Feature: Individualism and community
Some are fully egalitarian, others have separate seating; some feature traditional liturgy, others incorporate new prayers. What unites the growing numbers of diverse, grass-roots minyanim across North America is the desire for a fulfilling, joyful spiritual experience..
When Joelle Novey looks around her at the young Washington, D.C., crowd that packs the Friday-night minyan she cofounded in 2005, she sees past the suits, jeans and funky outfits to the pluralism, egalitarianism, social justice and song-filled prayer that have become Tikkun Leil Shabbat. “I think to myself, ‘Wow, together we created this space,’” says Novey, 30.
With no rabbi or cantor, the minyan’s logistics are coordinated by Tomchei Tikkun, a team of 16 that arranges who announces page numbers, leads services, sets up the potluck vegetarian dinner that follows, washes the dishes and more, aided by a “Tachlist” of volunteers. There’s even a spreadsheet for jobs. “For this generation, it’s really important to take responsibility for our own Jewish lives,” says Novey, who grew up in a Conservative home in Baltimore. “There’s nothing in our organization that only one person knows how to do.”
The minyan’s blog, https://tikkunleilshabbat.blogspot.com, promotes it as a “welcoming, restful, songful community where we glimpse redemption at dusk on a Friday evening, eat things with tofu and noodles in them, learn from each other’s thoughts and experiences and educate ourselves about the good work people are already doing to make our city a gentler and fairer place for everyone who lives here.” Its participants—up to 200 attend from an e-mail list of 500—come from a variety of religious and secular backgrounds. They meet once every three weeks and, according to its site, alternate “a cappella, East-facing” prayer with services featuring seating in a circle and instruments. A social justice teaching highlights each service, and dinner is served at two tables: one labeled “Hekhshered” (dishes prepared with kosher-certified ingredients only); the other, “Vegetarian.” “I am proud of our inclusive decisions,” says Novey, who attended Camp Ramah, was active in the Harvard Hillel and is a writer for Green America, a nonprofit environmental group.
Tikkun Leil Shabbat is one of 60 independent minyanim organized in the past 10 years across the United States and Canada, magnets for committed Jews in their twenties and thirties who have crafted spirited prayer experiences that are both traditional and egalitarian. (That number does not include rabbi-led emergent sacred communities, such as Ikar in Los Angeles, that are not bound by the strictures of conventional synagogues.) Their names reflect geographies and identities: Techiyah, which means rebirth, of Harlem (www.harlemjews.org), mirrors the renaissance of a once-Jewish neighborhood; Kol Zimrah, voice of song, in New York emphasizes music (www.kolzimrah.info); DC Minyan, located in Washington, D.C. (www.dcminyan.org); and Mission Minyan in San Francisco is named for its eclectic Mission District neighborhood (www.missionminyan.com). Some meet in living rooms, others in community centers; some rent synagogue space, others do not. Most have Web sites and use social networking as the main means of communication and, together, have an estimated e-mail reach of about 20,000.
“When we look back on the minyan phenomenon, we will decide that it was the most exciting development in American Judaism since the havura movement 30 years ago,” says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Several trends have contributed to the minyan explosion, he notes, including a search for spirituality, a reaction to denominational infighting and the development of a postcollege, prechildren generation well versed in a do-it-yourself, start-up culture.
“Jews are returning to the paradigm of memory [incorporating prayer with full traditional liturgy] despite modernity,” says Yehuda Kurtzer, 32, Bronfman visiting chair in Jewish communal innovation at Brandeis University and a founder of the four-year-old Washington Square Minyan (www.wsminyan.org) in Brookline, Massachusetts. “It’s not just about doing our own thing. It’s…about what it is like to try to affiliate with a longer trajectory of Jewish heritage than just the last 20 to 30 years.”
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, 35, has spearheaded the growth of independent minyanim. Kaunfer directs New York’s Mechon Hadar (www.mechonhadar.org), an offshoot of Kehilat Hadar, which Kaunfer cofounded eight years ago with Rabbis Ethan Tucker and Shai Held. The institute’s Minyan Project provides resources, education, new-melody workshops, cross-minyan communication and a Halakhic Think Tank for guidance on religious conflicts such as kashrut standards, gender issues and boundaries with the non-Jewish world. Its Yeshivat Hadar—the first full-time, coed, nondenominational and egalitarian yeshiva in North America—immerses leaders-to-be in an intensive program that focuses on skills and text study complemented by social action, prayer and community meals. Digital audio files of prayer services, complete with instructions, are available on www.kehilathadar.org.
