Tuesday, June 26, 2007

What's next?


This is my workshop proposal for the 'tute:

Havurah: What's Next?

Many new independent minyanim/havurot/communities have sprouted up over the last few years. These communities have a particularly strong following among people in their 20s and 30s, and exist primarily in urban centers. This workshop is for people in this constituency who are starting to think about the next stage. Where will we move if we can't afford to stay in our current neighborhoods? What kinds of meaningful Jewish communities will we create there? What new models of Jewish education will we create for our children? How can we think about doing this together? This workshop is an open discussion to brainstorm proactively about these questions.


Why Talk About This?

No, I don't have any sustained life transitions coming up that are prompting this. (Yes, I'm getting ready to move to Jerusalem for a year, but that's reversible, since I plan to be back in NYC working at the same job in fall 2008.) But I think it's valuable to start thinking strategically about these things before circumstances force a decision, so that by the time we're thinking concretely, we'll have a framework of ideas that can be implemented.

This may appear to contradict other statements I've made about Kol Zimrah and its fellow independent minyanim. As an independent minyan entrepreneur, a common question I get asked is "This is all well and good when you're in your 20s and 30s, but what are you going to do when you have children?", and I have steadfastly maintained that this question is irrelevant. La kashya (there is no contradiction): the question is irrelevant for Kol Zimrah (and other independent minyanim), but is relevant to us as individuals and as a cohort.

The majority (though not the entirety) of regular Kol Zimrah participants are in their 20s and 30s and don't have children, and if present trends keep up, it seems likely that most of this group will not be living in Manhattan if/when we have children. Therefore, our futures as individuals are decoupled from Kol Zimrah's future as a community. Unless all of Kol Zimrah picks up and moves somewhere together (a notion that seems ludicrous even if the more modest possibilities discussed below are feasible), KZ's mission is to continue to serve the set of people who are geographically located in NYC. It's quite possible that this means KZ will be a revolving-door community for people who are living in NYC a few years at a time and then leaving. I think that's perfectly ok -- it's filling an important niche that wasn't filled before, and this keeps the community dynamic. Other possibilities include KZ closing its doors when no one is around to keep it going anymore (which is ok, because we didn't set out to create institutions that would outlive their usefulness), or KZ sticking around a long time but growing stale and inflexible (which is ok, because the next generation will start something new if they aren't satisfied with the options), or KZ aging with its constituents and creating a vibrant multigenerational community among those who stick around on the Upper West Side (which is obviously ok, but I intend to be watching from far away). We don't know which of these outcomes will come to pass, but that's irrelevant to how KZ should operate in the present time. When the question is asked, the subtext is often "This model of a community won't work for you in 10 years, so why are you involved in these communities now?", and the answer is that even if these communities won't be right for us in 10 years, that has no bearing on whether they're right for us now. And if we were to require that any new community pass a test of cradle-to-grave viability before it is formed, then no one would ever be able to start a new community, and this stringent test would put a damper on any innovation, including intermediate steps that might eventually evolve into viable cradle-to-grave communities. So I still maintain that when we ask this question about our communities, it can be irrelevant at best and harmful at worst.

However, we still have to ask this question about ourselves! If I leave New York before I have children, then Kol Zimrah doesn't have to worry about me or my hypothetical future children, but I still have to worry about me and them.

For most of the time I've been in New York, this isn't something I've been losing sleep over. This is in part for the reasons above (worrying about the future shouldn't prevent us from pursuing what is best for the present), and in part out of a faith that things would be ok. When I was in college, I worried that my active Jewish life would end as soon as college was over. Of course, things ended up working out just fine. The communities that I found(ed) after college didn't exist when I was worrying during college, but they came into existence when they were needed. Since then, I've had faith that the next stage would also work out -- even if what we're going to want doesn't exist now, it will exist when we need it.

