By Ellen Levitt
We know that we can pray on our own nearly anywhere, anytime, but Judaism does emphasize communal prayer. And many of us appreciate the group atmosphere: We listen to one another sing, we feel camaraderie, we learn from each other. We can cheer each other on as well as offer solace as a group.
COVID-19 restrictions deeply affected the traditional congregational prayer setting. Many people turned to online prayer, typically via Zoom, but also using Google Groups or cell phone apps. Even many Orthodox Jews have gone online for daf yomi, Purim megillah readings, yahrzeit commemorations, and shivah gatherings. Some congregations have not adhered to social distancing, but most have, thus drastically limiting the number of people who could gather together indoors.
Seeking Outdoor Davening
For a variety of reasons I made a break with a synagogue I had attended; one factor was its reluctance to arrange any outdoor davening. Thus, in late July 2020, I turned to a community listserve and asked whether anyone wanted to join together to have prayers outdoors. My concern was not just short-term; I was wondering what I’d do for the High Holidays in the autumn.
Three people responded with vague interest, but another told me about an outdoor backyard minyan that she and her family were holding. It sounded intriguing, and I took her up on an invitation to join (and to read an aliyah of the Torah parshah from the Ḥumash as well).
I enjoyed joining with a small group of people to daven on Shabbat morning, and at one point during the service, which was very laid back, I felt like I was back at Young Judaea sleepaway camp (with a few mosquitoes and bees added). However, we did hear blasts of loud music from a passing car and other street noise, which placed us squarely in the urban setting. Overall, I liked participating in this service, and when the family told me that their Brooklyn shul was going to be holding outdoor services, I jumped at the chance.
From August 2020 through May 2021 (and beyond, at least for a while) this congregation has held outdoor davening. Most weeks it has consisted of one weekday Shaharit service, Shabbat Minḥah, and some holiday morning services. We’ve been dubbed the “Polar Bear Minyan” and the woman who held the backyard minyan had wool caps made with that name stitched onto it. (I bought one and wore it on several of the colder days.) We’ve met on the patio of the synagogue, at street level, and it’s been a really good experience, a fine adaptation to the pandemic restrictions.
Usually we eke out a minyan, but sometimes we draw close to twenty people. We set out folding chairs with spacing in between and bring out a small Torah scroll, a box of siddurim and ḥumashim, and a few folding tables. It’s bare-bones, but it works very well, and everyone pitches in with setup.
I cannot say that the weather has always been kind to us; sometimes we have been battered by strong winds and cold temperatures. I’ve become semi-adept at turning the pages of the siddur while wearing gloves. One time it did get so chilly that I moved my chair to the doorway to the basement so I could avoid the wind. On a few occasions I moved my chair to be in the direct sunlight.
Of course, we have all been masked. I’ve realized that when you daven or leyn while wearing a mask, you must enunciate more effectively. We have also used advance online signups and health forms, and a few times we had to send around last-minute emails when the weather report warned of rain or snow.
I was in the shul’s main sanctuary just once, on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah, and although that seemed more “normal” and traditional than the Polar Bear Minyan, it felt somewhat bittersweet to me. We wore our masks, seats were cordoned off, and other protocols were in place. But the drastically different outdoor minyan had a more chipper, scrappy but upbeat atmosphere to it, at least for me—although I did appreciate that the breeze wasn’t flipping my siddur pages.
Advantages of the Outdoor Minyan
One of the advantages to the outdoor minyan for me has been the sunlight shining on the pages of the siddur and ḥumash. My eyesight is not great, and I am a bit fussy about artificial lighting and book reading. Reading outside has been a boon for me! And I will admit that it has an esthetic quality, too.
Sometimes we are davening and we hear the wind gently rustling the leaves, birds chirping; we look up and see birds flying in formation. At other times we hear loud ambulance sirens and vehicular traffic, which clashes with our prayers. The synagogue is located near a major street, and we can smell strong aromas (some quite heavy) emanating from restaurants. And since we are in the heart of Brooklyn, and marijuana smoking is now legal, we have had our share of not-quite contact highs. Attending an outdoor minyan, you need a sense of humor and a sense of humanity.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed the experience greatly, and at times I’ve found it rather moving. The people who attend run the gamut of ages, and nearly everyone has participated with vigor. Congregants are friendly and not standoffish. There is much ruaḥ, a sense of purpose and of being flexible. Judaism should not be a stuffy entity, and by davening outdoors, we have bucked tradition while embracing tradition. This past year’s prayers will linger in my memory for years to come, and I think it will largely consist of fond memories.
Update: We are still having outdoor minyanim on weekdays and some Shabbat minhah services. We have been inside for Shabbat morning services since May, wearing masks).
Ellen Levitt is a teacher and writer, and a lifelong resident of Brooklyn. She has been part of the Flatbush Women’s Davening Group since the late 1980s.
We’ve been dubbed the “Polar Bear Minyan” and the woman who held the backyard minyan had wool caps made with that name stitched onto it.
Attending an outdoor minyan, you need a sense of humor and a sense of humanity.