In a 2005 article for Jewish Education News, Kaunfer suggested that the minyans’ recipe for success includes joy, reverence, inspiring prayer, high-level educational programming with support for beginners, a culture of cooperation and openness, inexpensive or no membership fees, diversity of backgrounds, no singles events and no guilt. “People come because they want to,” he concludes.
Each minyan is different. Some, like Hadar, have matured into almost full-service communities: They meet weekly, both on Friday nights and Shabbat mornings; have created batei midrash or other opportunities for regular study; maintain social justice projects; and give support for life-cycle events (providing meals for new parents and mourners, for instance).
Though most minyanim entice singles, Washington Square draws about 70 adults and children and has grown to be a destination for families with young kids. Since it meets at the Hebrew Senior Life building in Brookline, senior residents join the minyan and attend events, creating a “powerful visual of strollers and walkers,” says Kurtzer. And start-ups like the Little Minyan (www.littleminyan.org) in Columbus, Ohio, are just beginning to determine their direction. Egalitarianism is fundamental to most, but of the 32 at a conference held in November 2008 at Brandeis, 11 were “partnership minyanim,” which have separate seating and allow women some, but not all, prayer roles.
Given that diversity, minyan founders shy away from saying it is a movement. “I call it a scene,” says Kurtzer, who grew up Orthodox but did not attend a synagogue after college. Unlike synagogues that are affiliated with institutions that have bylaws and rules, “we are free agents,” he says. “We can make decisions most productive to our own communities.”
It is not clear when “independent” came to characterize the minyanim, but the term can cause misunderstanding. “It doesn’t mean that we are off the grid and separate from the Jewish community,” says Kaunfer, adding that the minyanim are still searching for the best word that captures their “can-do spirit.”
This embracing nature invites people in instead of confronting them with an ideological choice that emphasizes differences, Tucker wrote in Zeek: A Journal of Jewish Thought and Culture in 2006. The son of Rabbi Gordon Tucker and Hadassah Lieberman (and stepson of Senator Joseph Lieberman), Tucker holds a doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and was ordained by the chief rabbinate of Israel.
A 2007 Spiritual Communities Study, conducted by sociologist Steven Cohen on behalf of Synagogue 3000 and Mechon Hadar, found that the minyanim are populated by “groomed not bloomed Jews”: 40 percent went to day school; most went to summer camp, participated in Hillel and are comfortable with Hebrew; and more than half spent over four months on an Israel program. Other key findings of the study, culled from 1,354 responses to a Web survey, found that most participants are under 40 and unmarried; two-thirds are women; 37 percent identify as Conservative, 15 percent Orthodox, 3 percent Reform and the rest “other Jewish,” refusing to be boxed in denominationally.
“The old labels don’t apply,” notes Kaunfer. Most are socially progressive yet religiously traditional (Mission Minyan calls itself “queer friendly” and adheres to strict kashrut standards). The Jewish community’s investment in formal and informal education is paying off, he adds, but instead of joining synagogues, graduates are creating their own spaces for worship.
Many minyanim attract nonpulpit clergy participants but are ideologically opposed to a rabbinic figure at the helm with a myriad of responsibilities that might serve to make other people passive. However, notes Kaunfer, minyanim can suffer from the lack of a knowledgeable rabbi trained in halakha, pastoral care and in performing life-cycle events.
Kaunfer often speaks of a “prayer experience” rather than just prayer—and that is the essence of the minyanim. “The din and hum of an engaged prayer service is one that is rare and spiritual in the context of our modern life,” he says. Though melody and song are the main draw, Kaunfer says his favorite part “is the mumbling side, the moments we say the words of prayer out loud and in a unified manner but at a slightly different pace than that of your neighbor. There’s something mystifying and holy about that.”
