Photo Credit: Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen

It isn’t my style to offer unsolicited feedback like Rabbi Blech sometimes did, but it is very obvious to me now when a rabbi has prepared and reflected on the sermon and equally obvious when he has composed it on the way to shul or even during krias haTorah that morning. For many congregants, the sermon is a primary interaction with their rabbi on a weekly basis. It is disrespectful to them for a rabbi not to be prepared and thought provoking on Shabbos morning.

Thankfully, many of the rabbis I’ve observed are impressive in this regard. I know it is difficult to have fresh material and new perspectives week in and week out. However, with an increasingly learned and sophisticated laity, it behooves the rabbi to make like a Boy Scout and “Be Prepared.” I realize now that it might be better for a rabbi to skip a Shabbos drasha completely rather then give less than a stellar effort.

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I sensed in the pulpit that money and synagogue life didn’t always mesh well. Im en kemach en Torah – without flower or “dough” there can be no learning – is certainly a truism, but people like to perceive their shul as a spiritual haven, divorced from the all-pervading focus on money that drives the business world.

I was always told that frontal appeals were off-putting to the better senses of those attending shul. Frankly, I always thought it was just an excuse not to have to open one’s wallet.

I occasionally attend a shul that is always making an appeal for one reason or another. I truly understand the shul badly needs funds but I find the appeals to be obtrusive and violative of the sacred space I aspire to carve out there. I also sense the solicitations are falling on deaf ears. I understand now more than ever the delicate balance between kemach and Torah dynamic. I understand better now the desire to give from the heart rather than endure the perpetual tugging of one’s heartstrings and purse strings.

The pace of the davening used to be of less concern to me. When people complained it was taking too long, I would think to myself how they don’t appreciate the singing or the special program. I’d ask myself, why are another 15 -20 minutes such a big deal? Now, I’m not so sure. I find myself losing patience and focus when things don’t flow at a good pace. It detrimentally impacts my davening and even my ability to sit quietly without talking.

It’s funny to me now how, while serving in the pulpit, I was at times perplexed by people gravitating to smaller shuls. But my newfound insights have helped me understand the move away from cathedral-style synagogues and toward shtiebels.

The shtiebel affords the attendee a nice pace of davening; drashas that are brief and to the point (or at times the even better “no speech” option); a heimeshe and friendly atmosphere; and a respite from the constant appeals for money. I’ve come to realize that this model of a spiritual home is quite enticing – and although I still can’t quite believe it, I sometimes choose a shtiebel for Shabbos tefillah.

For me, the dictum of Chazal about judging others is to be taken literally. I should have waited to judge my congregants until I arrived in their exact place, in the pews where they sat and watched and experienced shul life. It isn’t enough to think you understand the situation of another; one must actually sit in the seat of another to fully grasp a different perspective.

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Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is director of New York Synagogues and director of Community Engagement for Yachad at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of "We're Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose" (Mosaica Press, 2016). His website is www.rabbidovidmcohen.com.
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