Shhh…its national-you-will-remain-silent-in-shul week

WHIPPANY, N.J. — Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells a joke about an atheist who goes to synagogue every Saturday and sits next to his friend Ginsburg.

One day, someone asks the atheist why he keeps coming to services if he doesn't believe in God. He replies, "Ginsburg goes to shul to talk to God. I go to shul to talk to Ginsburg."

If Max Safrin has his way, such exchanges will become extinct. The Elizabeth, N.J., resident has started a campaign against talking in shul.

The second annual "Shabbat of Awareness" takes place this weekend.

Safrin decided to do something about the problem after reading an article in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society called "Talking During Tefillah: Understanding the Phenomenon" by Dr. Irving Levitz, a psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University's Wurzweiler School of Social Work in New York City.

Safrin arranged to have the article reprinted in a booklet that he began distributing to synagogues through the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU).

He also worked with the OU, the National Council of Young Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America to designate one Shabbat last February as a Shabbat of Awareness, a "national Shabbat highlighting synagogue decorum and spiritual awareness."

"As far as we're concerned, every Shabbos we try to keep people quiet, but we'll join with the rest of the Jewish nation and emphasize it that particular Shabbat," said Rabbi Elazar Teitz of Elizabeth. Teitz could not comment on the efficacy of last year's Shabbat of Awareness, as he was out of the country that weekend.

Safrin said he believes the campaign was successful.

"I got requests for the booklet from all over the country. Last year I had 1,000 sent out by the OU." Booklets were also sent to England.

Back in New Jersey, Nachum Segal of WFMU radio created a song about the Shabbat of Awareness. Since then, Safrin noted proudly, the booklet has reached its seventh printing.

Safrin chose Shabbat Beshalah for the annual Shabbat of Awareness because Beshalah is the Torah portion containing the story of the Exodus, which states, "God will do battle for you, and you will remain silent" (Exodus, 14:14).

Fliers sent to rabbis invite them "to participate in Shabbat Tacharishun, a national Shabbat focusing on the decorum of the synagogue" and on "spiritual awareness."

Tacharishun literally means "you will remain silent."

Asked if he knew why the problem of talking during services seems largely to be an Orthodox one, Safrin's first thought was that it must be because Orthodox services are so long.

He quickly added that it's "a general problem," not just an Orthodox one. Still, the article reprinted in Safrin's booklet specifies in the very first sentence that talking during services is an Orthodox phenomenon.

For Safrin, quiet during services is a prerequisite for "spiritual awareness." He noted that shulgoers often do not pay attention to the meanings of the prayers they are saying. His hope is that by sending them the booklet, he can help those attending services to focus on "being quiet and paying attention."

He wants congregants to take seriously the three times they ask God, "Guard my tongue from evil speech."

Safrin's ideas to help people commit to stop chattering in shul extend beyond the Shabbat of Awareness. He also has been in touch with days schools to create clubs devoted to the cause. One such school in Pittsburgh is working with him to establish a club.

"Membership in the club will get discounts in local stores if they abide by the rules. If not, the teacher has the right" to revoke the membership. "We must get this problem in the beginning, and through the children perhaps we will get to the parents. We need awareness and education, not a temporary fix."

Safrin also encourages people to "make a commitment not to talk in shul in honor of the departed for 30 days" after a family or community member dies.

His latest brainchild is a commitment form, titled "If Not Now, When?"

Signers pledge to commit themselves to "refrain from idle speech during davening and the reading of the Torah" and become, literally, card-carrying members of the "Silence During Davening Club."

Their cards state, "If someone begins to talk to you, just flash this card, and he will understand why you cannot answer him. If you see someone talking during davening, then try to convince them to join our club and you will have done him a great favor. All members are privileged to receive abundances of blessings from HaShem, both this world and the next!"

Now that almost one year has passed since the first Shabbat Tacharishun, Safrin said he believes his efforts are creating lasting effects.

"There's more decorum. People are conscious of it. I sent [the booklet] to a big talker and he says, `Max, now I feel guilty when I talk.' To me, that's an accomplishment."