At Mission Minyan on Friday nights, the shaliah tzibbur is like a song leader, standing casually among the crowd and not on a bima or pulpit, says Emily Shapiro Katz, an active member and leader. Nobody talks during the all-Hebrew prayers: They either sing or sit and observe. Shapiro Katz, 33, a Jewish educator whose rabbi-husband is assistant head of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, says that the five-year-old minyan has helped reshape the community; people have moved to the area specifically for the Jewish life, much of it due to the minyan’s influence.
A graduate of Yeshiva University’s Stern College in New York, Shapiro Katz exemplifies the commitment among the movement’s leaders: “I’m a super Jew,” she admits, but notes that the minyan draws a spectrum of observance. On weeks the minyan does not meet, for instance, some participants go to Chabad, others to a gay and lesbian Reform synagogue.
Mission Minyan’s pluralistic goal requires give-and-take: mixed seating on Friday nights; and on Shabbat morning, mixed and separate men’s and women’s seating. Women can lead Kabbalat Shabbat, but not Ma’ariv; the preliminary morning service but not Shaharit or Musaf. Both men and women read Torah. “Some people wish it were different,” says Shapiro Katz, but everyone compromises because they value the community.
For Kaunfer, the son of a Conservative rabbi and a Jewish educator, both Harvard Hillel and a year of study in Israel opened his eyes to the “robust and multiple expressions of what it means to be Jewish.” In 1996, he moved to New York, worked as a fraud investigator and then as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley. He, Tucker and other college friends decided to build on their experiences and, on the strength of an e-mail message, 60 people jammed into Tucker’s New York apartment; the majority were people none of them knew. “That’s the moment I recognized there was a need in the fabric of Jewish life—even on the Upper West Side of Manhattan,” says Kaunfer. When he sensed that his work with minyanim might become a full-time passion, he enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary and was ordained in 2007.
Kaunfer and Tucker are among the best indicators that the minyanim have attracted mainstream attention. Kaunfer received an Avi Chai fellowship of $75,000 a year for three years to transform the then summer-only Hadar yeshiva program into a year-round endeavor. The Jewish Education Service of North America awarded the first Harold Grinspoon Jewish Social Entrepreneur Fellowship ($200,000 for two years) to the 32-year-old Tucker to expand Mechon Hadar. And Natan, which promotes young philanthropy, has established a category for emergent communities.
The minyanim themselves express ambivalence toward established organizations. Mission Minyan has not applied for funding “somewhat intentionally,” says Shapiro Katz, because then it would be hard for the community to be truly independent. With no building or salaries to pay, they stay afloat on donations: People sponsor a Kiddush or room rental at a women’s community center. Until recently they borrowed a Torah and siddurim. Last May, they bought their own scroll.
“Independent minyanim are not sapping resources or creating conflict with local synagogues,” says Kurtzer. “More minyanim mean more chances for people to go to shul, and in the long run, an increased level of participation and quality of davening.”
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the Orthodox National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., says it is “exciting to see people serious about their Judaism and seeking to come closer to God in an active way.” Rabbis in synagogues should study their success, he says, viewing them not as a threat but as future lay leaders—“motivated, eager to volunteer and expending energy on spiritual pursuits.” On weeks that independent minyanim do not meet, some participants attend the National Synagogue and take leadership roles. “They are doers, and that’s terrific,” says Herzfeld.
Joey Weisenberg, 27, a musician, student, former faculty member at Yeshivat Hadar and now music director at Brooklyn’s Kane Street Synagogue worries about synagogue-minyan conflicts. “Our parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations spent time and energy and commitment building up synagogues and bequeathed to us enormous buildings that independent minyanim wonder why we need,” he notes. Synagogues are desperate to bring in young people, he says, and many in the older generation feel the minyanim are “great.” But others view minyanim that do not pay their way as “freeloaders with a sense of entitlement who don’t pitch in to help the established community. In today’s hyperindependent, mobile, detached age, whose responsibility is the future of our shuls?”
Originally from Milwaukee and raised Conservative, Weisenberg’s grandfather belonged to all nine synagogues in the city, from Reform to Hasidic. Weisenberg says he has been pleasantly surprised that Kane Street has supported his creative ideas. “I am trying to marry two impulses: support the institution at all costs, or flee the institution at all costs. My take is to see where compromises can occur.”
