That the United States of America is a huge country is not breaking news.
As of 2021, the population was estimated to be approximately 331.9 million (give or take a few hundred thousand, of course.)
There are an estimated 5.7 million Jews in the United States, and we are spread unevenly across this vast land.
If you want to find an Orthodox minyan where you could leyn Torah — assuming that you are an Orthodox man and able to stand in front of at least nine other Orthodox men and turn the vowel-less, trope-less handwritten letters on the parchment in front of you into a very specific song — and you’re in Teaneck, say, or Passaic, or Monsey, or Lakewood, or Crown Heights, or Borough Park, or south Florida, or Los Angeles, or Chicago’s West Rogers Park — then you’ll have no problem. Piece of multi-heckshered cake.
But if, on the other hand, you’re in, say, Fargo, North Dakota, or Morgantown, West Virginia, or Duluth, Minnesota, it won’t be so easy.
Say you live in New Jersey and you want to leyn — to read the weekly Torah portion to a minyan — in every state in the country.
That would be a huge undertaking, but now we know that it’s not an impossible one. Michael Segal of Teaneck just reached that goal a few weeks ago, as he triumphantly leyned in Anchorage, Alaska.
What’s his story?
Dr. Segal — he’s a veterinarian, which isn’t core to his story but comes in along the edges — grew up in south Florida. His rabbi there, Edward David of Young Israel of Hollywood/Fort Lauderdale, taught him well, Dr. Segal said. “A lot of kids hang up the towel after their bar mitzvah, but I didn’t.” (A lot of kids whose bar mitzvah parsha, like Dr. Segal’s was Metzorah, with its focus on skin diseases, probably are even more likely to give it up after that experience.)
“But I continued,” he said. “I felt a sense of obligation to the community.” He’s the grandson of Holocaust survivors — his grandfather, Herbert Kolb, had been in Terezin, and his grandmother, Laure Kolb, in French work camps and then in hiding — so he felt the connection to them and the community strongly. And he’s both musical and mathematical, he continued, and the trope, “like any other kind of music, has a mathematical aspect to it. It’s not just words, it’s a song, with a theory and an algorithm and a pattern to it, so having a good mathematical head helps.”
The summer before he entered 10th grade, Michael’s parents, Bruno and Rebecca, moved the family — which included Michael and his two sisters, Debra and Karen — to Bergen County. His grandmother had died, and his grandfather, who lived in Teaneck, was in deep mourning. Michael transferred to the Frisch School in Paramus. The family sank roots in Teaneck, and Michael leyned for youth minyanim around town.
He spent his gap year in Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel and had to take a difficult exam to become a ba’al koreh — a Torah reader — there. He passed it.
As an undergraduate at Cornell, Dr. Segal was the main ba’al koreh. It was a huge responsibility. “If I didn’t come up with a solution, I’d have to leyn the whole parasha every week,” he said. So he came up with a seven-man rotation that had each of them taking on the same aliyah — someone would take the first, for example, someone else would read the second, and someone else the third every week, or find their own replacements — and thus share the load.
Next, he went to veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania. “I was leyning every five, six, seven weeks, depending,” he said. It felt like he was slacking off, “so after that I decided that I wanted to buckle down and leyn through the whole Torah before I turned 30.
“In 2014, I accomplished that, so I decided that I needed a new quest. There are 54 parshiot, and there are 50 states and four overseas territories, so I decided that I’d read in all 50 states.” (There are only four overseas territories if you squint at them, but some people, including Dr. Segal, do squint in that direction.)
After he graduated from veterinary school, Dr. Segal started to work as a researcher on animal food and antibiotics. (Now he’s what he calls a “practicing companion animal veterinarian.”) That job involved a lot of travel; often, it kept him away from home on Shabbatot. When he decided to take on the challenge, he’d already leyned in seven states. He only had 43 to go.
That was nine years ago; two and a half of those years were lost to covid. Many of the others took a good deal of planning.
As is clear to anyone paying any attention to American life, there is a great deal of variation in customs, aesthetics, and habits across the country. That’s true of American Jews too.
“Forty-nine of the states have at least one Orthodox shul or Chabad,” he said.
He did leyn in one Reform synagogue, Dr. Segal said. That was in Mississippi. He had to ensure that the Torah was kosher and the men Jewish, but he did.
There are some states that are dependent on tourism, and often that tourism is seasonal. In some towns, there are far more Jews during tourist season; that means that often it’s far easier to get a minyan during, say, the winter in a ski resort — but it also means that the real feeling of community is harder to find, because everyone is a stranger.
Sometimes Dr. Segal’s arrangements were dependent on both when he could get to a town and what was going on in that town just then. “In Overland Park, Kansas, I first reached out to the modern Orthodox shul, but they said no because there was going to be a high school Shabbaton, and students would leyn,” he said.
“On that Friday night, I went to the davening at the Orthodox shul, and they said that none of the kids wanted to leyn, so do you still want to? I said that I couldn’t, because I told Chabad that I would. And they said not to worry — Chabad starts late, so you’ll be fine.
“I leyned the whole parsha in both places that week.”
As an aside, Dr. Segal said that back home in Teaneck, he often leyns at more than one shul. There’s an 8:45 minyan at Rinat Yisrael — the insanely fast minyan, he calls it. “I can leyn very fast, although I’m rarely told that I’m too fast,” he said. Once he’s done there, he often walks to other shuls in Teaneck, or even to Englewood, and leyns there too.
Back to his 50-state quest, though.
