The Shamas is Coming!

Not long ago, I was at a shiva minyan (memorial gathering) at the home of a late congregant.  She was 100 years old when she died, and the mood in the room, though appropriately solemn, was also uplifting as family members shared stories of yesteryear — literally a century’s worth of nostalgia.

At one point, the deceased woman’s son shared a story.  The kids used to play ball in Druid Hill Park, he said, not far from Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation (near the conservatory on the west side of the park).  In those days, as today in many traditional shuls, there’s a man who’s “job” is called shamas.  His role is sort of a cross between a caretaker and a ritual director, but his most famous role is to organize the daily minyan, and certain prayers (in non-egalitarian Orthodox settings) require a minimum of ten Jewish men or boys thirteen years or older.  This is important because in addition to fulfilling the community’s obligation for thrice-daily prayers, there are usually people saying Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer which requires the quorum of ten.

So, inevitably, when the men were short in their count, the shamas would come looking for a few boys to help make minyan, often coaxing them into his car to drive them over to the shul. (One gentleman at the shiva remarked that these days we’d put out an amber alert for such behavior).  But boys will boys, and boys outside on a nice day are loath to sit in services, so when some kid would look up from the game and see the man from the shul coming toward them, he would shout, “The shamas is coming!” – and all the boys would scatter.  

To kick off our “In, For and Of the Neighborhood” conversation, I brought a text-study entitled “Cities as Communities of Obligation and Intrinsic Value.”  The first part of the title was coined by my teacher Dr. Aryeh Cohen who builds on Emmanuel Levinas’ notion that we are necessarily obliged to our communities simply because we live here — a fact of our humanity and geography.  One can hardly blame a bunch of kids for scrambling when faced with the choice between minyan and a sunny day with friends, but through the shamas’s instruction, his willingness to hold them to their obligations to the broader community, those young men learned what it meant to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

The sage Hillel taught: Al tifrosh min hatzibur, “do not separate yourself from the the community” (Pirket Avot 2:5).  One of the great challenges of urban revitalization is to instill a sense of fellowship, of “congregation” in the truest sense of the term among a disparate and diverse population.  In Reservoir Hill, we have neighbors who are older and younger, wealthy, poor and middle-class, black, white and brown.  We have people who have never left the state of Maryland and transplants from New York and Chicago.  We are about as diverse a neighborhood as one can expect to find in Baltimore, and our diversity is a great source of pride.

The fundamental question in a neighborhood such as ours, though, is the following: how do we instill, in this generation and the next, a sense of obligation, of pride in ownership and responsibility to the other?  How do we bring together different people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to work for the common good?  Only Jews count in a minyan, but in this “New Jewish Neighborhood,” we must all be willing to stand up and be counted.
We can’t just sit around and wait.  This time the shamas isn’t coming.