On Shteibels, Internet-Induced Uniformity, and Baltimore

A recent stint as a scholar-in-residence in Baltimore drove home a point that I first learned the hard way decades ago. Shteibelization is not a panacea for unhappy shul-goers.

I had not been out of Kollel long enough to have lost my exuberant brashness, so the opportunity many years ago to debate Rabbi Maurice Lamm, then the rabbi of Beverly Hills’ Beth Jacob Congregation seemed inviting enough. The topic was shteibelization – the trend to bolt the larger shuls and join much smaller places of worship where everyone knew everyone else, and each individual had a much better chance of being needed and appreciated. This was where the “frum” community was headed, leaving the cathedral synagogues to the impious modernists. Clearly, G-d was on my side, and I would blow away my far more experienced opponent.

G-d chose otherwise. While I did not do so poorly, I walked out definitely bloodied. Rabbi Lamm deftly maneuvered me into a corner, and had me concede both the drawbacks of shteibelization and the abiding advantages of membership in a very large congregation such as Beth Jacob. The drawbacks (which I would have realized had I not been so intoxicated with the absolute righteousness of the “frummer” folks in the ghetto I hang out it) included giving people the ability to avoid both membership in and responsibility to any shul whatsoever. Folks could daven shacharis in one small shul, mincha at another, and find a hashkama minyan (early service) on Shabbos morning at yet another location. They could escape paying dues and establishing a relationship with any one rav by playing one place against the others. On the other hand, the advantages of the large congregation included organizing important communal responses that required a critical mass of congregants. Various charitable enterprises, political machinations, and outreach activity were unthinkable without a large membership base in their support. (To his credit, Rabbi Lamm never held my chutzpah against me, and we became friends. I was honored when he called me years later and asked me to review for Jewish Action a new book he had penned.)

It took decades until I learned the next lesson, but time caught up with me at Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore last Shabbos. It is definitely a large shul, not a shteibel. Its specialness struck me almost immediately, from the first davening Friday night. There were too many different kinds of Jews there, and they all seem to get along. I wasn’t used to that.

In the first decades of acrimonious dispute between the new Chassidim and the old misnagdim (opponents of Chassidim), one of the hot-button issues was the sectarian breaking away by Chassidim from the larger synagogues. Chassidim formed their own, smaller shuls, and then scrambled to defend the practice, often by arguing that davening is more effective when people fully appreciate their neighbors. In time, the argument prevailed even among non-Chassidim, and many people today look for a shul where they can daven with like-minded neighbors, cut from the same attitudinal cloth.

This aspect of shteibelization adumbrated recent internet-driven innovations in keeping Americans informed. Without trying too hard, you can get your news today from a set of internet sources fine-tuned to guarantee that you will not encounter any journalist or opinion writer with whom you disagree. There are ezines on the left, and blogs on the right. Some find this exhilarating, but it can also be stultifying. People can easily avoid challenges to any idea they hold simply by hanging out in the right corner of cyberspace. No one needs to find out what the other side is thinking.

Davening in the small shteibel affords the same opportunity. No one needs to be challenged by people who may have different views on religious or political matters.

This is where Shomrei was a welcome surprise. Looking around at the congregants, I saw the largest sub-group, which was people of all ages sporting black hats. But this was no black-hat shul, because there were also a sizeable number of kipot srugot, as well as black leather yarmulkes. We shouldn’t forget the folks in Chassidic garb either. How did they all get along? It was like walking into a time-warp. (The davening itself bore this out, punctuated as it was by lots of singing, That singing was participated in by a very large percent of the congregation, who joined in with gusto.)

How did this come to pass? The shul has been fortunate to have had some of America’s finest, including founding Rabbi Bok (a former chavrusa of Rav Gifter zt”l), Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb (now head of the OU), and the present Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, a wonderful young talmid chacham (Torah scholar) from YU who seems to have no problem keeping the respect of mispallelim yeshivos further to the right.

It is an open question, of course, whether the rabbis made the congregants or the congregants had the depth to choose the proper rabbis. (I would have a hard time not assigning at least some of the credit to the presence in Baltimore of Ner Israel, known for its openness, reasonableness, tolerance and embrace of normalcy.) Whatever the case may be, it was hugely refreshing to be in a shul in which the different components of American Orthodoxy continued davening under one roof, hopefully gaining from the mix of perspectives, and certainly creating an example of unity and tolerance that would be well followed by the rest of us.

