Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The New Jew

Kol Zimrah is in print again! The Fall 2005 issue of B'nai B'rith Magazine features a 9-page piece called "Uncovering the Un-Movement", discussing the "New Jew":

The protagonist of this story is a new breed of American Jew. Independent-minded to a fault, these fresh-faced iconoclasts are thirsting for Jewish meaning and community, even though their definition of those terms often differs radically from the common-place. Even though they often are ambivalent about the nature of their Jewish identity. Bypassing mainstream institutions, they are fashioning boutique Judaisms of their own. And in the process, they have morphed from a curiosity into a formidable force—and no wonder. For better or worse, they may be redefining American Judaism.

And check out page 4:
Some of them bond with their heritage by gathering in small groups and engaging in do-it-yourself text study, worship, or ritual. For example, independent, egalitarian minyanim that cross traditional denominational boundaries are flourishing among Gen X and Gen Yers.

Free-form, rabbi-optional, and lay-driven, they might incorporate meditation or feature several musical genres during the same service, from traditional shul offerings to Debbie Friedman songs to tunes composed by the participants themselves.

One such congregation (it actually refers to itself as a community or chavurah) is called Kol Zimrah, and its motto is: “Meaningful prayer through music.” Founded in late 2002, Kol Zimrah grew primarily through word of mouth, and now operates in New York and Jerusalem. It has no rabbi, no denominational affiliation, and no official siddur, which is just as well, because Kol Zimrah prides itself on having created an environment in which participants feel comfortable reciting their own prayers, meditating silently, or even dancing to the service’s live acoustic music.

Although the new venues for worship typified by Kol Zimrah still constitute only a tiny fraction of the Jewish universe, they are growing rapidly, and presage a time in the not-distant future that conventional denominational Judaism will be irrelevant for most young Jews, according to some observers. That day may already have arrived,
according to [Rabbi Leon] Morris of the Skirball Center.

“Today, there are roughly 5 million denominations,” he says. “In fact, it seems sometimes that all of the compartments of Jewish life are becoming defunct.”

The article is an extensive survey of a number of very recent Jewish trends and projects. But the conclusion that accuses us of "self-indulgence" is a bit lame. We're avoiding the established institutions and creating our own communities because we believe that we can express our Jewish values better through these independent communities than through the institutions. The institutions have nothing to say in response to speak to these values other than to place a value on the perpetuation of the institutions themselves.

Furthermore, which model of Jewish community is more "self-indulgent"? The typical American synagogue's consumer model where members pay dues which they perceive to be a payment for services rendered (like a gym membership) and then leave after their last child has become bar/bat mitzvah, or the independent havurah's participatory model where everyone takes part in creating the community?

In other news, I hear rumors that a new math teacher has created a "Kol Zimrah minyan" at the Heschel High School! It is already the most popular of the many minyan options at the school, and the next generation is being exposed to the idea that Judaism exists outside of the three boxes as they combine guitars and percussion with the Artscroll siddur (NAF reports that that's the siddur that was available). And when they take a field trip to the original Kol Zimrah, they'll have no idea that it was the original -- they'll think there are just lots of those minyanim out there! Kein yehi ratzon.


  1. Ben,

    Thanks for the link to this article. Was your sense that the authors were using this idea of "New Jews" to talk about the entire generation or merely the subset we fall into?
    As a whole, the article seemed muddled to me.
    More interesting than citing broad demographic stats and a few examples of interesting things would have been to figure out how this percieved change in expressions of religion compares to the dynamic between previous cohorts and their establishments.
    there are clearly jews who fit into the old models. what do they think about the changing landscape?
    how has the "indy" scene impacted the denominational scene?
    are people really "anti-label" or are the existing labels just not aligned with people's identities?
    there are so many interesting questions that could have been addressed. the article, though probably well intentioned, failed to get at any of the interesting questions and spent a lot of time listing from topic to vaguely related topic. perhaps the authors just weren't very framiliar with the various dynamics.
    i am glad this is finally consistenetly a topic of interest, now it ought to be approached with more rigor and a better understanding.

  2. I think they're talking about a number of overlapping subsets within our generation.

    When I called the article "an extensive survey", I was damning with faint praise. They went far and wide compiling content from articles that have already appeared in the mainstream Jewish press (like here and here and here ; ok, at least one of those was by the same author as this article), but this article didn't include much original reporting or analysis. It would have been interesting to explore those and other questions. I agree that the topic should be approached with more rigor, but I doubt that B'nai B'rith Magazine is where that's going to happen. Any volunteers to write a piece for Zeek or the New York Times or something?

  3. We're avoiding the established institutions and creating our own communities....

    Wait, are you associated with KZ? I know some people who are associated with that group, though I don't know them terribly well. You and I probably know some people in common.

    By the way, readers, please check out my post on the Ya`avetz's Siddur. My post begins with...


  4. I am indeed associated with KZ. Who do you know?

  5. I can't tell you onblog, because of the anonymity principle. Can you give me an e-mail address?

    (I don't know if initials help, but I know B.D., and I think that MM & BS might be involved, as well.)

  6. Ok, I just created mahrabu at gmail dot com.