Last Shabbat I was present at a special anniversary.
One year ago, in early June 2020, just as the government relaxed the lockdown to allow 6 people in a garden, a local garden minyan spanning two gardens was formed in Edgware across the road from my house, which I was invited to join.
Little did I know, how vital that minyan was to become.
Firstly, for all of us, when we began, it was the first time any of us had davened with a minyan for about three months. I recall that sense of joy, relief and thanks when we said our first kedusha.
However, the value of the minyan was brought sharply into focus when just eleven days into the minyan’s creation – my father passed away and due to the minyan’s existence, I had davening there throughout my shiva and beyond.
The minyan carried on going until 5th September when it was decided to return to the local shuls which were now open again.
However, I was not there for the last minyan – as I had the shiva minyan in my garden for my mother.
So, you may quite reasonably say that my overriding memory of those three months of ‘Shaarei Mowbray’ would be ones of grief and sadness.
On the contrary they are ones of joy, support, friendship and community. Because it wasn’t just a minyan it became a kehillah.
And that is why last shabbat was so special.
The sun was shining, and we came together again.
The kehillah was made up of people from at least five different shuls across Edgware who came together at a difficult time when shuls were closed but kept the idea of kehillah open.
So, what is the idea of kehillah – I think there are five main areas:
Tefillah – this is probably the most obvious, we have a Kehillah so that we can daven to Hashem. One of the challenges post Covid will be bringing people back to shul. That will only happen if the davening in a shul is more meaningful and inspiring than davening at home! The combination of beautiful singing combined with exceptional decorum meant that the davening experience, especially on Shabbat was always uplifting.
Support – during the three months and beyond the kehillah was there supporting me and others in aveilut, lifting spirits and generally making everyone feel welcome and included. During a time when our social circles were very much reduced, the kehillah was there to say, don’t worry, we can help.
Friendship – a kehillah is not just about the ‘tefillah’. It is about the good morning as you walk in with your tallit and tefillin at shacharit, the brief schmooze before Mincha gets underway or the chat after Maariv about a range of subjects of interest. Anyone can daven in a minyan, it is special when that minyan becomes a kehillah.
Torah – at the heart of every kehillah is the Torah that is taught and learnt there. At Shaarei Mowbray we were blessed with various Rabbanim who gave drashot and shiurim to inspire as well as amuse during the difficult times.
Nourishment – as the restrictions eased, the Shabbat morning kiddush began, at first it was just a sealed cake or biscuit but slowly it normalised and by the end there was even Cholent and Kugel to enjoy!
This week we read the parsha of Chukat. “Zot chukat haTorah asher tzivah Hashem (this is the ‘chok’ of the Torah that Hashem has commanded) [19:2].”
The Torah is filled with many different types of mitzvot. There are those that make sense to us and those which do not. We are taught that the understanding of the ‘chukim’ is beyond us.
Our parsha begins with the laws of the Parah Adumah — the red heifer that purified those who had become ritually impure by coming in contact with a corpse. The bit that is beyond us is that those same ashes make those who were pure – impure.
A ritually clean person shall gather the cow’s ashes and place them outside the camp in a clean place, and It shall be as a keepsake for the congregation of the children of Israel for sprinkling water, [used] for cleansing. The one who gathers the cow’s ashes shall wash his clothes, and he shall be unclean until evening. It shall be an everlasting statute for the children of Israel (19:9-10)
The Ohr Ha Chaim asked a pertinent question – Why didn’t the parsha begin by stating that this is the ‘chok’ of the Para Adumah or that this is the ‘chok’ of taharah (ritual purity) or tum’ah (ritual impurity)? Why was this ‘chok’ labelled as the ‘chok’ of the entire Torah?
He explains that if a person adheres to this mitzvah, the Torah equates that to adherence to all of the mitzvot. Keeping the ‘chok’ reveals a trusting decision to keep the laws of Hashem taught throughout the entire Torah. Not only the ones that make sense to us, not only the ones that we feel emotional about, not only the ones that are culturally satisfying – all of them – the ones that Hashem commanded either directly or through the mesorah.
Shaarei Mowbray achieved all of the five areas of kehillah mentioned above, but the basic reason for its success is that the people who made up the minyan were upset when shuls closed and realised that it was a tragedy that we could no longer daven in a minyan. They were determined that as soon as it was legal, they would be back davening to Hashem in a minyan on a daily basis.
We daven in a minyan three times a day because we are commanded to. Do we always enjoy it? No. Is it not easier to pray at home? Yes. However those answers are irrelevant, we have a chiyuv to daven in a minyan. For a few months, due to the pandemic we couldn’t – but as soon as we could – we were back.
So, as I enjoyed my cholent and kugel last Shabbat, I looked around the two gardens and reflected on what those three months had meant to me regarding the Kehillah.
During those three months, I lost both my parents but my kehillah during that time gave me and my family, friendship, support, nourishment and Torah. It also gave me a place to daven and say Kaddish for my parents, giving me a public place to share my grief and honour their memory when so many, during those early months of Covid had to be silent at home.
I am so happy to be back in shul – but will always remember the Covid Kehillah, Shaarei Mowbray, that at a time of fear and uncertainty, it gave me and so many others joy and community.