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36 Responses

  1. Moshe P. Mann says:

    In Rabbi Adlerstein’s defense, I believe that shteibelization may have a precedent in the Talmud, where the Gemara in Brachos states that where there are multiples of ten men eating together, each group of ten should form its own separate mezuman.

  2. Loberstein says:

    It was a pleasure to meet Rabbi Adlerstein at Shonmrei. I don’t know if his comments are not partially inspired by the fact that that very shabbos a shtible opened up near Shomrei. Over 50 men attended the first Shabos morning davening,follwed by chulent,of course. As Shomrei is in the midst of a building campaign, I have felt the rabbi who opened the shtible in his house for whatever reasons motivated him is literally taking money from the shul at a critical time.He has a job, he didn’tlack parnassa, only the ability to lead a congregation, for which he has long yearned . My daughter and son in law tell me that I am wrong and those who daven there will still have to have their bar mitzvahs,etc. in a real shul and tnat they are people who were not happy in other big shuls.
    Kudos to Rabbi Adlerstein for seeing the maalot of Baltimore – “A guest for a while..sees a mile.”

  3. a k says:

    I’m jealous.

  4. Noam S. says:

    I agree that large shuls with heterogenous populations are a good thing. I am saddened that there would be a question as to whether a YU trained rov would be able to command respect from ‘mispallelim from yeshivos further to the right.’ The fact that this needed to be noted begs the question as to whether there is an assumption that this would be a problem to begin with. And, if there is this assumption, should it not be addressed?
    I would note, also, that Ner Yisroel is home to R. Aaron Feldman, who supported the ban on Rav Slifkin’s books. He also has written some not so flattering comments about women and learning(I think they were published in Tradition). I guess ‘open, reasonable, and tolerant’ depends on where your viewpoint resides.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    The Chassidim in the 1700’s adopted a revised order of prayer containing elements from the Ari Zal and the Sephardic service combined in various proportions with the original Eastern European Ashkenazic elements. Considering this and also the intense opposition they faced, in part because of this revision, what could they do but organize separate congregations? The size of a new shul/shtiebel of this type depended on the number of like-minded Chassidim in the neighborhood.

  6. GB says:

    Shomrei Emunah is indeed a wonderful shul, but it is hardly unique in its diversity. Just about every Orthodox shul in Baltimore has every stripe of Jew. Ask anyone anywhere and you will find that Baltimore’s reputation for ahavas yisrael and achdus is well deserved. The kavod given received and displayed by rabbis and the Baltimore kehilla in general is truly a kiddush HaShem. That is not to say Baltimore is not without its problems, but overall I think Baltimore has taken “bein adam l’chavero” to new heights.

    If there is a trend towards homogeneousness, it’s not in the Baltimore community but rather at Ner Israel. Years ago one could find bochrim of all stripes (kipa sruga/colored shirts, black hat/white shirts etc ) but nowadays there’s an unwritten chareidi dress code and a move rightwards. That said, Ner Israel remains a wonderful institution whose alumni benefit the Baltimore kehilla at large, and who are usually a positive influence in most any community where they settle.

  7. David says:

    ‘ He also has written some not so flattering comments about women and learning(I think they were published in Tradition). I guess ‘open, reasonable, and tolerant’ depends on where your viewpoint resides.

    Comment by Noam S. — March 28, 2007 @ 9:25 am ‘

    Actually, it seems like ‘open, reasonable and tolerant’ as defined by you means agreeing with you. Why can’t you be tolerant and respectful of R. Feldman’s principles? Does everyone have to agree with you?

  8. Reb Yid says:

    No discussion of this topic would be complete without mention of Rav Avi Weiss and the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

    HIR is a great model of heterogeneity. You can walk in as you are–no need to dress a certain way. All different types of “headgear” on both the men’s and women’s sides of the mechitzah.

    The singing on Friday night is wonderful. It’s also a great way to introduce non-Orthodox Jews (or non-Jews, for that matter) to the beauty of Shabbat in a warm and inclusive manner.

