You go through a narrow hallway, where you pass a few small conference rooms filled with books. Some congregants are milling about as you make your way to the big wooden doors of the sanctuary. You open the doors. The davening has already started, and you quietly find a chair. There is a modern mechitzah, made of blond wood,that is perfectly centered to give equal space to the men and women. The people are appropriately dressed; suit and ties for the men (some in black hats), and modest but elegant attire for the perfectly coiffed supermoms.
You are now inside the eighth wonder of the world: A shul where no one talks. I don't mean a shul where they tell you not to talk, or where they have signs asking you not to talk; there are plenty of those. I mean a shul where really no one talks. Nada. Not a peep. And on the rare occasion that an unsuspecting newcomer will, say, utter a word that's not in the prayer book, a supersonic shhhhhhh will immediately enter his airspace, guaranteeing that the violation will have occurred twice simultaneously: first and last.
At the Aish Center for People Who Don't Do Small Talk, absolute silence during davening has been the norm for many years. Talk to the people who run the place, and they'll give you a matter-of-fact explanation: It's the right thing to do, and it's the halacha (Jewish law). I did my own research and, yes, there is a source in the Talmud. (Did you think there wouldn't be?)
But that doesn't explain everything. Why would an outreach organization do something as extreme as enforce a no-talking rule in their shul? After all, isn't outreach all about talking and hand-holding and explaining? Well, yes and no.
You see, there's a question that all outreach organizations must eventually face: After years of doing successful outreach, is there a point where you must also do some serious inreach to keep your regulars happy?
In the case of Aish, a little history will help. Over the past two decades in Los Angeles, Aish has grown from a tiny outreach outpost to a real community. As newcomers became old-timers, their needs evolved. Many of them wanted more than the introductory fare Aish is famous for. Some started defecting to more hard-core shuls like Anshe Emes. Some started wearing black hats. This was to be expected: Aish has always attracted a serious, no-nonsense crowd. People in the Aish community take their Judaism very seriously, so it's not surprising that as their learning and their families grew, they would expect more and more from their "outreach center."
The synagogue became the natural place to cater to the old-timers. Aish groomed a new generation of leaders and Torah teachers, some of whom give regular classes at the synagogue. But Aish didn't stop there. They delivered on the serious davener's ultimate fantasy: a schmooze-free minyan.
It was a classic trade-off. You might turn off some new people (and from what I hear, they do), but in return, you keep your old-timers happy, and in the bargain, you develop a certain pride of sacrifice: "We believe so much in the sanctity of prayer, that we are willing to risk turning off some Jews."
For an outreach juggernaut, that's no small potatoes.
Of course, it helps that Aish has a whole array of other vehicles to reach out to the unaffiliated and the disconnected: special classes, singles events (they created the highly successful Speed Dating), Discovery seminars, trips to Israel, documentary films, a major Web site, even beginners' services on Shabbat and the High Holidays.
But when it comes to the main davening, well, chalk one up for the old-timers. Membership has its privileges, and the no-schmooze sanctuary is high on the list.
Personally, I'm ambivalent about this zero-tolerance policy on shul schmoozing. I see the value of a prayer service where the emphasis is on the prayers and the praying. There's a collective energy that sort of transports you to a higher place. It's davening with a purpose.
My problem is with the emphasis on zero, as in zero tolerance.
Honestly, could we really have survived so long without some schmoozing in shul? Could we have accomplished so much? How do we know that Maimonides didn't get the idea for his "Guide to the Perplexed" from conversing with a perplexed congregant during the Shabbat mussaf prayer, circa 1172? Or that Herzl didn't use the little time he spent in sanctuaries to schmooze with big machers so they would help fund his Zionist dream?
OK, I'm reaching, but if just about every shul on the planet allows at least a little bit of schmoozing during davening, there must be a good reason. I bet you a lot of it has to do with the fact that shul time is often the only time people get to connect with each other; so they look forward to their weekly schmooze, as much as they look forward to the Shemonei Esrei, or to the ketchup-laden cholent.
In a schmooze-friendly shul, you greet your buddy whom you haven't seen since last week, and, during those davening lulls, you find out if the kids are OK, did he get your invitation to the AIPAC event, does he know a good dentist, did he understand the rabbi's sermon and so on until Kiddush. It might not be very noble or pious, but hey, it's real and it's haimish, and, dare I say, it's even a little Jewish.
I guess my issue with the zero-tolerance policy is that it creates the illusion that Maschiach is already here. It's so bloody perfect! And I'm so bloody not! Whatever happened to the notion of work in progress? Do my friends at Aish realize what it feels like to be surrounded by all this quiet perfection? Can't they just call a meeting of the old-timers and ask them to lighten up just a teenie little weenie bit?
If they invite me to the meeting, I will share with them this little insight: Keep making your davening inspirational, keep looking for captivating melodies that move the soul and everyone will be so into it, you'll never have to go shhhhhhhhhhhh.