On the Fourth of July, Rabbi Chezky Rosenfeld received a request for help forming a minyan. Rosenfeld said he gets requests like this often, but this one had an additional stipulation: They had to plan around the fireworks display.
Rather than picking up the phone and calling a long list of people to form a spontaneous late-night minyan, he posted in a few different groups on WhatsApp, a social media messaging service.
“Within minutes, we had another 10 people committed,” Rosenfeld, the director of development for Chabad Lubavitch of Western Pennsylvania and Yeshiva Schools, said.
In the Pittsburgh Jewish community, many congregations are turning to social media as a faster way to spread the word, particularly about gathering for a minyan. According to Jewish law, there need to be 10 people present to form a minyan, which is necessary to recite several prayers, including the Mourner’s Kaddish. While guaranteeing enough people for a minyan is not a new problem, congregations are increasingly turning to social media platforms — like GroupMe, WhatsApp and Facebook — to replace traditional methods of soliciting individuals by knocking on doors, making phone calls and flagging people down on the street.
“The access to information is much easier just on your phone,” Rosenfeld said. “There’s so much not good stuff that happens on social media. We’ve got to use it as a tool to do good, things like making a minyan for someone, which 10 years ago would have been a lot harder to do, or impossible.”
Similarly, congregants at Congregation Beth Shalom have a GroupMe message for the evening minyan. If they are short of people, someone will send out a message asking who is available. The people who respond vary, but they are nearly always able to achieve a minyan, said Marissa Tait, director of youth programming at Beth Shalom.
“Not every night is easy to get 10 people. This way it can just happen,” she said. “If you know that it’s more of a need, you’re more apt to assist.”
Rabbi Seth Adelson had the idea to start the group after his previous congregation on Long Island implemented a similar strategy. For the past six months, the congregation has been growing the list to use as another tool to ensure the survival of the evening minyan. Beth Shalom is the only non-Orthodox synagogue to offer an evening minyan every night in Pittsburgh.
According to Adelson, the number of regular “minyan-goers” has decreased, and the app helps them to “pretty much guarantee” they will gather at least 10 people.
“We should use all the tools at our disposal to help us keep Jewish tradition, to help people fulfill obligations for daily tefillah (prayer),” Adelson said in an email. “GroupMe is just one more tool that helps us do what we do better.”
The two platforms, he said, work in “concert because some people check Facebook eight times a day and email once a day, and some people check email eight times a day and Facebook once a week.”
Wasserman also routinely turns to Facebook when holding a funeral for someone who did not have any family or friends in the area. He will post the information of the service and ask that people attend, both to form a minyan and to show support for a member of the community, even if they did not know the deceased. When somebody has passed away, Wasserman said, “each and every member of the community” has a responsibility to help. Facebook offers another tool to remind people of that responsibility.
“Using social media for that sensitizes people,” he said. “Social media has its pitfalls … but I see the power that it has to help people, to do chesed for somebody, to do kindness for somebody. I see time and time again where somebody will post and somebody else will hear.”
For some, that awareness comes once they are in need of fellow community members to say Kaddish and observe a yahrzeit. Then they want to return the favor.
“People were there when I had to say Kaddish for my parents,” said Mindy Shreve, a member of the religious services committee at Beth Shalom. “So you appreciate the need for it and want to be able to do the same for other people.”
While social media has not completely replaced traditional phone calls and house visits, and is not used on Shabbat in any circumstances by those who are Shabbat-observant, it has given people another way to make a minyan — whether for a funeral or any evening service — a priority in their schedule.
“I think it’s something that other communities struggle with,” said Debby Gillman, another member of the religious services committee at Beth Shalom. “They resolved it by not having it every night. The fact that we have it every single night [at Beth Shalom] is an amazing thing but it’s going to take a longer-term commitment by more people to maintain it.
“Ideally, we wouldn’t need the [GroupMe], but I think the reality is it’s helping bridge the gap.” PJC