However, faith is not sufficient; one must also buy a lottery ticket. These post-college communities didn't descend in flames from heaven; they exist because people wanted them and built them. And this didn't happen on a whim -- during college, we gained experience running Jewish communities that were relatively tabulae rasae and experimenting with crazy ideas in a laboratory setting, so that when we were set loose on the real world, we had an idea of what we wanted and how to make it happen. Likewise, the Jewish communities of the next stage of our lives will happen because we make them happen, and thinking about this now is a prerequisite for effectively making them happen.

I'm thinking about this more now than I was a few years ago, even though nothing real has changed in my life, simply because 1) I've gotten this stage figured out to my satisfaction, so I now have the luxury of thinking ahead to the next stage, and 2) even though my upcoming move out of New York is to somewhere I don't plan to stay in the long term and I intend to be back in a year, moving out of New York temporarily still brings up thoughts about moving out of New York permanently.

What Are We Talking About?

I see the transition to the next stage as a sudden shift and not as a gradual evolution, because the way I think of it in my life, this stage is in NYC and the next stage is not. Perhaps there will be an intermediate phase in which I live in NYC in a cheaper neighborhood than the Upper West Side, perhaps not. So people who intend to stay where they are may be looking at the whole issue entirely differently.

The Upper West Side is quickly becoming more expensive, and as a high school teacher, I don't anticipate making enough money to live here even by myself in any sort of "settled" way (i.e. without boxes stored at my parents' house), let alone raise a family here. And that's economic factors alone, putting aside other reasons for not wanting to raise a family in NYC. It seems likely that many of us will be going through the same calculus in the next decade or so, leaving the neighborhoods that have both the highest concentrations of Jewish activity and the highest rents. The question is where do we go next?

An unacceptable option for me is that we peel off one at a time, scattering to random suburbs where we join (or don't join) the local Jewish community and are bateil beshishim. Instead, we should coordinate and all move somewhere together and start a community there.

That should probably be more than one "somewhere", because the "we" in question is a heterogeneous group which has many different visions of Judaism and Jewish community (just as the urban independent minyanim that exist now come in many flavors). We also have mutually exclusive geographic preferences: e.g., some people want to stay in commuting distance of Manhattan, whereas I would need a lot of convincing to move to a New York suburb -- when I leave NYC, I want to go somewhere else entirely. So we should come up with multiple locations to scope out. What these options should have in common is that they are more affordable than the expensive neighborhoods that are currently the centers of non-Orthodox Jewish life -- it's time to end the relationship between active Jewish community and big money.

I'm not proposing any sort of hippie commune -- all I'm looking for is for a critical mass of people to move to the same city or neighborhood. So where do we move to? Start suggesting places.

What do we do when we get there? Do we start a new Jewish community from scratch, or join an existing one en masse? All options are on the table.

If the former (starting a new community), then what kind of communities do we start? How would they differ from our current communities? (For one thing, they'd probably have to be more self-contained -- "minyan-hopping" will be less feasible if we have merely a critical mass and not a SUPERcritical mass.)

If the latter (joining an existing community), then please think twice before posting "You should all move to my city! The Jewish community isn't so exciting right now, but if a lot of young people moved here, then they'd bring the vibrancy we need." First, ask yourself: Are you prepared not only for an influx of new people, but for an influx of empowered people? Are you prepared to give them a voice in the way the community runs, even when they're interested in doing things different from the way things have always been done?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then great! Let's talk. I know it's possible because I've seen it in action. The National Havurah Committee has welcomed the born-after-the-publication-of-The-Jewish-Catalog generation with open arms. We have taken on significant leadership roles, become one of the NHC's core demographics, and formed a positive and productive relationship with the other generations even though (or perhaps because) we don't always see eye to eye. If this can be replicated elsewhere, then I'm all for it.

If, however, the answer to these questions is no, and you're just looking for warm bodies to perpetuate the status quo, then it's probably better for both of us if I keep looking elsewhere. No hard feelings.

That is, of course, unless the status quo is already exactly what we'd want, and we wouldn't be trying to change anything. In which case, tell me about it! I wouldn't bet any money that this exists, but if it does, I'm all ears.