As the minyanim and their founders mature, they face new challenges: how and whether to contain their growth so it does not extend beyond their means and what to do when leadership or demographics change. Social networking produces a measure of homogeneity, but the minyanim are not ideologically committed to a community of young people, says Kaunfer, noting that Baby Boomers enjoy the minyanim but find them intimidating. For Shapiro Katz, having children (now ages 1 and 3) put her in a different category than her peers, with concerns and responsibilities others don’t have.
Most founders do not stay more than five years because of mobility issues and real estate costs. Kurtzer just stepped down from his leadership position to devote time to other commitments. With a new baby, Kaunfer and his wife have moved to more affordable Washington Heights and are revitalizing a Conservative synagogue there. And Novey and her husband travel to Tikkun Leil Shabbat on Friday nights from their Maryland home; they have joined a neighborhood Conservative synagogue and a havura, alternating between them on Shabbat mornings. The turnover allows minyanim to engage fresh leadership and remain in touch with participants, continually examining their values.
Minyanim beckon as a sign of vitality for a younger generation that seeks to express its religious voice. Mechon Hadar plans to open dozens of yeshiva-like educational centers: “Our vision,” says Kaunfer, “is to create opportunities for learning and community that will revolutionize American Jewish life.” H
As founder and director of the Firepit Minyan in Austin, Texas, I’m officially stressed. On Friday afternoons I contend with a pile of stapled-together prayer books battered by wine stains and halla crumbs containing no Hebrew other than transliterations. My 11-year-old daughter, Augusta, our Hebrew school’s only student, both reads and understands Hebrew. Maybe the rest of us should, too. Not because of long-held traditions—we have none—but because we seek meaning. I want our ritual to be Jewish. I also want time to pen better services, tickets to a minyan conference and new strings for my guitar, because no one likes an amateur cantor who plays off-key. But now I must turn a Bob Marley song into “Shalom Aleikheim”; take halla from the oven; and check Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s blog for Jewish/heretical insight.
In the car, I whine to God. (It doesn’t work anywhere else.) Why, I kvetch, can’t I be more professional?
Because you’re no rabbi, God replies, in Texan, and this ain’t exactly your daddy’s synagogue. Y’all are designing it as you go along. I find it good.
I moved from Colorado three years ago. None of Austin’s many great synagogues seemed to fit, so I finally held a Shabbat service in my living room. It was awkward, but encouraging.
A few months later, I tried again, this time outdoors, where my husband lit a bonfire instead of the Shabbat candles. Voila—the Firepit Minyan. Six people attended our first Shabbat. At Pesah, we were 46; it’s been 18 months.
We now meet every three weeks for Friday-night services, potluck and Torah study; we tackled Rosh Hashana, gathered for Kol Nidrei and commanded the children to write the purimshpiel. (Mordecai bore an eerie resemblance to The Dude in The Big Lebowski.) Our mitzva committee—her name is Jane—plans monthly outings to feed and repair the community. Our food committee—her name is Deborah—balances her home-made brisket against an increasingly vegetarian congregation. Without these people, I would still be dissing the established shuls and feeling sorry for myself.
I met prospective Firepit members at baggage claim, while buying a bike rack on Craigslist—even because the outreach director at the local Jewish Community Center sent them. My other daughter, Coco, complained that Mr. Feigenson, her math teacher, was too strict. On the off chance he was Jewish, I invited him to Shabbat. He and his wife, Mitzva Jane, have not missed a service since.
Others drift away or come when their temple of choice isn’t in session. Some longtime synagogue members come to the Firepit instead. We have Jews by choice, atheist and agnostic Jews, gay and straight Jews, interfaith couples and a few goyim. I couldn’t have predicted this, but the Firepit Minyan has momentum.
Apparently, small-time Judaism is on the rise. In our neighborhood alone, there are two other minyanim—one composed of young Middle East peace activists, the other of young professionals with families seeking tradition. We plan to hold an inter-minyan event.
We had a wonderful Seder: several new people came; there was feasting outside, flames in the night sky, not too many typos in the house-made Haggada. The next day, I got an e-thank you from a new attendee: “We’re grateful to have found just what we were seeking,” she wrote.
That letter will be my impetus this Friday afternoon. Before sundown, I’ll buy those new guitar strings. I’m grateful, too. —Robin Chotzinoff