  9. SM says:

    The central theme which seems to run through the post and the comments is that shuls need to welcome diversity (within limits of course – otherwise being a communal Rov would be so easy that ANYONE could do it ;)). It seems to me that in any kehilla there is going to be a tension between those who are thoroughly involved and those who are more peripheral.

    Whether it is attendance or activity, the more peripheral members need to be attracted and that often involves doing things which discomfit the regularly involved. The need to find and hold that shifting balance is key – I have been in kehillot that succeeded and those that failed, and the failure poisons the whole community.

    Shteiblach can provide an out for one section of the kehilla (or more unusually an in). Ditto, alternative minyanim can provide an in (or more unusually an out). The important thing seems to me to be that these things are all presented as options which the kehilla, as a whole, supports. That way not only are people not marginalised, but it becomes difficult to cause dissent simply by davenning – a wholly positive position.

    So Loberstein might consider embracing the shteible and making some sort of formal link and suggesting that some of its tzedakah goes to the building fund. Or, if that’s too big a step, that the shteible supports communal organisations (the chevra kaddisha?) which would allow his own big shul more latitude with its own funds. This may, of course, be wholly impracticable – it’s difficult to diagnose someone elses problems from a position of total ignorance but it is a thought.

    I ought to say that when a very small Masorti community opened in my town, I sought to persuade the orthodox rabbonim to behave in exactly that way. To steer the people going away from ideology and into the type of davenning they wanted, with as much latitude as orthodoxy could allow. My local knowledge suggested that the town would end up with a left wing orthodox minyan (a view supported by the attenders themselves). Alas, I was unsuccessful. Instead there was a co-ordinated denunciation on the first Shabbat. Result: a thriving congregation of 40 or so families (big where I come from) and a group of committed learners now lost to orthodoxy. Their tikkun leyal is the envy of anyone who has been and it’s sad.

  10. Mordechai says:

    Excellent essay and long overdue !

    I am surprised that there is no mention of the important Torah principle of ‘Birov am hadras Melech’. Have the shtiebel advocates removed that from their seforim ?

    For those who claim that shtiebels are better – why are they davening for a new beis hamikdosh, it would be like a big Shul, they should daven for a multitude of shtiebels instead ?

    Additionally, the claim that shtiebels are by definition more friendly is not necessarily true – esp. if you are not part the group or are a bit different.

    Another things to think about is the question of space. Many shtiebels are relatively crowded, and having people on top of you can sometime hinder kavonnoh (in various ways), while big Shuls are at times more roomy and allow individuals to be more comfortable.

    Also, sometimes the ‘friendliness’ of the shtiebel can lead to more improper talking during davening, etc.
    I find the expression “cathedral synagogues” offensive, as if a large Shul is (ch”v) something foreign to our faith that has come from elsewhere (though maybe the author just meant to illustrate with it – as he did well – the attitudes and claims of the shtiebel advocates).

    Perhaps the door is opening now for a backlash against the shtiebelization trend. Big Shuls must get their act together (often they have gotten flabby and unresponsive after years of being dominant) and show what they can do and then they could win back some of the people they have lost over the years.

  11. JD says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein: I hope you had a chance to see what goes on at Yesodei Hatorah, just down the street from Shomrei. Dozens of men of all ages and Orthodox factions (far left to far right) attend Shiurim to increase their learning abilities or just show up to learn. It’s another example of the benefits of diverse integration.

    The diversity and tolerance of Baltimore is a testament to the Shalom between the Orthodox Rabbonim of Baltimore who, although they disagree, cooperate on the same Vaad Harabonim and don’t engage on polemics against other Rabbis, Shuls or factions. In fact, there is a dearth of polemics and Kanoos in the general Baltimore Orthodox population (which can be both good and bad). The lack of divisiveness keeps people together and I have observed increased Torah learning and Mitvah observance to be the result.

    I hope Baltimore continues on this path as it is continually challenged by the growth of the community, influx of outsiders and the general polarization in Judaism today.

  12. Bob Miller says:

    Shuls large and small should be graded on how they treat outsiders who walk in to daven, or who move into the neigborhood. Friendliness or coldness or cliques can exist in any size shul.

