Minyan makers: Bay Area Jews with a flair for prayer

They rise before dawn and score a perfect 10 every time.

They are the minyan makers, committed Jews willing to shake off sleep, gather in groups of 10 or more, and pray. Every day, at least twice a day, with the rising and setting of the sun.

“Our tradition teaches us that prayer is best achieved in the group,” says Rabbi Yossi Marcus of Chabad of the North Peninsula. “Even if you think of it as a private meditative thing, tradition teaches there is greater power and spiritual effect on us when we do it as a group.”

Marcus says the discipline of minyan means that at least two or three times a day, a Jew is thinking about God, and about his or her purpose in life (often the afternoon and evening prayers are combined into one back-to-back service).

Some minyan makers come expressly to say Kaddish for a departed loved one. That 11-month requirement is a key to the Jewish way of mourning.

But there are as many motivations to come to minyan as there are minyan makers. Some are new to Jewish worship, unsteady and learning as they go. Others are old hands, for whom minyan is like breathing in and out. For some it’s a way of passing on Jewish ritual to a son or daughter. For others, perhaps older and somewhat immobile, minyan provides an opportunity to keep in touch with the outside world, share a cup of coffee and shmooze.

Though each minyan maker’s tale is unique, in their diversity they paint a collective picture of a Jewish community engaged with tradition.

Here are a few of their stories.

The Father

When it comes to his work life, it’s all about high-tech for business executive Jonathan Spira. But when it comes to his spiritual life, it’s all about low-tech.

“I’ve been to every kind of service there is,” says the Hillsborough resident. “The one that always feels right and comfortable — the one with which I have the strongest connection to — is the one my grandfather and great-grandparents did.”

That would be the daily minyan at Chabad of the North Peninsula in San Mateo. Though raised “Conservadox” in Southern California and a veteran of Orthodox services as a youth, Spira hadn’t been a regular minyan attendee for many years.

It took his sons’ impending bar mitzvahs about a year ago to get him to start wrapping tefillin again.

“My kids were struggling with finding the right Hebrew school,” he says. “Nothing was really working for us, so we thought we’d try homeschooling the kids. Every Sunday we’d have an hour or two of work, and then go to services. My objective for them was not just to learn our culture and history, but to learn the Orthodox service.”

These days, Spira and his son Jack, 13 and a bar mitzvah, attend morning minyan regularly at Chabad. Many times, Jack has been the 10th man.

“It puts a smile on his face,” Spira says. “At the ripe old age of 46, I still don’t have [the service] down. I didn’t like going to shul as a kid. I thought it was boring. My kids were resisting going to shul, too. I told them I don’t go because I find it fun. I found different ways to motivate myself, to appreciate the experience more.”

Spira set out to perfect the art of prayer. He says he challenges himself to pronounce the Hebrew better every day, to read the siddur (prayer book) more quickly and accurately.

It’s like riding a bike: The stronger one’s legs and endurance, the better one gets at balance, the more one can enjoy the scenery. In the case of minyan prayer, the “scenery” is called kavanah in Hebrew, which can be translated as intentionality or focus.

“The kavanah for me comes from the association with the other minyan-goers,” Spira notes. “It’s this communal feeling I get from being more proficient at the prayers. It gets back to this basic Jewish philosophy: Don’t worry about feeling it. It’s about doing the deed. By doing it frequently, the feelings will follow.”

The Rabbis

Rabbi Sarah Graff dreads those days when she has to work the phones.

Without 10 Jews, Graff would have to call the whole thing off. Sometimes she comes up short and has to start making phone calls.

“It takes a real commitment and effort to keep it going day after day after day,” she says. “If we have seven people, then we will make calls. When people don’t show, it’s demoralizing.” Fortunately, that doesn’t happen often.

Palo Alto’s Congregation Kol Emeth, for which Graff serves as rabbi, offers a daily evening minyan at 7:45 p.m. and a morning service on Thursdays and Sundays. There are regulars, and with Kol Emeth being an egalitarian Conservative shul, women are always welcome as minyanites.

