The rambling thoughts of a Modern Orthodox Chassid (whatever that means). Contact me at emansouth @

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Losing The Shul

I've been attending my shul for about 13 years. I served as president for six of those years and as chairman of the board for about the last five. When I started there were about 70 member families of which about 40 were core. Today there are something like 250 member families (and tons of freeloaders).

When I started, there were a handful of baalieh tefilah. They ranged from very good to good to acceptable, with a couple of kalyikles who were painful to listen to.

(A friend from high school once remarked that in most places money talks; in Orthodox shuls, money sings).

But one thing virtually all of them (with one exception) understood, is that davening for the amud at my shul meant a lot of communal singing. Consequently, it also meant choosing niggunim that everyone knew. While there was a natural tendency to use Carlebach niggunim, the shul was by no means a "Carlebach Minyan" and any niggun was ok so long as the kehilah knew it, it was simple and everyone could sing along.

As the shul has grown, some excellent baalei tefilah have joined. Some not-so-excellent baalei tefilah have also joined and some truly dreadful ones have joined. The gabbaim have done a very good job of weeding out the brutal ones.

What they haven't done (and what is very hard to do) is reinforce the principal that davening for the amud is about engaging the kehilah. For example, for the past few months we have had many baalei tefilah get up on Friday evening (when the shul is routinely packed to the rafters) and use complex, unknown, shiny shoe niggunim for Lecha Dodi, taking the wind out of the sails of the kehilah and wasting the amazing energy of the mispalilim. There are few things (in this context) more disappointing.

The same thing has happened on Shabbosos and yom tovim.

While there are many more important issues facing Klal Yisrael, after stewing about this trend for months, I finally brought my frustration (which is shared by many) to the attention of the Rav. The good news is that he agrees with me.

The question is how to address the problem.

As the Rav said with a smile at the end of our conversation, "That's why they pay me the big bucks".

IYH, we will take back the shul.

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  • At 12:26 PM, Blogger Child Ish Behavior said…

    Let me tell you, being a baal tefila even with the best intentions can sometimes go wrong. I had such an experience happen to me. People try to do what the kehila wants, but all the good intentions.

  • At 5:01 PM, Blogger RAM said…

    How about giving each would-be baal tefilla X amount of time in advance to teach his tunes to the kehilla?

  • At 6:29 PM, Anonymous babyrabbi said…

    Your post reflects much of what is wrong with contemporary davening. Today, the person who leads the davening is (if you are lucky) the person with the nicest voice or the one who has the best tune selection, and that is how the quality of a baal tefillah is measured. While these are nice, davening for the omed is so much more than that. There are certain tunes that are inappropriate for certain parts of davening based on the meaning of the words and the theme of the tefillah. Moreover, proper punctuation and division of phrases has been thrown out the window, as people shoehorn any tefillah into their favorite Carlebach, Devykus or Shwekey niggun. You have stated many times your distate for chazzonus. But with the democratization of the omed and the popularity of lay-led services, the entire tradition of Nussach haTefillah that dates back thousands of years is being lost and no one says a word. You may think your shul is exceptional in many ways (and it is), but this is one area in which it is like about 99% of other shuls in the world. Sadly, even if you think you succeeded in taking back the omed, it's probably too late to save its davening.

  • At 5:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    the answer is quite simple.
    at some point in the last 25 years Nusach became "modern" , "tziyonish" and "not frum"
    and the holier way of davening became a cacophany of carelbach tunes smattered with the latest on the nachum segal show regardless of origin (from rotenberg to green to sarachik to wedyger to shwekey to schewbel).
    The answer is simply to quit this trend and bring davening and chazzanus back toi stard nusach which every did (and does) know.

  • At 10:21 PM, Blogger MoChassid said…

    Nusach is in galus.

    It isn't coming back because there are very few left to teach it and even fewer who will admit that they don't know it.

  • At 7:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The reason for your posting boils down to this: why would someone use a "three weeks"song for Licha dodi when its two weeks after shabbos Nachamu???

  • At 7:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 11:43 PM, Blogger Lion of Zion said…

    "The question is how to address the problem."

    what's the big deal? let the gabbaim be more selective in who they select to daven.

    they should also feel free to give directions as needed. when i was a baal kore, the gabbai would always coach me if ppl weren't happy: louder, slower, faster, etc.

    (yeah, i understand this underestimates shul politics)

  • At 12:05 AM, Blogger Lion of Zion said…


    "Moreover, proper punctuation and division of phrases has been thrown out the window"

    i think it's fair to say that even many (most?) "professional" hazzanim are ignorant about grammar and meaning. or at the very least they don't seem to care.

    as far as punctuation and division of phrases, again, many "professional" hazzanim are ignorant in these matters. in specific, i'm willing to bet that 99.9% never learned the principles of pisuk ha-te'amim for tehillim, so why should they know division of phrases for it?

    "the entire tradition of Nussach haTefillah that dates back thousands of years is being lost and no one says a word"

    huh? exactly which parts of our tefillah are "thousands of years" old?

    finally, is there really one "one" proper nusach, or do you mean for each particular edah? even within ashkenaz, was there ever real uniformity? i don't know anything about jewish musicology, but i do know that carlebach was not the first to experiment with the nusach. what about the chasidim, for example?

    שבוע טוב

  • At 4:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Very simple solution.

    Our shul just moved into our new building. The rabbi got up the first week as set down the rules (all of which he has said earlier at some point, he was just reiterating).

    Tzibur: No talking, no reading pamphlets, etc.
    Chazen: Use songs people know, no shlepping, etc.
    Gabai: No detailed "Mi Shebeirachs", no "Hoisofos" by leining.

    After speaking about this publicly, no chazen will ignore it.

  • At 10:16 AM, Blogger Lion of Zion said…


    if all this was a problem before the new building, i don't know if one speech will suddenly rectify everything.

    "no reading pamphlets"

    what's wrong with this? better for someone to read that to talk during davening or to go to the kiddush club during the rabbi's speech.

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