    If critics of “shtiebelization” offer a better experience in their larger shuls, that should get good results. Complaining about shtieblach will not.

  13. Noam says:

    David, thank you for proving my point. My guess is that most everyone considers themselves open to and tolerant of those views that they think are appropriate. If the range of views they think are appropriate is wide, then they tolerate a wide variety of views. If they think only a narrow spectrum of views are appropriate, then they tolerate only a small group of views. Nowhere did I say I was not tolerant or disrespectful of R. Feldman’s views. Only that when viewed from outside R. Feldman’s persepective, his range of acceptance(even on the spectrum of orthodoxy) is quite small, and cannot be reasonably characterized as open or tolerant. Our host himself spoke out against the banning of R. Slifkin’s works, so whether R. Feldman’s viewpoint on this issue is ‘reasonable’ and ’embraces normalcy’ can also be debated.

  14. Mordechai says:

    Something that comes to mind is that interestingly, many Chassidic groups, after they grew and became able to, built large synagogues themselves !

    This happened in Europe many years ago, and continues to this day.

    Hence there is a massive Belzer synagogue in Eretz Yisroel (as there was in the old Belz), a massive Bobover one in the USA, etc., etc.

    If they considered the small ones to really be preferable, why would they make a large one when they could, esp. for the seat of their leader ? Or perhaps the claims that shtiebels are better were only made when they couldn’t have a large Shul for whatever reason, making a virtue of necessity ?

  15. Steve Brizel says:

    As an infrequent visitor to Baltimore, I have also been amazed at the level of achdus and simple menschlichleit between NIRC, Park Heights,and Greenspring as well as the unique heterogeneity that is Shomrei’e raison de etre. Both R Weinreb and R Gottlieb deserve the credit for abling such a diverse shul to work on the same page. It has a varied an adult ed program as any shul that I have seen or read about since the salad days of Lincoln Square’s Shapiro Institute in the 1970s and 1980s.

  16. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “I would have a hard time not assigning at least some of the credit to the presence in Baltimore of Ner Israel, known for its openness, reasonableness, tolerance and embrace of normalcy.”

    I think that all of our communities should become well known for embracing these values.

  17. Loberstein says:

    There are many reasons why Baltimore is the way it is, but the underlying reason is the influence of Rabbi Naftoli Neuberger for over 65 years. He built bridges with the total community, with the politicians and with other faiths. He was the unquestioned “wise man’ to whom all deferred and he was l’sheym shomayim in all he did. One part of his vast legacy is the unity of Baltimore’s community and the respect in which that community is held in the general community. I do not know if there is another major community where all orthodox pulpit rabbis regularly sit together and work together in peace and mututal respect. Also, our kashrus is unified and there is no such thing as not eating from a certain caterer or restaurant.

  18. BubbyT says:

    Another aspect of Baltimore’s achdus is the fact that besides the unity in kashrus, everyone believes that the eruv is “kosher” (whether they use an eruv is the question, not if they hold by the Baltimore eruv). I saw the beauty of Baltimore many years ago when a big centrist askan was niftar. He was one of the founders of Yeshivat Rambam and practically ran the RZA in Baltimore by himself. AT his levaya, 10 years ago Rav Heinemann, the Rav of Agudah was maspid him. My mouth fell open. He said: “Mr. T. and I had differing opinions on many issues but I held him in great regard.” It was such a beautiful example of our achdus…that the Rav of Agudah was being maspid the president of Mizrachi.

    Yes, Loberstein is 100% correct. Baltimore is the way it is because of Rabbi Neuberger Z”L. and thank you Rabbi Adlerstein for the beautiful description of our shul, Shomrei Emunah.

  19. Avigdor M'Bawlmawr says:

    I move to change the name of this blog to Baltimore-(Bawlmawr?)Currents, or, given how much my neighbor posts, Oberstein-Currents!

  20. Reb Yid says:

    To a certain extent, the development of shtibls (some of which then grow) is simply a truism from the sociology of religion. For a religious movement to grow it must institutionalize, which usually (although not always) means a certain level of formality, bureaucratization and “one size fits all” approach ensues. Those who want the “good old days” of the initial spark, energy, charismatic leader, fellowship, etc. will then break off from the church, synagogue, etc. to form a new group, and the cycle will continue.

