The Conspiracy

The Haunted Minyan | The Jew in the Boonies

I was pretty surprised about the interest people showed when I finally let my Haunted Minyan idea out of the box. Haunted Minyan, for those of you who don’t know, is what happens when you have Kabbalat Shabbat services outside on the lawn of your haunted campus, preferably next to the campus graveyard. Sadly, the rain kept us inside, so on Friday night I found myself in my bedroom with four other people (three others decided that Safety Minyan didn’t have quite the same ring to it).

If you’d asked me a year ago whether I’d ever expect to have such a diverse array of people over for Kabbalat Shabbat, I’d never believe it. Yet here we were:

  • Your humble host, single-mindedly devoted to letting other people lead whenever possible. I figured this was a good tactic.
  • A possible atheist—I know because in the middle of a song she announced “I don’t know if I believe in God!” She further explained that she only enjoys “cultural Judaism.” She was also the loudest singer, and told me she led services at her old synagogue, but it eventually came to light that she can’t read Hebrew.
  • A Conservative freshman, who, having been a song leader for some summer camp, knew some pretty upbeat songs. If you know anything about me, you know that I welcomed this, since there’s nothing I dread more than slow songs. Her Lecha Dodi was faster than I’d thought possible, which I found enchanting.
  • Two people who were raised Catholic and converting to Judaism — one is actually technically Jewish but is converting to Reconstructionism because she “doesn’t believe in Jewish ethnicity that way” and the other has yet to realize that Judaism entails commandments.

The campus graveyard | Photo by Laura Cooper

So there you have it. I learned a couple of things. First and foremost, I learned that if you want to keep this ragtag group’s attention, you’ve got to know what you’re doing. I quickly realized that (probably since it was my house and my idea) I was the leader here, so I had to agilely recognize that one girl accidentally had a weekday siddur, that no one actually reads all of the “kab shab” psalms but me, and — most importantly — if we didn’t sing enough, they’d quickly lose interest and start talking about Glee.

And you know the girl who’d told me she could lead a service but ended up not knowing Hebrew? She insisted on some strange things. I learned she doesn’t believe in halacha as she announced that she was going to do “Yitgadal,” even though I countered that we have no minyan.

“Lightning’s not going to strike you,” someone else said. This is what I was dealing with. So she said Kaddish aloud by herself, and the only other person who knew it—the Conservative girl—kept silent.

She then leaped up to say Barchu, and I reminded everyone that this also requires a minyan. She didn’t care; she just wanted to say it. To her credit, though, I couldn’t find in my law-filled Koren siddur anything on how Barchu needs a minyan. That was quite odd, but I could only do what I could do under that sort of pressure.

So we said Barchu.

I told her I wanted be the one to say Shema, before she had a chance to sing it in some strange and complicated way. I also took over Aleinu, because I know that what often happens is that people tend to skip the entire middle (which I don’t understand, because you’d think the type who does that would want to keep the part about the universalism).

It was quite an educational experience. I knew that my main goal for the night would be getting them to want to return, and luckily I don’t think I took over too much with my legalistic approach — my “Litvak” approach, as my friend calls it.

The important part, I think, was the fact that we were here when we otherwise wouldn’t be in the synagogue. More and more lately (sometimes to my abject horror and sometimes to my amusement), I’m finding it difficult to connect to the synagogue service and its setup and model; the liturgy; the pomp; the songs; the crowd. I know that I’ll have to sing songs in our bedroom minyan when I know I could just as easily speed-read them.  And I know that the freewheeling “I must say Kaddish” girl and I might eventually have a scuffle.

But the point is autonomy. I really value autonomy.

Laura Cooper is a Religious Studies major at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA. Her interests include graphic novels, punk rock, and making Judaism interesting. She blogs at Crystal Decadenz. Her column, The Jew in the Boonies, appears here on alternating Sundays.

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