Featured in the Journal of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance - Spring 2019 issue
About This Piece
Recently featured in the Journal of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance - Spring 2019 issue, this chapter of my memoir shows how my story is just as relevant to Orthodox women as it is to others.
It is powerful when people of any religion, creed, ethnicity, or any other factor decide to unite to make the impossible possible.
"Bigger isn't Always Better"
Chapter of upcoming memoir by Sarah Birnbach
It was one of those challenging situations that we religious Jewish professionals often face. During my aveilut (mourning period), a client invited me to make a presentation in Lansing, Michigan. I was excited for the opportunity, but, as always during that year, made my acceptance conditional on having a place to chant the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer.
“Before I can agree to come, I need to be sure there’s a synagogue with a morning and evening minyan (requisite quorum to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish) where I can say Kaddish.” I explained to her the significance of our mourning traditions, my commitment to the redemption of my father’s soul, and my need to find a place where I could worship with a minyan. “May I get back to you in a day or two?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she responded. “I’m in awe. I never heard of anyone doing this before.”
I then learned that neither of the two synagogues in Lansing had weekday minyanim (plural of minyan), but Flint, more than an hour’s drive from Lansing, had a synagogue with both a morning and an evening minyan. It looked as if I would have to fly into Flint and commute to Lansing.
My neck and back muscles tensed as I thought about driving between the two cities. The window of time between the end of services in Flint and the start time for my presentation in Lansing was precariously tight. In my twenty years as a consultant, I had never been late for work. Should I accept the assignment, knowing I’d feel the stress of the commute?
The Call that Changed Everything
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 that you called looking for a minyan. I’d be happy to organize a morning and evening minyan for you while you’re here.”
I was caught so off guard, I couldn’t respond. “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.”
Even knowing that g’milut hasadim, performing acts of loving-kindness, is a core Jewish value, I was stunned into silence. I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. I couldn’t keep the excitement from my voice.
“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 my heart was stirred with so many emotions all at once—happiness, amazement, gratitude, relief. I wanted to show my appreciation, 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.”
A Choice of Options
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 with delight. “So I accept your invitation.”
“Well … 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 bring you 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 was my better option, but before I could respond, she continued. “I’ve 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 so fortunate.”
I felt blessed that I could convey the deepest values of Judaism to people who knew little or nothing about them—the importance of kindness, of community, and of l’dor vador — keeping values alive from generation to generation — which was embodied in my saying Kaddish for my father.
True to his word, Allan Falk and the members of Kehillat Israel Congregation organized minyanim for me, on the evening before and the morning of my workshop.
I was waiting in the hotel lobby in the evening when Allan arrived to pick me up. “Jolly” was my first thought when I saw his hearty smile, topped with a graying mustache. 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.” The warmth of his voice conveyed his sincerity. “The synagogue building would be cold, both in terms of temperature and spirit, since we turn on the heat only 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.” Sitting in the passenger seat in Allan’s car, I experienced the same soothing feeling I get when I nestle into my favorite sofa with a warm mug of tea.
We drove a short distance to the home of Bettie Menchik, who flung open the door and greeted me with 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 cozy living room, where a group of eight men and women greeted me.
I quickly realized that Bettie’s living room modeled klal Yisrael – Jews coming together in community. I was the tenth person required for the minyan and I was going to be able to recite the mourner’s Kaddish for my father. This community . . . enabled me to fulfill an obligation I had promised to my father, a man with no sons but with a determined feminist daughter.
Folding chairs were arranged in a semicircle, supplementing the living room furniture, and a pile of prayer books sat on the coffee table. After a few moments, Allan looked at me and asked, “Shall we begin the service?”
Saying Kaddish Alone
When we got to the mourner’s Kaddish, I recited the prayer alone, my voice a solitary one among a minyan of people gathered to support me. In my home congregation, when I recited the words of the Kaddish, other mourners’ voices joined mine. Sometimes we had a full minyan of people reciting Kaddish. The sound of my voice resonating through Bettie’s living room helped to mitigate the memories of other work-related travels where, as the only woman among nine men, I was precluded from reciting the Kaddish. Nine can be the loneliest number.
After 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 wanted to give her a heartfelt hug, but she was flitting around the kitchen tending to everyone’s needs. Instead, I filled my plate and carried it back into the living room, where everyone lingered, talking for several hours.
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 at 7 o’clock tomorrow morning,” he said. “That should give us enough time to get to the synagogue, have a leisurely service, and get you back here 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 artwork from the religious school decorated the cinderblock 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. I recognized some faces from the night before, but others were new. As we had done the previous evening, we faced east toward Jerusalem. 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 to 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. 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, whereas the bigger congregation with more member families never responded to my phone call nor to Allan Falk’s emails.
To this day, I feel a deep connection to the people of Kehillat Israel, both for providing minyanim (and a scrumptious dinner) and for teaching me that saying Kaddish is not only for the mourner and the deceased. It is also for the members of a community.
The Torah commands us, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Compassion for others is at the heart of Judaism. The members of Kehillat Israel fulfilled the mitzvah (commandment) of v’ahavta l’re’akha kamokha, loving your neighbor as yourself, and embodied the ultimate purpose of the minyan—to support the mourner through grief. This small community performed an act of holiness. Beyond the dark cloud of my loss was a rainbow of caring and a reminder that bigger was not always better.