Last week, for the first time in my life, I was the tenth man for a minyan, so to speak. Although on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish Congregation of Maui had a packed house, by the second morning, the dropout rate was noticeable. So when I walked into the synagogue on Friday morning, the nine men waiting to pray were very happy to see me.
Making the minyan was so novel, so refreshing. I felt like my presence actually mattered, that I was sitting among equals, and that my gender was irrelevant. I cannot remember another time I felt that way in synagogue. I wore my tallit, a gold-laced fabric that a dressmaker friend of mine made for me nearly ten years ago out of material that I bought at the market. My husband showed me how to tie the knots of the tzitzit, although I am not sure that his Chabad teachers who taught him this special craft would have approved. I don’t wear my tallit that often, because I am not often in environments where it feels socially comfortable, even in partnership synagogues. Here, it felt exactly right. I was finally a peer standing before God, and I fit right in.
This was a positively empowering experience. All the attendees were dedicated, sincere and genuine. There was a certain intimacy and friendliness, but the service was carried out in its authenticity. The room eventually filled up some more around shofar-blowing time, but that lovely balance between formality and informality held.
The Shabbat following Rosh Hashanah, however, I was number eight, and numbers nine and ten never surfaced. The rabbi could not hide his disappointment that there was no minyan. For him, praying without a quorum is not really praying. There was no repetition of the amidah, no kaddish, and no taking out of the Torah scroll (though I told him that from my experiences with Orthodox women’s prayer groups, where women do not actually “count,” you don’t need a “minyan” to read Torah). For me, though, I was still happy. Because I still felt like I was fully present in community, and that the people around me were happy for every soul in the room — and that invigorated me with a sense of purpose and meaning. In fact, it was probably the most sincere and heartfelt prayer experience I’ve had in years.
Still, my personal satisfaction contrasted with the broader portrait of Jewish life. Despite the fact that there are an estimated 3,000-5,000 Jews on Maui, there weren’t enough who were interested in making this part of their lives, even the day after Rosh Hashanah. Maui’s Jews are certainly diverse: “Bu-Jews,” like the famous Ram Dass, Israeli backpackers, surfers, “snowbirds,” retirees and people seeking inner tranquility or healing, are all part. Some say all the Jews on Maui are “black sheep,” there to heal old wounds or escape. Significantly, the overwhelming majority are married to non-Jews, or perhaps previously married to non-Jews so that a typical Jewish family in Maui is composed of an eclectic mix Jews and non-Jews, blood relatives and non-blood relatives, all vaguely connected by the Hawaiian concept of “ohana,” a flexible and warm conglomerate that is family.
One cannot help wonder what all of this says about the future of American Jewry, where synagogue life seems somehow out of step with contemporary rhythms. There are many factors influencing American Jews’ relationship to synagogue, many of which have been covered at the Forward. I would just like to say that, from my experience at Maui, I believe that a fresh approach to welcoming people is in order. The feeling I had walking in, knowing that others were counting on me, was extremely motivating, both in terms of practical and spiritual commitments. I believe that if communities found ways to make every single potential member feel that way — that is, that they actually count, that they are indispensable to the Jewish people — this might bring about some change.
I believe that Jewish women, who know first-hand the pains of feeling irrelevant and invisible, can take a leadership role here — reminding the community that if we don’t count everyone and embrace everyone with love, we are risk of losing some of our greatest treasures. You never know what spirit is contained in that tenth man.