Tuesday, September 12, 2006

When it rains, it pours

After Friday's article about the NHC Summer Institute, Kol Zimrah and the independent minyan/havurah scene appear in two more JTA articles today, for a total of three in a span of less than a week! And I'm quoted in all of them.

The main article is about the independent minyan wave of the last 5 years. Over at Jewschool, we're having a heated discussion about this article and whether independent minyanim should exist. (Spoiler: My vote is yes.)

There's also a sidebar about, of all things, the trichitza. And there's a shout-out to Hilchot Pluralism Part III and the ensuing comment thread. Thanks, commenters! At Jewschool, I clarify my quote in that article, where I think I was less than clear.

So here's some close reading / nitpicking / clarification of the independent minyan article.

Even as the organized Jewish community wracks its collective brain for ways to lure unaffiliated youth into synagogues and federations, hundreds of these Jewishly literate, spiritually driven young professionals are gathering regularly in living rooms and rented halls around the country for innovative Shabbat services they create by and for themselves.

“We are seeing more ferment among young Jews today than at any time since the havurah movement of the ’70s,” says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

These minyans don’t follow the rules. Eschewing movement affiliation, operating without rabbis and on shoestring budgets, they differ in their approach to halachah, or Jewish law, but are united by a spiritually intense, highly participatory style of worship and a willingness to experiment with ritual forms.

“It’s not about latke-eating contests or sending us to Israel, it’s about creating authentic Judaism,” says Julia Appel, a founder of the Tikkun Leil Shabbat minyan in Washington, who says she’s tired of synagogues throwing “wine and cheese parties” to attract younger Jews.

Yay!!!!! Totally on target all around. (I can't stand the appellation "young professionals", but that deserves a separate rant.)

These are not beginners’ services: The davening is fast and proficient, led by people with strong Jewish backgrounds who went to day schools or Jewish summer camps, were active in their college Hillels and may have spent time in Israel.

As I discuss in the Jewschool comment thread, let's not ignore the people whose first entry into active Jewish life has been through the independent Jewish scene. I mean, yes, the original founders had to have some sort of previous Jewish background (tongs made from tongs and all that), but these independent communities have been around for several years now.

These minyans have much in common with the havurah movement, a nondenominational countercultural initiative that also focuses on Jewish learning, spiritual prayer and lay leadership.

“Our goals are similar,” says [BZ], a high-school physics teacher and co-founder of Kol Zimrah. “In both cases it’s people interested in forming a deep connection to Judaism within the context of a community rather than through established synagogues.”

I would say that the minyanim founded in the last 5 years don't merely "have much in common with the havurah movement", but are the latest wave of the havurah movement. When I said "Our goals are similar", I was comparing minyanim/havurot founded in the 21st century with minyanim/havurot founded in the 1970s, not comparing the new minyanim with "the havurah movement" (as an external entity).

Also, my quote should in no way be construed to suggest that it is possible to form a deep connection to Judaism through established synagogues. It should be parsed as "interested in (forming a deep connection to Judaism within the context of a community) rather than [doing whatever they do] through established synagogues", not as "interested in forming a deep connection to Judaism (within the context of a community rather than through established synagogues)".

“The very fact that they use different words is significant,” Sarna says. “The minyanim don’t put the same emphasis on fellowship. Davening and study are higher on their list of priorities.”

The minyan/havurah dichotomy isn't so clear at all, and the names of the independent communities don't reflect the generational differences. The Highland Park Minyan was founded in the 1970s, and isn't so distinguishable from other havurot of its vintage. The DC Reform Chavurah was founded in the 2000s, and is one of the constituent entities that became Tikkun Leil Shabbat, one of the independent minyanim featured in the JTA article.

They vary widely in practice, with halachic decisions made by self-appointed leadership committees.

These committees make policy decisions, not halachic decisions. They're not claiming to be making binding decisions about halacha; they're just deciding what the minyan is going to do.

Some offer only kosher food, while others maintain a “two-table” system, with one table reserved for vegetarian food and the other for vegetarian food with a hechsher, or kosher symbol.

Yay for the two-table system appearing in print!

As far as I am aware, all the new independent minyanim offer only kosher food (as understood by some or all of their constituents). For some people that means everything is vegetarian (which avoids any non-kosher animals, non-kosher-slaughtered meat, and mixing of milk and meat); for others it means everything has a hechsher and was prepared in a kitchen where everything has a hechsher. This difference of opinion is why neither table is labeled as "kosher" in the two-table system (which the article got right).

If an independent minyan wants to offer an actual non-kosher option, then hey, more power to them (though I won't eat from that table), but I haven't heard of such an occurrence.

A few have created their own norms. Tikkun Leil Shabbat was created in June by a merger of two pre-existing minyans. One was more traditional than the other, so they created alternate services: One week they face east and pray without musical instruments; the next week they sit in a circle and play instruments.

I don't think the original Tikkun Leil Shabbat would have characterized itself as "more traditional". In TLS's first incarnation, it had services in a wide variety of formats, while DC Reform Chavurah had one format. The TLS folks can correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that the current pair of formats really was to balance two aesthetics, not to be "more traditional" and "less traditional" at different times.

Several of the more traditional minyans use similar practices, aiming for a pluralism where different observance levels coexist.

The great thing about the approach to pluralism in the new independent communities is that different forms of observance are not seen as "levels", where one form is "more observant" or "less observant" than another. It's a pluralism where different people coexist, each with their own practices and identities.

“Right now they don’t need religious schools or life-cycle events, but at a particular point they will turn to a religious institution to provide these things,” predicts Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “If we face the challenge appropriately and retool some of what we do, I believe many of these people may join Conservative synagogues, or these minyanim may become Conservative institutions.”


1 comment:

  1. please, please, please do your rant on the icky term "young professionals!" (we are what we do for money, and what we do for money is always very white collar??)