregation looking for a minyan. I would be happy to organize morning and evening minyanim for you while you’re in Lansing.”

I was so caught off guard, I couldn’t think of what to say. “I . . . I thought your synagogue didn’t have a morning and evening minyan.”

“We don’t typically. But when someone in our community needs a minyan to say Kaddish, it’s our obligation to respond.”

I was stunned into silence. Thoughts were flooding my brain. This meant I could accept my client’s invitation and fly directly into Lansing. No long commute from Flint to Lansing prior to my presentation. I could be on time for work. I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. Wanting to jump up and down for joy, I struggled to keep my voice calm.

“I hardly know what to say. I’m so grateful.” I wanted to say more. I wanted to thank him for embracing my right as a woman to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. I wanted him to know how unique his offer was and how my heart was stirred with so many emotions all at once – happiness, amazement, gratitude, and relief. I wanted to show my appreciation that they were honoring my intention. But at that moment I couldn’t find the words.

“We’re happy to do this for you. If you let me know where you’ll be staying, I’ll arrange to pick you up and return you to your hotel.”

After exchanging contact information and arranging our next conversation, I called my client and told her the good news.

“A small congregation in Lansing – Kehillat Israel — is going to organize a morning and evening minyan for me around my work schedule,” I said, almost giggling. “So I would love to come and make the presentation to your group. I accept your invitation.”

“While you were learning about Kehillat Israel, I got a phone call from one of our Jewish members in Flint,” my client said. “She offered to attend services with you there, and then drive you here to Lansing. That way you wouldn’t have to drive in unfamiliar territory. So now you have two options.”

It was clear that being in Lansing and accepting Allan Falk’s offer would minimize travel time and stress. Before I could respond, she continued.

“I have never seen anything like this – the commitment Jewish people make to one another. The ways you show your dedication to your faith and the way you respond to one another is something I’ve never experienced before. It’s amazing. You are really blessed.”

Once again, I had introduced the deepest values of Judaism to people who knew little or nothing about them — the importance of kindness, of community and l’dor v’dor — keeping values alive from generation to generation — which was embodied in my saying Kaddish for my father. It was another gift from my Dad!

True to his word, Allan Falk and the members of Kehillat Israel Congregation in Lansing organized minyanim for me, on the evening before and the morning of my workshop.

I was waiting in the hotel lobby when Allan arrived to pick me up. “Jolly” was my first thought when I saw his huge smile, topped off with a greying mustache. He was a man of about my age and height, with a receding hairline and greying around his temples. His eyes sparkled through rimless eyeglasses.

“Welcome to Lansing. I’m so happy we could meet, although I’m sorry it’s under these circumstances. I’m so sorry for your loss.” His sincerity came through in the softness and warmth of his voice.

I felt immediately comfortable. “Thank you.  I’m so grateful to you for your kindness.”

“The synagogue building would be cold, both in terms of temperature and spirit, since we only turn on the heat when we’re going to be using the building, so we decided it would be more comfortable to conduct the service in someone’s home. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t mind. It will be lovely.”  The minyan I had organized in my home after returning from Florida lingered in my memory as one of the most soothing and treasured moments of my Kaddish experience. Sitting in the front seat of Allan’s car, I looked forward to a similarly heartwarming evening.

We drove a short distance to the home of Bettie Menchik. No sooner had I mounted the steps to her porch than she flung open the door and greeted me with sparkling eyes, an enormous grin and a warm hug. “Welcome. Come on in. I’m so happy you’re here.” I felt more like a long-lost roommate than a total stranger. Bettie escorted me into her warm, cozy living room where a group of eight men and women rose to greet me. Each of them introduced themselves with genuine smiles as if to say, “We are so happy you’re here.” I answered questions about my home, my family, the reason for my trip to Lansing as everyone gave attentive looks and affirming nods.

I noticed the folding chairs organized in a semi-circle, supplementing the living room furniture, and a pile of prayer books sitting on the coffee table. After a few moments, Allan looked at me and asked, “Shall we begin the service?”

A gentleman offered me the chance to lead the service, but feeling awkward about my limited Hebrew, particularly in front of strangers, I declined. One of the women passed out the prayerbooks, everyone faced east toward Jerusalem and one of the men began the prayers.

When we got to the Mourner’s Kaddish, the others sat down and I recited the prayer alone – my voice a solitary one among a minyan of people gathered to support me. At Beth El, when I recited the words of the Kaddish, other mourners’ voices joined mine. Sometimes we had a full minyan of people reciting Kaddish. I had never before been the lone voice reciting the prayer.

I was alone amidst this beautiful group, comforted by their presence, yet still unaccompanied in my grief. It was a metaphor for the process of grieving. We can be surrounded by people who care, but ultimately each of us is alone with our sorrow.

After reciting the Kaddish, Bettie invited everyone into her kitchen. Spread out on her counters was an array of hot and cold foods, salads and desserts that could have fed thirty people! She had prepared a meal that resembled a holiday feast. Staring at all the food, I felt  a warmth radiate through my chest. I wanted to rush up to her and give her a huge hug, but she was flitting around the kitchen tending to everyone’s needs. I filled my plate and carried it back into the living room, where everyone lingered, talking for several hours. Bettie was a most gracious hostess, ensuring everyone had had enough to eat, refilling beverage glasses, and forbidding anyone from helping her in the kitchen.

As the evening drew to a close, I was physically and spiritually nourished. Allan drove me back to my hotel.

“I’ll pick you up here in the morning at 7:00. That should give us enough time to get to the synagogue, have a leisurely service, and return you here to the hotel in time for your presentation.”

The next morning, he appeared precisely as planned and drove us to the synagogue. The building was plain, but children’s art work from the religious school decorated the cinder block walls. I later learned that the synagogue had been a public school before it was purchased by the congregation. We walked down a long corridor into the room where everyone was gathered. As we entered, my brain did its now-familiar exercise of counting the people. We had another minyan of ten. Some I recognized from the night before, but others were new faces. As we had done the previous evening, one man led the service and I recited the Kaddish alone. After the service, some lingered to socialize, but I uttered quick thank-yous to everyone and Allan returned me to my hotel so I could conduct my workshop.

“I hardly know how to thank you for all you’ve done for me,” I said getting out of his car.

“I only did what any Jew would do. Your father must have been a wonderful man to have a daughter as dedicated as you. It’s been a privilege to meet you.”

I’d never seen an all-volunteer synagogue like Kehillat Israel. The congregation had no rabbi or educational director. Services were run by lay leaders. And yet that small, volunteer synagogue, with no religious leader, put together a morning and an evening minyan, while the bigger synagogue in Lansing with more families, never responded to my phone call, nor to Allan Falk’s email.

The people of Kehillat Israel embodied the ultimate purpose and sanctity of the minyan – to support the mourner through grief. Once again, my determination to stay committed to this ritual had pulled a community together around me. Beyond the dark cloud of my loss was a rainbow of caring support and a reminder that bigger was not always better.