What should you do if you are a group of seven religious guys on a hike in Israel and it is late afternoon? The obvious answer is: look for three other religious guys to make a minyan for mincha. Here is a more difficult question: What if you do see three other guys but they do not seem religious? Such was the scenario that my son Elie and I and a group of his friends faced recently. What not to do in such a situation is to assume that the secular person is only too willing to help make a minyan by saying something like “Yalla, let’s go; it will only take a few minutes.” What Elie did was to ask the guys: “Are you into davening with us?” When they said “no,” we proceeded on to a more secluded place and each of us prayed the afternoon service individually without a quorum. [When I later relayed this episode to a secular friend of mine, he said that the best thing would have been to not even ask, that the very question puts the person in an awkward situation. At this, a different secular friend said: “Why is this situation different from if I ask you for a light for my cigarette?”]
The situation changes drastically if there is a person saying Kaddish (which traditionally can only be said in a quorum). Israelis, including secular Israelis, are usually prepared to participate in a minyan as a sign of respect for the mourner (Note: if you are just helping make up the minyan, you and up to three other people like you are not required to pray; ideally, you should answer the relevant congregational responses, but in practice your mere presence is sufficient). Such was the case last summer in my wind ensemble. Ra’anan, my fellow tenor saxophonist, was saying kaddish for his father. The band practices from 7:30-10:30 p.m. During the winter months, Ra’anan was able to pray the evening service in a synagogue; however, in the summer this service is prayed after 7:30 p.m. Normally, during the band’s break at 9:00 there is no davening—there is dinner (people take turns bringing in a light repast). Ra’anan requested that in the summer months there be a Ma’ariv service toward the end of the break, and this was held in the hallway. If need be, there were always enough sympathetic non-religious men to fill up the quorum. But practically speaking, every single member of the band, male and female, religious and secular, helped facilitate that Ma’ariv service. Why? Because instead of the break taking 20 minutes it took about 28 minutes. The band did not vote on this time extension, and in a sense it was therefore a kind of religious coercion. This, however, is what it means to live in a majority Jewish culture as opposed to a majority Christian culture.
During the 18 years when I played in several concert bands in the U.S., there was never a minyan for Mincha or Ma’ariv (though many times there was a quorum of Jewish men present). Most secular Israelis support Israel being a majority Jewish culture. They want their New Year to be Rosh Hashanah, their winter holiday to be Hanukkah, and their spring holiday to be Passover. And if this means that their break during wind ensemble will be 28 rather than 20 minutes in order to allow one of the musicians to say Kaddish for his father, then they are willing to pay that price.
TEDDY WEINBERGER is director of development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, sarah jane ross, have five children.