As you know, I grew up in Chicago. Snow is a regular part of life there on either side of July 4; in my 17 years of schooling in Chicagoland, school was never canceled. Once, when we received 21 inches overnight, school was delayed by an hour.
But here in DC, snow has much more impact. It has a laxative effect, resulting in increased sales of toilet paper. It can cause national security concerns, leading to the evacuation of government buildings under the threat of a dusting. And it causes confusion. Not only do drivers have difficulty retrieving their usual common sense in a snowfall, synagogue members are often flummoxed by what to do when it snows.
Our policies are clear – you can find them on our web site and on the front cover of this issue of The Bulletin – and except for minyan, you can expect that WTOP (103.5 FM) will carry the news of any closing, even if you do not receive a specific email. But the general rule should be obvious: if, in the estimation of local authorities, travel is hazardous, then the regular activities of the synagogue are suspended. Even if the immediate neighborhood of the synagogue seems to be excepted from general calamity, our concern remains for our members in the aggregate and for the folks charged with the responsibility of maintaining and securing the building, most of whom live in driving distance.
This policy is the result neither of wimpiness nor laziness. Rather, it is consistent with Jewish values. When a hazard presents itself to individuals or a community, ritual requirements fall away. Among the reasons that the evening service is so brief (and permitted to be recited before full dark) is the fear of bandits and muggers on the unlit roads in Talmudic times. Stragglers are even warned against lengthening their personal prayers in such circumstances.
Perhaps ironically, we are a little more flexible when snow falls on Shabbat. In those circumstances, only those who can safely come to synagogue – ideally those who can come on foot – ought to make the trip. Our local staff members fill in for those who are distant.
Saturday night seems to have a similar effect. Our evening minyan regulars can tell you that it is often difficult to find ten Jews on a weeknight. On Saturday night the difficulty is greater, especially since the time for ma’ariv “floats” between 5:30 and 9:15, depending on the time of year. So alone among the nights of the week, we have no service regularly scheduled at the end of Shabbat. However, there are times when a minyan is necessary, especially if a member of the congregation has yahrtzeit. In those circumstances, a call to the synagogue office (ideally a week in advance, but even on Friday) will result in the congregation making sure that minyan happens. (It’s likely that if you call you will be encouraged to bring some family and friends.)
Now, what if it snows on a Saturday night…….?