Does Hunger Run in Your Family?
The Sephardic Arbit Experiment
Rivaled perhaps only by the Kotel Hamaaravi (Western Wall) in Jerusalem for its sheer number of daily minyanim (prayer services) that follow Sephardic tradition, Congregation Bnai Yosef, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, has had the distinction of being America’s busiest synagogue for Middle and Near Eastern Jews, for nearly two decades. Yet in spite of its steady stream of early evening minyanim which were often spaced only five to six minutes apart, finding late arbit at Bnai Yosef was often spotty, leaving hundreds of nighttime Sephardic worshippers without a Sephardic minyan.
Part of the reason was due to the Sephardic custom wherein minha (the afternoon prayer) can be followed immediately by arbit (the evening prayer) during the hour or two before sunset. Since most congregants find it more convenient to pray minha and arbit together, fewer men are available for minyanim after nightfall, when only arbit can be recited. In contrast, the Ashkenazic custom, which generally requires a break between minha and arbit makes it more likely to find Ashkenazic men who prayed minha during the afternoon and need to catch arbit after nightfall. As a result, Ashkenazic synagogues like Kahal Veretzky (Rabbi Landau’s shul) have no problem filling minyanim throughout the night, making these shuls a seemingly attractive option for Sephardic congregants who are wary about not finding enough people for a nighttime minyan at a Sephardic kinees (synagogue) like, Bnai Yosef.
All that changed last spring when Bnai Yosef teamed with Subsational to create the innovative “Bnai Yosef Arbit Guarantee.”
Although the number of nighttime Sephardic worshippers in Flatbush was always limited, it was in fact large enough to establish a regular late-arbit schedule – a fact empirically proven by counting familiar Sephardic faces at Rabbi Landau’s shul each night. The challenge was getting a critical mass of these Sephardic congregants – some of whom had already experienced the inconvenience of waiting a long time for a late arbit minyan at Bnai Yosef – to give it another try. That’s where the “guarantee” part of the unique Bnai Yosef program proved so critical. The concept was simple: eliminate the risk that a late arbit worshipper would leave Bnai Yosef empty-handed by guaranteeing a minyan or providing compensation if there were not enough people to form one. Specifically, the promotion stated that if a minyan was not formed within 10 minutes of the appointed prayer time, those present for arbit would receive a $10 gift certificate to Subsational on the spot. In the first week after the program’s inception, Bnai Yosef had a perfect record for arbit and not a single certificate was awarded. And in year since its launch, through some 1200 plus guaranteed minyanim, the program has better than a 96 percent success rate, with fewer than 40 minyanim delayed more than 10 minutes and less than 300 certificates awarded.
As the program continues, late arbit minyan attendance at Bnai Yosef continues to rise. “The number of certificates coming in lately has dropped – so we know the minyanim are working,” reports Gary Gani, owner of Subsational and a key partner in the program.
Reflecting on his enthusiasm for the project, he recalls, “I joined with Bnai Yosef as a way to give back to the community for 15 years of loyalty to Subsational.”
Of course, notwithstanding the tasty food at Subsational, Mr. Gani points out that the certificates themselves are not what’s drawn people to nighttime arbit at Bnai Yosef. “Food is not the incentive here – people want to find a minyan. The prize just helps give people the peace of mind to know that they will not be making a trip for nothing – because even in the highly unlikely chance that they don’t find a minyan right away, they will be compensated for waiting.”
David Sitt, explained the synagogue’s rationale behind the Arbit Guarantee program. “Really it’s the community that is driving the demand for these minyanim. Mashalla (Gd bless them), people are growing and really want to be able to pray with a minyan consistently. They understand that there is a guarantee that their tefilot (prayers) will be answered with a minyan as opposed to taking their chances praying beyahid (individually). So, even though they couldn’t commit to attend a specific minyan, over the years, people were constantly asking when Bnai Yosef would have a regularly scheduled program for late arbit.”
Minyanim for Arbit are now scheduled – and guaranteed – every evening Sunday through Thursday, not including Jewish holidays and fast days, at 8:00pm, 8:30pm, 9:00pm, 9:30pm, and 10:00pm.
“There is still much work to do – expanding the hours later into the night, adding minyanim a quarter to and a quarter after the hour, and so on,” David Sitt explained. “The community will drive how quickly that can happen, be’ezrat Hashem.”
For full details on the guarantee and award qualifications, logon to www.bnaiyosef.com/arbitterms.htm or visit Bnai Yosef at 1616 Ocean Parkway on the corner of Avenue P.