    We’ve seen this impact US Judaism in many ways, including the Havura movement. Ironically, some of the most successful synagogues managed to co-opt these havurot and make them part of the shul, even a drawing card of an elitist sort in some cases. The growth of multiple minyanim within many Orthodox shuls is also relevant in this regard. There are a variety of reasons why these alternative minyan have grown–many, but not all, undoubtedly relate to addressing time schedule needs of young families.

    It is a real trick to address the contemporary individual/family needs of congregants within a particular synagogue while maintaining a sense of spirituality, community and fellowship. Some try with one service while some try multiple services–in either case, it’s a true challenge once venturing beyond the confines of the shtibl.

  21. Dr. E says:

    Loberstein pointed out, perhaps subconsciously, a significant down-side of shteibelization. The predominantly male participation in davening and eating cholent afterwards ignores the other 2/3 of the equation. First, there are the children, from ages “hegiah l’chinuch” to teenage years. What’s in it for them other than a possible seat at a table and a back yard to run around or hang out in? And is a shteibel the type of environment that is conducive to and accomodating of women of all ages who want a serious davening experience? To an unfortunate extent, this phenomenon has created a convenient, comfortable, heimish Orthodoxy in which Shabbos morning davening can be characterized more by its social benefits than its theological opportunities for the entire family.

    To be objective, (large) shuls also need to be accomodating and welcoming. It takes self-reflection, leadership, innovation, and reinventing themselves from time to time to make that happen. But, I would argue that it is the shul (and not the shteibel) which has the greater potential for men, women, and children to connect not only with the R”SO but also as a tzibbur and a community.

  22. Jewish Observer says:

    the entire orientation of this discussion is that big shuls are the norm and shtiebelization is a social phenomenon. in that context the merits of shtiebe;s are analyzed, debated, discussed and judged. the fundamental flaw is that shtiebels are no less valid a starting point against which large shuls’ relative pros and cons may be evaluated. for example, if your default is no Anim Zmiros, then you can view it as an innovation and judge the relative merits of saying it. Same thing for 20 minute drashos, presidents’ announcements, kiddush on friday night, presentation to the bar mitzvah boy, etc. shtiebels have co-existed alongside big shulks for generations; and are not a “phenomenon” that “happened” to our shuls.

  23. Mordechai says:

    Another omission that I note is no mention of lo sisgodedu – lo saasu agudos agudos. While there are explications that could possibly greatly limit it’s halachic application, we should still think about the idea it represents.

    Re comment 22 above –

    I disagree. I think the default is that Berov Am hadras Melech, that a larger congregation is better.

    A big Shul doesn’t necessarily need weekly deroshos, announcements and presentations to bar-mitzvoh bochurim. You are stereotyping big Shuls as necessarily being a certain type of Modern Orthodox, when they are not necessarily so.

  24. Bob Miller says:

    JO, our medium size shul has very good presidents’ announcements. Whoever doesn’t like their own shul’s announcements should visit us. There is no shtiebel here for a variety of reasons, but, if one should form, it ought to maintain the local minhag of having presidents and their announcements.

  25. adderabbi says:

    Shomrei started out as a shteibl which was a breakaway from a large, modern-orthodox synagogue (Pickwick Jewish Center). Shteiblach grow up eventually, too.

  26. nyfunnyman says:

    adderabbi- pickwick was not orthodox, and it certainly wasn’t modern

  27. adderabbi says:

    nyfm – it had an orthodox rabbi, a mechitzah, no microphone, and well over a minyan of shomer shabbos mispallelim. how could you be ‘motzi la’az’ like that?
    whether or not it was ‘modern’ – who cares?

  28. Jewish Observer says:

    “I think the default is that Berov Am hadras Melech”

    WADR, it is not a matter of what you (or I) think. it is a factual reality that there is a critical mass of shtieblach that are not breakways from large shuls. does no one on this blog live in flatbush???

