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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

In Englewood, Sheldon Pickholz’s alarm clock radio clicks on at 4:50 every workday morning. By 5:35, he’s crossing the George Washington Bridge, and he arrives at the Upper West Side’s Congregation Ohab Zedek, fondly known as “OZ,” a few minutes before six, just in time for minyan.

OZ’s 6 a.m. minyan, which was recently honored at the shul’s annual dinner in Manhattan, is a special haven for New Jersey commuters and others who work downtown or on the East Side, especially those who have to be at their desks early. Davening at a netz minyan in New Jersey doesn’t assure a consistently early arrival, as the key to it all is crossing the bridge as early as possible. “Once you’re over the bridge, driving through Manhattan takes no time at all,” Pickholz told JLNJ. There is perhaps one other 6 a.m. minyan in Upper Manhattan, but most others start at 7 and aren’t as consistent.

The minyan runs five days a week, whether it’s snowing or the power is out, and that reliability is something these commuters need. Numerous former West Siders drive in for the minyan, as does a nurse from Brooklyn, and others from Westchester and Connecticut. “I have sat by people for nine years who drive in for this minyan,” said Pickholz, who is one of the founders of the East Hill Synagogue in Englewood.

“These are high-powered guys,” said Shlomo Bar Ayal, the minyan’s gabbai for the past 18 years. “They are very busy people, and they are making a special effort to take time out of their day to daven,” he said. Bar Ayal’s schedule is slightly more flexible, as he works out of his Upper West Side home with his wife Sarah Stambler, running a boutique marketing company called E-Tactics.

For his part, Bar Ayal takes his role as gabbai seriously, and his gentle dealings with the minyan regulars have not gone unnoticed. Bar Ayal is the first person in the building each day, and he makes enough coffee for all the morning’s minyanim. “Shlomo and the others have bent over backwards to make commuters feel at home,” said Jonathan Field, an allergist who lives in Bergenfield, who carpools with several others to OZ before heading to his practice in midtown.

“I’m picked up at 5:35 and I’m there at 6,” Field said. “Except when I drive with Aaron Lieberman; then we get there in 14 or 15 minutes. His rationale for the rest of traffic is ‘they don’t have to daven; I do,’” Field joked.

In addition to fast driving, quick pacing is an important role of the gabbai. To keep things running briskly, Bar Ayal said it’s important the minyan ends by 7 a.m., because cars have to be moved off Columbus Avenue by then. Aware that most people need to move their cars to avoid ticketing, even Rabbi Allen Schwartz, OZ’s mara d’asra, makes sure the minyan can finish on time. “Even on Rosh Chodesh, Sukkot, we still have to finish by 7,” said Bar Ayal. For those catching a plane after minyan, or heading down to the trading floors, that consistency is appreciated. Parsha and daf yomi shiurim run after the minyan.

Consistency aside, early hours make for strange conversations, apparently. Over the years, as the men have marked their yartzeits with a shared “breakfast of champions” kiddush of schnapps, herring and donuts, there have emerged certain unwritten minyan rules. The flagship rule is that you have to know the answer to how to cross the Hudson without paying a toll. (Hint: It involves driving to Albany.) “Sometimes it’s a little crazy, like the lunatics have taken over the asylum, but really, it’s a heimishe place where everyone feels at home,” Field said.

Minyan members describe themselves as a family, albeit a strange, insomniac one, but with particular respect for new minyan additions. They are universally proud of how Bar Ayal works efficiently and solicitously to immediately give new people an aliyah, or let them daven from the amud if they are saying kaddish.

“There are times when I have to make decisions, like move someone from the amud because another person needs it. Or sometimes I have given an aliyah to one person and then someone comes in who has a special need for an aliyah. Never has there been a fight over my decisions,” Bar Ayal said.

Bar Ayal also shared that he has never leaned on any minyan goer to become a member of the shul, but they have almost all joined the shul as affiliate members, most often contributing generously at the annual dinner and Kol Nidre appeal, and taking out multiple ads honoring their fellow shul members in dinner journals. Field, who, like many, lived on the West Side and davened exclusively at OZ before he moved here, said that the $99 rate per year for affiliate membership is the best deal in town. “It’s really not enough for what they do for us,” he said.

Pickholz told a crowd of 300 at last week’s dinner that he found himself in need of a new minyan as he got up from shiva for his father nine and a half years ago. “And I just kept going,” he said.

“God made it easy for me to get to minyan in the morning.”

“The people we attract make me proud that I am the gabbai,” said Bar Ayal.

By Elizabeth Kratz