“It’s people who enjoy starting the day with prayer,” Graff says. “We don’t have a cantor, so the actual davening is generally led by congregants. Occasionally there’s no congregant who feels confident, and a rabbi will lead. Then there are times when there is no one confident to lead.”

Kol Emeth’s minyan often draws people who grew up with little Jewish ritual, but who might come to say Kaddish.

For instance, at the urging of their Reform rabbi, a brother and sister came by to pray recently because they had just lost a parent. Graff offered to meet with them and go over the structure of the minyan service. They became minyanites.

“People who start off coming because they are saying Kaddish find tremendous support being forced to be around other people on a daily basis,” Graff notes. “The tradition doesn’t allow them to isolate. They are expected to come be part of a community every day.”

Chabad’s Rabbi Marcus is well acquainted with the tradition. But not everyone who prays at his daily minyan services is up to speed, even though Chabad of the North Peninsula is Orthodox. The old hands help the newbies understand the service and make all feel comfortable.

“It’s not about standing up or sitting down at the right time,” Marcus insists. “The main thing is actually the feeling of your heart, speaking to God, sometimes even in your own language. I’ve seen people who over time have learned, and they look like they’ve been doing it all their lives. It’s hard to remember a year ago they were holding the siddur upside down.”

Those unfamiliar with prayer ritual are indeed welcome. So are women — except they cannot officially be part of the minyan. That’s not to say women don’t come to the services and participate — they do. They just don’t count as part of the 10.

Marcus explains that the men-only tradition goes back to talmudic law. Men are obligated to do the daily prayers, but not women because of their responsibilities with home and children.

Marcus sees more to it than mere practicalities.

“Women don’t need this type of communal prayer as much as men do to stay spiritually in tune,” he says. “Men have an easier time forgetting their spiritual selves, so they have greater duties and mitzvahs.”

Over at Kol Emeth, Graff reports that women often make up the majority of minyanites. The change began in the 1970s and was a tough sell at first in many Conservative synagogues. Now, Graff says, “It’s very accepted and people are grateful women count.”

Beyond gender, minyan brings together Jews of all ages and stages. Marcus always marvels at the sight of an 88-year-old and a 13-year-old praying together and forming bonds.

“This is a natural byproduct of the minyan,” he explains. “Traditionally the shul has been a social hub. People never spend a day alone. If you’re in a bad mood, you might stay at home all day. But if you have to interact with others, it’s a lot healthier.”

The Student

University of Oregon senior William Keller never misses a morning class. How could he? He’s already been up for hours.

A 22-year-old Palo Alto native, Keller is finishing up his undergraduate degree in psychology. For his own psychological and spiritual health, he initiated a daily minyan on the Eugene, Ore. campus.

Keller spent last summer in Palo Alto and used the time to recharge his batteries before heading back to Oregon for his last lap as an undergrad.

That recharge included praying with the daily minyan at Temple Beth Jacob, the Conservative synagogue in Redwood City he’s attended most of his life.

“Davening in the morning is really important,” he says, “a great way to start your day. You think of aspects of your spirituality throughout the day and, doing that with community members, you can support each other.”

Over the summer, Keller was the “baby” of the Beth Jacob minyan, which is nothing new. He remembers preparing for his bar mitzvah back in 1998, attending minyan for the first time and meeting “a lot of elderly gentleman.”

This past summer he was still the youngest there most days (though he asserts that he received no “mascot” treatment). “In the Bay Area Jewish community,” Keller notes, “there doesn’t seem to be that younger group of Jews taking it by the horns.”

That’s why he launched his campus minyan for “Jewish Ducks” (it is the University of Oregon, after all). Though he estimates the university’s Jewish population at around 1,000, Keller admits he and his fellow minyanites sometimes struggle to get the required 10, especially early in the morning.

Maybe that has to do with the legendary sleepiness of college students. It doesn’t stop Keller.