  29. Jewish Observer says:

    “our medium size shul has very good presidents’ announcements. Whoever doesn’t like their own shul’s announcements should visit us.”

    now you got me curious … I never heard the words good and announcements in the same sentence. so what does he say already?

  30. Jewish Observer says:

    “You are stereotyping big Shuls as necessarily being a certain type of Modern Orthodox, when they are not necessarily so.”

    – you missed my point. I cited clichetic stereotypes of big shuls to point out that the features of a shul of any style can be picked on. for the sake of this conversation, substitute your shul’s idiosyncrancies for the ones I noted …

  31. Bob Miller says:

    “now you got me curious … I never heard the words good and announcements in the same sentence. so what does he say already?

    Comment by Jewish Observer — March 31, 2007 @ 11:42 pm”

    Done with some wit and standup-like reaction to comments from the seats. Occasionally in quasi-rhyme with a quasi-tune. Good lines when old announcements turn up on the list. He’s an engineering professor.

  32. Joshua Josephs says:

    As some one who davens regularly at Beth Tfiloh, in Baltimore an extremely large shul I find that the phenomenon of shteibelachs is often related to each person trying to find the ma’kom that makes for the best kavanah. Recently my shul started a new minyan where there is no formal sermon as we have in the main service and services are lead by the laity as oppossed to a professional chazan. I daven with the main shul because I prefer the more traditional nusach davened there. Many people have switched to the smaller service because they prefer the more frequent Carlebach davening there. The real point is that the goal of tfillah is to find the best place and frame of mind in which to daven whether that is a small shul, a shteibel or a mega shul.

  33. DMZ says:

    “The real point is that the goal of tfillah is to find the best place and frame of mind in which to daven whether that is a small shul, a shteibel or a mega shul.”

    Exactly. I don’t even understand the argument here – these sorts of congregations should grow organically with the needs of the community. I also fundamentally disagree with the premise that you need a large shul to grow communal infrastructure – I’ve been in communities that could barely muster a minyan, but still had an eruv and a mikvah.

  34. Bob Miller says:

    I find that my own concentration (or lack of it) during the davening is pretty independent of a shul’s size. While I’m responsible for my thoughts, things going on around me do matter.

    Service-related factors that enhance my kavvanah include:

    1. Each Shaliach Tzibbur cares about what he does, knows the local nusach 100%, does not insert any boring or shticky tunes (even Jewish ones!) or really any that are not as good as the nusach.

    2. Committed, vocal daveners (better yet if the house is packed).

    3. No small talk during the entire service (including by gabboim, rabbis and shul officers, who should all know better and set a good example). That means no period at the start of the service when people stroll in continuing their conversations and ignoring the Shaliach Tzibbur’s attempts to get the davening off the ground. Also no mass exodus on Shabbos and Yom Tov before or during the end of the service.

    Negative factors include:

    1. The opposite of the positive factors above.

    2. Loud noises from kids running wild inside or outside the sanctuary.

    [Regarding sermons:

    If there is a sermon, I want to learn something new, true and important. If an idea came from other than the speaker, I want to hear who was the source. If a community problem or general Jewish problem is identified, I want to hear an action plan then and there.]

  35. JCS says:

    Further to GB’s post, I would like to mention 2 diverse Baltimore Shteibels that always impress me.

    1) Beth Abraham (Hertzberg’s)- This is officially a Belzer shul but the crowd is truly a mixed bag. Even the kids attend Baltimore yeshivas/ot representing opposite colors of the orthodox spectrum (TI,Ner Israel, TA, Rambam, Beth Tefillo, Bais Yaakov, Bnos). Kudos to Rabbi Katz who continues to inspire All.

    2) Tiferes Yisroel(Goldberger’s) – Where else can you have a Shul row that includes a guy with a cowboy hat and poneytail, a guy in Chasidic garb and an african american Jew. This shul radiates Achdus.

  1. April 1, 2007

    […] While the byline may be mine, both the title and much of the content herein were contributed by Rabbi Dovid Katz, of Beth Abraham Congregation here in Baltimore. His drasha this morning related to two recent posts here—mine on Synagogue 3000 and their misguided efforts to use “mega-church style prayer experiences… to invigorate synagogue life,” and Rabbi Adlerstein’s on “shteibelization.” […]

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