When he leyned in South Dakota, it was the only state that didn’t have an Orthodox minyan. The Chabad rabbi in North Dakota had told him that he’d be able to spend a Shabbat in South Dakota, and bring a Torah and some men with him, but as it turned out the date didn’t work. “But he gave me the names and numbers of two Israeli guys who run the kiosks in shopping malls in Sioux Falls — they sell Dead Sea salts or whatever.” But the rabbi also told him “that they are competitors. They are not willing to be in the same minyan.
“So I call the first guy on the list, and he says my quest is fascinating. Historical. Phenomenal. I can stay at his house, and all his male Jewish employees will come to the minyan.” He had one male Jewish employee, Dr. Segal soon learned. “But one thing. If he comes” — “he” being the other Israeli in town — “you can’t stay in my house, and I won’t go to the minyan.
“So I call the other guy, and he says it’s a fascinating, historical phenomenal question, and I should come stay in his house, and his male Jewish employees will come to the minyan.” First he said there were seven of them, but the number soon reduced to four.
“‘But hold on,’” Dr. Segal said his new Israeli friend told him. “‘There’s this other guy in town, and I won’t come if he does, and you can’t stay in my house, and my employees won’t come either.’”
Dr. Segal ended up going with the second Israeli kiosk operator.
“The Chabad rabbi gave me more names and numbers, and I try calling them,” he said. “There’s this guy I keep calling, and a daughter keeps telling me that he’s sleeping. In the middle of the day, he’s always sleeping.
“There’s another guy — his wife, who was pregnant, is from Teaneck — he said, ‘This is a fascinating quest. We want to be part of it. But I don’t want to leave my dog at home alone.’” They lived 10 miles away from the shul, but this man promised Dr. Segal that he, his pregnant wife, and their dog would trek there and back.
“It was January,” Dr. Segal said. There is a lot of snow in South Dakota in January, which despite its name is very far north.
Then Dr. Segal called someone he knew in Minnesota, who said he’d drive the four hours north, along with other men who all were eager to be part of Dr. Segal’s quest. There’s a Reform synagogue in Sioux Falls, and its president said she’d help try to find someone who could count in the minyan as well. But she hadn’t come through yet, and “the Israeli guy who had four employees who could come was down to three, and then to two, and then said no, just one. So the numbers are going in the wrong direction.
“So at this point I talk to God — I always do anyway — but this time I said I need your help always, but this time more than ever.
“And then the Israeli guy says that no, he can bring four employees after all. And the guy who is always asleep when I call — it turns out that he has five daughters and he works overnight in a pig slaughterhouse to support them all, he really wants to come but is afraid that he won’t wake up in time so he’ll sleep in the Israeli guy’s house.
“The guy in Minnesota said that he’s still coming, but it will be just him and his 8-year-old son and his 14-year-old nephew.
“The guy with the pregnant wife and the dog called to express his regrets that he couldn’t come. I wasn’t surprised to hear that.
“Then the lady from the Reform shul said that her husband and another guy would be coming.
“So things are looking good on paper. I drove a Torah from Omaha. The Israeli guy made an elaborate Friday night dinner for us. The guy with the five daughters was there. As the dinner winds down, one of the Israeli guy’s employees says, ‘We’re going home now.’”
That would have meant no minyan the next day.
“So I switched to Hebrew, and said, ‘For all we know the moshiach hasn’t come yet because he is waiting for a Torah reading in Sioux Falls.’ And they said, ‘Without us no minyan?’ and I said, ‘Without you no minyan.’”
In the end, there were 12 men at the minyan. One of them walked four miles, with his 8-year-old son and his 14-year-old nephew. “He said, ‘When you hit 50, I want to say that I was there at a minyan in South Dakota.’”
His minyan in Morgantown, West Virginia, was difficult to put together; it relied on Chabad in neighboring Youngtown, Ohio. It was a hard, cold winter in Morgantown — not a hotbed of Jews in the first place — and the minyan came together only through coincidence and a huge amount of trust and goodwill on all sides.
That icy morning, “the yeshiva bucherim,” the post-high-school students that Chabad had gotten for him, “were trickling in.” The night before, Dr. Segal said, “there had been a fabrengen, with a fair amount of alcohol consumption.” So they were neither particularly bright-eyed nor noticeably bushy-tailed as they wandered in the next morning.
For the longest time, there were only nine men in the room.
“And then, this guy walks in, with thick icicles in his beard. There had been a blizzard on the way into town, but there were only about three inches of snow there.
“This guy had really wanted to get to the mikvah on Shabbes morning, but there was no mikvah in town. The ambient temperature was way below zero, and the wind chill was 40 degrees below zero. There was no eruv around the town” — the legal fiction that sets a boundary that allows observant Jews to carry things on Shabbat — “so he couldn’t even carry a towel.
“So he had walked down to the Monongahela River, stripped, and went into the river.
“He couldn’t feel his fingers hours later, but he’d gone to the mikvah.
“He is a tremendous tzaddik — and I learned that it is a more diverse term that I’d been aware of before.”
He’s learned an enormous amount from his quest, Dr. Segal said. “A lot of people were really fascinated with it. At first, a lot of people thought it was nuts, and early on, I didn’t know if it was possible. When I was sitting in a little community on a Shabbes morning, waiting for the eighth, the ninth, the tenth to show up, I didn’t know if I could do this.”
But he did, and now he has the stories, and the friends, and the connections that come from it.
What’s next? He has no idea yet. But it’s likely to be something that will end with more stories.