57 Judenrat Minyanim
Chananya Weissman

January 19

I recently had a few more interesting experiences at various minyanim.

A gabbai at one outdoor minyan had previously told me that “the policy” was for everyone to be masked. Even though it was a small minyan in a very spacious parking lot, and I was in an area that was mostly concealed and far from others, they were disturbed. We exchanged respectful emails, and came to an understanding. I would not be able to lead the davening or read from the Torah without a mask, as that was “official”, but if I otherwise did my own thing they would not police me.

However, this quickly changed. The next time I attended this minyan, the gabbai asked me to put on a mask because some people were “uncomfortable”. I want to reiterate that I was nowhere near anyone else, and few people at the minyan could even see that I wasn't wearing a mask unless they went out of their way to do so. I pulled my mask up to my chin, and he was satisfied, because this would at least give the appearance of complying with “the policy”. Obviously this is absurd; it demonstrates that this has nothing to do with science or safety, and everything to do with control.

I decided I would not continue to attend this minyan, because I do not wish to daven with neurotic people and control freaks. However, yesterday it was raining, and this was one of the few outdoor options where I would be able to stand in a sheltered area. Because of the weather, they actually needed me to make a minyan.

Towards the end of davening, the gabbai again approached me and asked me to wear a mask. I walked away and shielded myself between a car and a wall until the end of davening, like a fugitive hiding from the secret police.

Afterward I emailed the gabbai that I was not near anyone or disturbing anyone, people have no right to harass me or bully me, and they should mind their own damn business. I said their behavior is nothing but sinas chinam. I suggested they pretend that I was molesting children or beating my wife instead and look the other way.

Naturally he took umbrage at these remarks, and reiterated that the minyan was based on “following the law of the land”. It was “nothing personal”.

I told him I hoped the “health guidelines” did not one day require people to stand on their heads. The day will come when they require people to undergo an experimental medical procedure or carry a “green passport” to daven with them. It was indeed personal, as there is hardly a worse thing you can do to a fellow Jew than kick him out of a minyan.

He reiterated that they were just following the guidelines.

It should be emphasized that people typically fall back on “just following policy” to justify irrational or wicked behavior. Tech giants do not officially censor people because they are evil and heavily biased, but because the user “violated” some nebulous policy. Governments do not purge dissenters because the leaders are evil and corrupt, but because the dissenters are violating some vague, amorphous law that can be broadly interpreted and selectively applied.

Similarly, had I worn the mask on my chin and stayed mostly out of view, they would not have made such an issue out of it, even though there is literally no conceivable value in doing this. What really bothered them was not that I was violating some unscientific “health guideline”, or even breaking a shul policy – shuls have many policies that don't affect people so deeply – but because I was flouting the guidelines without even trying to “cover it up”, and that made them feel bad about themselves.

Deep down they know that I was doing nothing wrong by standing outside, far away from anyone else, and talking to God with my face uncovered. But because they were going along with the farce and I was giving a finger to the farce, it rankled them. It rankled them more than any other “policy” I could have broken, for it made them look like fools. They didn't want to wear masks, either, and deep down they know it's silly, But they were going along with it, and I wasn't.

In one of my final emails to the gabbai I told him that the Judenrat punctiliously followed “the policies” as well. We're glad some people disobeyed, and it's because of them that we are here. Not surprisingly, he strongly objected to the comparison, but I maintain that it is apt.

The next morning I attended a different minyan for the first time. Within seconds of arriving, while I was putting on my tefillin, I was accosted separately by two people demanding I put on a mask. I finished putting on my tefillin – stopping or speaking in the middle is against halacha – gathered my things, and left without a word. I davened outside the semi-private area where the minyan was located, but close enough to participate, and checked that little group of kapos off my list as well.

I couldn't help but notice that they had about twenty people at this minyan, double the legal limit arbitrarily imposed by current “health guidelines”, and the distancing between people was minimal.

Once again, it is obvious that this has nothing to do with science, safety, halacha, or following the law of the land. It is all about controlling people and feeling good about themselves. They violate the guidelines every single day, but they cannot tolerate someone who does it overtly, for that makes them look foolish.

There is some good news. There is a different outdoor minyan I have been attending in which nearly everyone wears a mask, but they have been very friendly to me and have not bothered me about showing my face. No one has yet accepted my offer to shake hands, but I hope that day will soon come. At first I was the only one who kissed the Torah, but a couple others have recently done so as well. There is hope. The ice can melt. The fear can be broken.

A Chabad minyan has been similarly welcoming, even though officially they ask for masks to be worn as well (most likely they have no choice). I have my differences with Chabad, especially with those who are still proclaiming the deceased Rebbe to be Moshiach. At the same time, I have my differences with everyone in one way or another, and that does not deter me from seeing the good.

Chabad excels in many areas, including two areas that are particularly important today: promoting Judaism in times of tyranny, and welcoming Jews who go against the grain. While minyanim all around are making people feel unwelcome for quietly doing their own thing, and even kicking people out over dubious “policies”, Chabad reminds us that this is not the Jewish way.

This is one of the great spiritual battles facing the Jewish people. It transcends masks, science, safety, and “policies”. Those who engage in sinas chinam masquerading as “following policies” should be censured and hopefully set straight. We need to push back against this.

The gabbai I mentioned earlier told me that he is “sorry that wearing a mask is such a trauma” for me. I replied that wearing a mask is not a trauma for me. Seeing what many of my people are unwittingly turning into is a trauma.

Those who are friendly and welcoming, and allow people to do their own thing, should be recognized as role models and beacons of light in these dark times. These are the people who will preserve our sanity and lead us to a better place.

Join them.