So, How Do I Tell the Shul Blabbermouth to Be Quiet?

10 Feb 2006

Howard Horowitz arose at 4:00 a.m. Sunday in his Boca Raton, FL home; caught the 6:00 a.m. flight from Fort Lauderdale Airport to New York; participated in the Orthodox Union’s first-ever One Day Conference and Seminar for Gabbaim (referring to the synagogue congregant or lay officer who plays a major coordinating role in the running of services); then took the 7:45 p.m. flight back home.

Was the conference worth the time and effort, not to mention the expense for the flights?

“Absolutely,” he replied. “The day was an opportunity to hear other gabbaim discuss how they deal with similar situations; how to proceed when these situations come up; and when to bring problems to the rabbi, the board and others in the congregation so that they are not only on my shoulders.”

Rabbi Horowitz – an ordained rabbi and social worker, he serves the Young Israel of Boca Raton in the gabbai rather than rabbi role – cited decorum, the distribution of Torah aliyot (honors), and determining who leads the services in a variety of tricky situations — such as when there are multiple yarhzeits on the same day — as matters he must deal with. Rabbi Horowitz flew south reflecting, “It’s nice to know that other shuls and other gabbaim have these same situations.”

It is because of these situations that repeat over and over in synagogues, that the Orthodox Union scheduled the conference. It hit a nerve – the event drew a capacity audience of 130 gabbaim, with many others turned away for lack of space; they had the opportunity, though, to watch the conference with their colleagues worldwide on the OU website,

“The gabbai is a very significant personality in the synagogue and his work is vital for maintaining the dignity and sanctity of the service,” declared Rabbi Moshe D. Krupka, OU National Executive Director, at the conference. “Gabbaim face many challenges – from resolving disputes and hurt feelings, to maintaining decorum, to knowing when to correct the Torah reader if he makes a mistake. Experience helps, but knowledge empowers – and knowledge is what the OU provided by arranging this conference.”

To provide this knowledge, the experts brought in by the OU addressed the following topics:

Who gets an aliyah? Who leads the service?

How to recognize a pasul (non-kosher) Sefer Torah;

How to deal with disputes and hurt feelings;

When to correct the ba’al kri’ah (Torah reader);

How to get more people involved and make the shul a warmer place;

How to handle decorum in the shul;

Technological resources for the gabbai, and

The role of the gabbai in the shul and community.

The experts included Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University and halachic (Jewish law) consultant to the Orthodox Union; Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, also a RIETS Rosh Yeshiva, and the voice of the weekly Torah reading excerpt on the OU website; veteran gabbaim at New York area synagogues; Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Pincus, a well-known sofer (scribe); and Rabbi Yonah Reiss, Administrator of the Beth Din of America.

“The mission of the Orthodox Union is the synagogue. After the family, the synagogue is the most important institution in Jewish life,” explained OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb to the gathering. “A synagogue cannot be vibrant without its gabbai, and the gabbai, in turn must be sensitive, firm and learned, with the ability not only to make people comfortable but to enforce standards of decorum, learning and halacha. To help the gabbai fulfill these responsibilities, the OU arranged for these outstanding presentations.”

Orthodox Union President Stephen J. Savitsky noted that “this conference is yet another vehicle through which the OU enhances the lives of Orthodox Jews.”

As in the case of Rabbi Horowitz of Boca Raton, all the gabbaim considered the day to be a profound learning experience. “This conference was excellent and unique,” said Jerry Bloom of Monsey Jewish Center in Monsey, NY. “I enjoyed the whole thing.”

“It was wonderful, wonderful,” agreed Rabbi Eli Rabinowitz, gabbai at Congregation Agudas Yisroel of Madison in Brooklyn, NY. “The conference was well organized, informative, educational, and time well spent,” he said.

“I liked it very much. I made a lot of good contacts,” said Shlomo Templeman of Beis Medrash of Flatbush, in Brooklyn. Yeshiva University student Evan Rosenhouse, a gabbai at campus services, added that he learned “techniques” to deal with the challenges of the job, while Judah Mogilensky of Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring, MD was particularly impressed by Rabbi Wieder’s session on when to correct the Torah reader. “There’s much more depth to the situation than I realized,” he said, adding that he will now “look at the Torah reading in a different way.”

During and following the event, OU officials pledged that more conferences on synagogue life are on the way, with details to be announced in the future. The event was coordinated by Rabbi Robert Shur of the Department of Community and Synagogue Services.