“My rabbi in Eugene likes to say sometimes you get the most tired before you do something most important,” he says. “The thing about group prayer is you need to be there to support your community as well.”

Traditional though he may be, Keller is fully on board with women counting as part of the minyan. “It’s not fair to exclude people,” he says. “Women bring a valuable presence to minyan. They have insight and they complete the community. It’s not right to exclude.”

However he puts that psychology degree to work, Keller plans to stay involved with the Jewish community, professionally or otherwise. After graduating, he intends to live in Israel for up to a year.

And for sure, wherever he is, Keller will wake up early to be counted among the minyan.

“If you’re not in the right mindset, you’re wasting your time,” he says of his prayer regimen. “What’s really important is if you get into the right mind frame, you’re doing great things for the community”

The Mourner

Judy Einzig calls them her “fatherly angels.”

They are the regulars who attend San Francisco Congregation Beth Sholom’s daily minyan. Just your average pious Jewish men of a certain age. But to Einzig, devastated by the death of her father last year and desperately seeking spiritual sustenance, the angels saved her from despair.

A psychotherapist, Einzig is now a regular minyanite at Beth Sholom. Not long ago she completed her period of mourning, reciting the Kaddish daily in memory of her father, as required by Jewish law.

It was not something that came naturally to her at first.

“I called my friend in Philadelphia after my dad died,” recalls the San Francisco resident. “I asked her how she got through it and she said she went to say Kaddish diligently every day. I said ‘I don’t know how to say the Kaddish,’ and she said, ‘Just go anyway.'”

Einzig pondered her friend’s advice — how in a minyan all Jews are equal, and how the communal empathy for her as a mourner would sustain her.

Adds Einzig, “She said, ‘In your regular life people don’t know your status, but in minyan they do and they come over to you.’ There was only one thing I was thinking: I was in pain. I felt my bone marrow had been sucked out.”

And so, about two months after her father’s death, she decided to go to Mincha services. Though no one knew her, she was embraced.

“They were so warm and welcoming, accepting and non-judgmental,” she says. “The rabbi asked why I was there and I burst into tears. He stayed with me the whole time. People poured their hearts out to me. I went back again in the morning, and the fatherly angels were there.”

What was it like to say Kaddish, day in and day out, and really mean it?

“I was a mass of raw grief,” Einzig says. “[Minyan] gave me an anchor for those feelings, a place where what was going on inside of me was the language they spoke. We could talk about death, loss. This was normal language there. It’s even in the prayers.”

Even though she had a secular Jewish education as a youth growing up in San Carlos (she also spent 11 months in Israel after college), Einzig was not versed in the ways of prayer. But she has a tissue-level connection with Judaism, especially since a High Holy Day experience 20 years ago at Kehilla Community Synagogue (then based in Berkeley).

Clutching the synagogue’s 1930s-era Romanian Torah, she recalls, something inexplicable happened that day.

“This warmth began to emanate from the Torah into my body,” Einzig says, “pouring stronger and stronger. It was a living thing, so intense I had to stop singing and I had to experience it. Since that time I do believe the Torah is sacred.”

Nevertheless, she avoided affiliation or attending services for years, until the death of her father. Now, minyan has become an essential part of her life.

She chose Beth Sholom in large part because she says it’s the only San Francisco synagogue with a twice-daily minyan at which women count. That’s why she’s willing to make the 25-minute drive from her Glen Park home to Beth Sholom’s new synagogue on 14th Avenue.

As she got to know her fellow minyanites, Einzig realized her experience with grief was not unique. She got to know one man who prayed every day with his eyes closed. He later confided to her that he would speak to his late father and ask his advice. Another man told her he got to know his late father better by coming to minyan.

The regularity and familiarity of the service became “very comforting, very uplifting,” Einzig says. “I became more and more a part of the congregation. It’s a community of love. That’s all I can say.”

