Gathering of the gabbais
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Gathering of the gabbais

Focus on the keepers of the shul

True story: The gabbai of a synagogue in Long Island was celebrating the bar mitzvah of his son on a Sunday morning in another shul nearby. The rabbi of his own synagogue showed up ‘0 minutes after his scheduled time to speak.

"Sorry I’m late," the rabbi told the assembled guests. "My wife and I thought the bar mitzvah was in our shul, and when we got there the parking lot was empty. My wife said ‘Well, it’s obviously not here,’ and I said ‘Maybe that’s not so obvious; the guy’s been a gabbai here for 15 years and he probably doesn’t have any friends left."

Rav Herschel Schachter of Yeshiva University explains the halacha to gabbais attending Sunday’s conference on who could lead a synagogue service.

The story was told by Orthodox Union President Stephen Savitsky last Sunday at the organization’s first-ever conference for gabbaim — the lay people who set up for services and assign roles to participants.

Kal Staiman, one of the early Shabbat minyan’s gabbaim at Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron, said the story hit home in an amusing sort of way. Anyone who has volunteered to be a gabbai, as Staiman has for about 1′ years, knows that in additional to being thoroughly knowledgeable about the intricacies of synagogue practice — particularly the Torah-reading service and the proper times for each ritual — a gabbai also must be a diplomat and an organizational genius, blessed with a faultless memory, patience, and tact.

Maybe that’s why about 80 participants signed up for the conference at the OU’s New York offices, including men from Englewood, Fair Lawn, Fort Lee, Teaneck, and Passaic. Many more, from as far away as Israel, took advantage of the live Webcast to ask questions.

Marty Sonnenblick, a 13-year gabbai at Fair Lawn’s Cong Ahavat Achim, said the event served as a good refresher course. Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University gave an overview of the laws and customs that an Orthodox gabbai needs to know, especially the hierarchy of which worshippers are entitled to get an aliyah (be called up to recite a blessing over the Torah scroll) and which get first pick at leading the davening. A new groom, a man whose wife has just given birth, or someone who is marking a yahrzeit of a close relative get preference for certain honors.

Those kinds of decisions can lead to hard feelings if congregants don’t agree with the gabbai’s choices.

Usually a gabbai handles such decisions on his own, but the synagogue’s rabbi is the ultimate arbiter. This was the reason Rabbi Solomon Rybak of Cong. Adas Israel in Passaic came to the conference.

"Somebody who saw me there asked me if I’d been demoted," Rybak related with a laugh. "I told him no, but I have to instruct the gabbaim in my shul, and there are issues that have to be resolved or standardized, so it was appropriate for me to attend. I really don’t go to other synagogues and don’t have a chance to see what they do, so this was an opportunity to learn how they deal with certain situations, such as the order of those obligated to receive aliyahs and the accepted practice with regard to correcting baalei k’riah [Torah readers]."

Teaneck resident Rabbi Jeremy Wieder led the latter session.

One of the conference’s workshops dealt with decorum, an issue that often gets thrown in a gabbai’s lap. Some may halt the Torah reading if worshippers are too noisy.

"One of the suggestions as far as keeping the shul quiet was putting up a sign that says, ‘If you come to shul to talk to friends, where do you go to talk to God?’" Sonnenblick said.

He also appreciated the discussions on how to recognize a defective Torah scroll and how to deal with disputes and hurt feelings.

"The issue that has been most challenging for me is Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, when I give out all the kibbudim [honors] from a list in front of me. I send a letter to everyone beforehand so they know to be there on time for their kibbud. But if someone doesn’t show up I have to start switching to those who are there, without being able to write anything down."

Staiman enjoyed hearing about technological resources for gabbaim, a session led by Rabbi Moshe Rayman of Teaneck’s Cong. Rinat Yisrael. "I keep list of who’s had aliyahs and I sort it by date," Staiman said, "but I’d like to incorporate yahrzeit dates onto my list. I hope to write my own program for that someday."

When it came time for the mincha afternoon service at the conference, the attendees wondered who would act as the resident gabbai and whether he’d have to twist arms, as they sometimes do, to get someone to lead the prayers. Staiman said the OU’s national executive director, Rabbi Moshe Krupka of Passaic, accepted that role and didn’t have much trouble finding a taker.

"If nothing else, it was good gabbai networking," commented Staiman. "If you visit another shul and the gabbai there recognizes you, maybe you’ll get an aliyah through professional courtesy," he joked. "Otherwise, a gabbai never gets an aliyah."

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