Dad was my hero, my Rock of Gibraltar. Raised secular by a single mother who was constantly struggling financially, he could have ended up leading a maladjusted life. Instead, Dad beat the odds—and then some.
He went to yeshivah, embraced Yiddishkeit, married a religious woman and became a pillar in our small Orthodox community in Highland Park, New Jersey. A model husband, father and doctor, he somehow knew who he wanted to be and became him. It was no wonder that my siblings and I worshipped Dad.
So from the moment my father informed us he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was an emotional wreck. I couldn’t go an hour without breaking down. True to form, my father, during his final excruciatingly painful ten months, was busy comforting us.
It was during shivah that I realized how much I owed my father, and that, unfortunately, it was too late to try to repay him. Then it dawned on me.
I read that saying Kaddish for the niftar elevates the neshamah. I could still do that for him.
But could I commit to davening with a minyan three times a day for eleven months straight—no matter what? I wasn’t exactly the guy who made it to a minyan every day. I felt more like the fellow sitting on the couch eating potato chips who one day decides to run a marathon.
But this was for my Dad. I had to do this.
And so began my minyan odyssey, a frenzied journey that encompassed three countries, fifteen states and more than 1,000 minyanim.
Just before my father passed away, I started a new job as president of an eyeglasses company based in New Jersey. The position entailed frequent travel, including overseas. I learned to plan before every business trip, checking and double-checking the times of minyanim in various cities. I organized minyanim on planes and at sporting events. And I learned to navigate GoDaven.com—which would become my lifeline throughout the year.
On one business trip to Bentonville, Arkansas, the local Chabad rabbi said he could organize a minyan for Shacharit but not for Minchah or Ma’ariv. Apparently, there weren’t too many Jews in Bentonville. So I arranged for a flight to Chicago, enabling me to catch a Minchah/Ma’ariv in a shul in the Windy City and then fly back that same night to Bentonville.
Taanit Esther was a bit tricky. I had to drive deep into Long Island for a meeting with a company we were considering purchasing. There were few minyanim to be found. I ended up praying in a hospital with doctors and patients participating; the chief of surgery brought a Torah for the leining.
I had no doubts that I was doing the right thing; siyata d’Shmaya always came through in the nick of time.
One time, I had a meeting in Wisconsin with the senior management of a major department store chain. I located a 1:30 Minchah in a day school a half-hour drive from the meeting. I scheduled the meeting for 2:30, allowing for plenty of time to make the drive. But just after I landed, I got a message that the minyan was not going to take place after all. My back-up minyan was an hour and forty-five-minute drive from the meeting; I had no choice but to be an hour late. I sent two junior level employees to cover for me.
When I arrived at the meeting a full hour late, I discovered to my surprise that everyone had been sitting there for an hour—everyone aside from senior management—who “happened to be” running late. They showed up a few minutes after I got there.
I experienced dozens of stories like that over the year.
On Thanksgiving, I planned to take my son to Giant Stadium in Detroit for a Detroit Lions game. I called a contact in the city to find out about minyanim near the stadium. He told me the local minyan only met on workdays, but he would try to help us out. My son and I were prepared to leave the game if we had to.
We didn’t have to.
It turned out that the individual I called planned on attending the game. He told me he would walk through the stadium to find ten men, which he did. With his help, along with that of several Orthodox vendors at the stadium who closed their kosher-food stands during halftime to corral everyone to one stand, I had a minyan.
Walk around any airport and ask for a Minchah—you might get lots of “no’s.” But tell them you need to say Kaddish, and suddenly a swarm of people are more than ready to join in. It dawned on me that maybe the zechut the neshamah gets has something to do with the achdut that often results when someone has to say Kaddish.
Davening Kaddish for the last time as an avel was an emotional experience. After eleven straight months, I wasn’t ready to give it up. Three times a day I had the chance to stop and think about my Dad, and connect to God in a way I never had before.
My yirat Shamayim is light years ahead of where it was. I daven with more kavanah. It would be disingenuous for me to say I make it to minyan three times a day every day, but I have become much more consistent. Minyan plays a much bigger role in my life now.
I hope I elevated my father’s precious neshamah. I know I elevated mine.
Bayla Sheva Brenner is an award-winning freelance writer and a regular contributor to Jewish Action.