By Mordechai Schmutter
Frequent readers of my column will know that I don’t really follow politics. And the same goes for shul politics. Politics are a hassle, and most shul politics tend to happen after Ma’ariv, and I’m usually in a hurry to get back home so I can stay up until obscene hours of the night and wonder why I’m not thinking of article topics.
But just this week, I happened to stay, and I accidentally got caught up in a discussion between three or four gabbaim as to how to maximize the seating space of our shul.
It’s not one of those big, official shuls. We rent out an area that used to be a storefront, so we basically have a rectangular shul that is significantly wider side-to-side than it is front to back. Front to back, we have an Aron, an amud, a bima, a hagba’ah chair, and a wall. The rabbi has to keep looking left to right when he talks, or he can just speak directly to the wall. But the question is how to maximize the space.
Our first issue is that our shul keeps getting new members. No offense.
Usually, this is a good thing, because new members means new money, except that we get the kind of new members that, like the old members, don’t really have money. It’s great that people who have no money like hanging out with other people who have no money, but how on earth are we going to build a bigger shul with no money?
You’d think that when new people come to the shul and see how many people are davening there, they would decide to go somewhere less crowded. But it’s not the people who join the shul the latest that walk in to find a crowded shul, it’s the people who come the latest.
So apparently the gabbaim have been playing around with ideas for the past few weeks, and sometimes I walk into shul and think, “Has it always been like this? Something feels different.”
Seating is just one issue. The most obvious solution is to add another row of tables, and the most obvious place to put it is the aisle. Which brings us to the other problem: We need aisles for people to walk through so they can:
A. Go to the bathroom. The bathrooms are out the door at the far end of the shul, and there are three ways to get there: Pass through the entire shul; go downstairs and cut through the basement; or walk out the front door, go around the corner, and come in the back door, with your tallis swaying behind you in the breeze.
B. Go look for a sefer if they finish Shemoneh Esrei early, so that by the time they find it and get back to their seats (which isn’t easy, because you have to time your steps around everyone’s shuckling, like you’re playing Frogger), the chazzan will have already started.
Recently, they stuck in an extra row. This added some seats, but not enough. And now the guys in the back row are complaining that people bump into them when they’re coming to get sefarim, although seeing as there is now an extra row, you’d think these guys would just move forward one row and pretend the new row is the back one. Meanwhile, the guys in the front row are complaining that people heading to the bathroom are bumping into them, although you’d think they would just move one row back and pretend that the new row is the front row. And the people who pass by are complaining, because it’s easier to complain than to cut through the basement. Or bring a sefer from home since chances are that whatever sefer you want is not going to be on the shelf anyway, because the downside of daf yomi is that it’s the same daf for everyone.
So the gabbaim spent a lot of time arguing about ideas. Should we get rid of the tables? Then everyone will complain. Guys want their tables, because otherwise they’d have to juggle their siddur, Chumash, tallis bag, hat, and whatever sefer they got during Shemoneh Esrei, and figure out how to show each of their kids the place.
A lot of the discussion revolved around the sefarim shranks. This was a big sticking point. The thought was that if we moved the row of sefarim from behind the back row, we get an extra 12 inches, probably, in the back of the room, which is not large enough for another row of people, but might be large enough to get the guys in the back to stop complaining about having no room and instead start complaining about how they now have to walk somewhere else to get their sefarim.
But what do we do with the sefarim?
One gabbai suggested that we move the bookcases all over the room—wherever there’s a small space—instead of all in one row. Like for instance, we can move the big plush Kisei Shel Eliyahu, seeing as how often do we have a b’ris in shul? Can’t we just bring it in when we do? Or do we have to have it sitting there all the time, in case there’s an emergency b’ris? Yes, I know that whoever sponsored the chair will complain. But maybe he’ll stop if we let him have it for his makom kavua.
But then the second gabbai pointed out that if we have sefarim all over the place, people will go from bookcase to bookcase looking for what they want and bothering everyone in the room. Then we’d need aisles all over the place.
So his suggestion was, how about we make the bookcases taller? That way we need fewer of them.
OK, so we don’t have infinite ceilings, but for every two bookcases we make taller, we get to lose one. Unless someone donates more sefarim, Heaven forbid. Should we ask people not to?
But then the first gabbai said, “Then how do people reach the sefarim?” Do they stand on the chairs of the guys in the back row? Do we get one of those ladders that slide along the wall? Can one even climb a ladder in a tallis without landing on someone during davening? We can get one of those floating stepstools that they have in libraries. But there’s always going to be someone sitting on them, because getting rid of bookshelves doesn’t actually add seats, and we’re still short.
Maybe we should forget about seats, and just have a rotation of people who have to go away for Shabbos certain weeks, or at least try out other shuls.
Or maybe we should interview new applicants, like a school. (“Look, this is how much room we have. When someone dies, you can compete for their spot.”) Maybe the reason we have so many new people is that we’re the only shul not doing this.
I don’t know what the appeal is anymore. Apparently, there’s something about our shul that draws people in, but we haven’t figured out what it is yet so we can stop doing it. And the only thing we have working against people deciding to join us is the lack of seats. And the constant complaining.
The gabbaim were stressed that no matter what they did, people were going to complain. But people are always going to complain. People are spoiled. But we’ve had it worse. A few short years ago, we were in a basement with almost the same number of people. (We had what you’d call a “starter shul.”) Back then, if you wanted to go to the bathroom, people had to carry you over their heads and pass you back. Also, there wasn’t really room to back up after Shemoneh Esrei. We had to do it in unison.
But why am I writing this article? Half the shul is going to complain that everyone’s going to come to our shul now, because I just said we’re looking to make more room. And half the people are going to complain that no one’s going to join our shul now, because I just said we’re a crowded shul of complainers. And the third half will say that what goes on in the shul is not for public discussion—it’s between the 87 of us and our families and friends.
If everyone in my shul is going to complain to me, it might take some of the brunt off the gabbaim. A little thank-you for involving me in politics. v
Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of four books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to MSchmutter@gmail.com.