The Survivor

His cane rests off to the side, beyond arm’s length, leaned against a chair piled high with siddurs. When Sam Green prays at Beth Jacob Congregation’s morning minyan in Oakland, somehow he no longer needs the cane.

At 85, he has already endured a stroke and heart bypass surgery. His eyes aren’t so good, so Green uses a large-print siddur. He follows along with the Hebrew, rising and sitting as required, the sway of his davening a bit diminished but no less heartfelt.

“I’m not here every day,” says Green in a pronounced Polish accent. “But I like to be here Mondays and Thursdays when we read from the Torah. If I don’t come I feel guilty.”

Attending minyan, as well as keeping kosher and observing Shabbat, means the world to Green. Almost 70 years ago, his world was savagely snatched from him, as the numbered tattoo on his arm attests.

Green grew up in a very religious household in a village near Czestochowa, Poland, attending religious school and shul regularly. But the day the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939 was the last day Green would see the inside of a synagogue until long after the war’s end.

He suffered the full brunt of the Holocaust. While his entire family perished, he was sent to nine different camps, including Terezin and Buchenwald.

After the war, Green lived in displaced persons camps in Germany, studying radio repair and electronics. In 1951, he immigrated to America and settled in Oakland, landing a job repairing radios and record players. He took a night course in TV repair, and eventually opened his own shop.

Green married a Holocaust refugee, Shlomit Deutsch, a Hungarian-German Jewish girl. She died 20 years ago, but Green doesn’t complain. “I got married later in life,” he says. “But it was a good life. I was satisfied. Everything was glatt kosher.”

Green didn’t want to retire, but the stroke two years ago forced him to. These days he walks to the local senior center for exercise class. He delights in his grandchild, who lives just a few blocks away.

And as often as possible, he starts his day early, before sunrise, to make it to minyan.

Being schooled in Torah, Green is acquainted with the Psalm that counsels us to “number our days.” He knows he is the last of Beth Jacob’s older minyanites, men who used to speak Yiddish at minyan. But whatever the future holds, Sam Green at prayer seems young again.

“It’s a good feeling,” he says. “The days [after] I don’t come, I daven twice as much, take my time and daven slowly. Such beautiful prayers. So many beautiful things to say.”

What is a minyan?

A minyan is a gathering of 10 or more people to pray one of the three daily services: Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon) and Ma’ariv (evening). Synagogue-affiliated minyans are held in main sanctuaries and in smaller chapels, but a minyan can be held anywhere. (No flight to Israel is complete without a minyan held somewhere in the cabin.) In the Bay Area, daily minyans at synagogues are a rarity compared to East Coast communities.

Morning minyans often begin around 6:30 a.m. and last 30 minutes, longer on Mondays and Thursdays when the Torah portion is chanted. Minyan participants don a tallit and usually have tefillin wrapped around the head and arm, though it’s optional in more liberal denominations. The prayers are familiar: the Sh’ma, Amidah and Psalms. The Torah is read during the morning minyan on Mondays and Thursdays. The Mourner’s Kaddish is always a central part of a minyan service, so that mourners can be sure to recite the prayer every day.

In the Orthodox community, only men count for a minyan. In some Conservative minyans and all liberal denominations, women count, too. Either way, 10 is the magic number, and no religious training or minimum level of piety is necessary. If you’re Jewish, you count.

Daily minyans

The following is a list, by region, of some Bay Area synagogues that offer daily minyans:

San Francisco

Congregation Adath Israel

Congregation Anshey Sfard

Congregation Chevra Thilim

Congregation Torath Emeth

Richmond Torah Center-Chabad

Congregation Beth Sholom

East Bay

Congregation Beth Israel

Beth Jacob Congregation

Peninsula/South Bay

Congregation Ahavas Yisroel Lubavitch

Chabad of the North Peninsula

Congregation Am Echad Torah Community

Congregation Emek Beracha

Ahabat Torah

Bar Yohai Sefardic Minyan

Congregation Kol Emeth

cover photo | joyce goldschmid

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.