Next, there's the question of the kids.

I want my hypothetical children to go to public school, because I don't believe in Jew-free public schools (among other reasons). I also want my children to get a Jewish education, and I agree with all the criticisms of conventional Hebrew schools (which I experienced firsthand). So if day schools and conventional Hebrew schools are off the table, then we'll have to think of a new model of supplementary Jewish education that is outside the box. (And we have plenty of time to do it -- I'm not having children any time soon, and once I do, add at least 5 years before this question is an urgent one.) Some models have been suggested already; let's come up with more. What are your ideas?

The mission of whatever educational model we create will be different from the mission of Hebrew schools: My hypothetical children will grow up in an actively Jewish home (as I did) and in an actively Jewish community (if the scheming discussed in this post is successful), so the structures we create for their Jewish education can focus purely on education (in a narrow sense) rather than on being their primary exposure to Judaism (which many Hebrew schools have to be for their constituents), and hopefully this narrower focus will yield greater depth.


Let the conversation begin.


  1. You said about past experiences:
    During college, we gained experience running Jewish communities that were relatively tabulae rasae and experimenting with crazy ideas in a laboratory setting, so that when we were set loose on the real world, we had an idea of what we wanted and how to make it happen.

    And about future communities:
    For one thing, they'd probably have to be more self-contained -- "minyan-hopping" will be less feasible if we have merely a critical mass and not a SUPERcritical mass

    The first step is making these current communities self contained. We need to experiment with what a self contained community looks like now when its not necessary, so we know what it needs to look like later when it is.

  2. I love this workshop topic and regret that I won't be at the 'tute this year...I was last year.

    I currently live in a community where the young Jewish population is not vibrant or active. Although we're beginning to work on some social solutions (which is a beginning), the grad student population is so transient that nobody wants to make that sort of committment.

    I grew up in small midwestern communities where it was lonely in public school. But, the small congregations were amazing, supportive, became a huge part of my family's life, and helped form my Jewish identity in important ways.

    I don't have an answer, but my unformed thoughts include: well, our generation as it moves need to work with the institutions in place to change them to meet our generation's needs. And that geographic movement is based on so much more than where we can find a Jewish community. It's based on job opportunities and other economic/political factors.

    I hope that you post some of the "conclusions" or brainstorms that the workshop participants develop.

  3. And that geographic movement is based on so much more than where we can find a Jewish community. It's based on job opportunities and other economic/political factors.

    Yeah. I'm fortunate to have a job that I can do basically anywhere in the country, but I realize that not everyone does. Also, I'm assuming that we can't necessarily find a Jewish community anywhere, but we can start one.

  4. I would really love to see this workshop include not only people who currently live in cities but also folks in the same generation who already don't live in cities. I find the havurah / indie minyan movement so exciting yet totally alienating since I live in a town of 8,000 where there is only one synagogue nearby (just barely walking distance if it's not too cold or too hot out) and the others are 1/2 hour away and conventional in their outlooks. I feel silly saying this but: I feel left out! I want to know how to have Jewish community in general, and religious community specifically, while living in a small town. I want to meet people who want to create vibrant Jewish communities in rural areas (an American kibbutz, maybe?) and small towns and college towns and maybe even *ghasp!* suburbia.

    Anyway I applaud you thinking long-term like this. I think when we're young and idealistic (which I hope I still am) it is sometimes hard to think in a long-term and realistic way and make plans for our communities to grow and change in response to its needs and population morphing and migrating. These are conversations that need to be had.

    I look forward to meeting you at NHC!


  5. bythebay-

    I think BZ's idea behind put this out (correct me if I'm wrong, BZ) is to make this conversation on the internets, so you don't have to be in a major metro area to pitch in.


    I feel like a big part of where people look depends on shared values and personal needs. For example, I care about putting less carbon in the air, and don't want to see a possible great community do damage to the earth by moving someplace that has no public transit (or ease of walking/biking). Others might desire a place where hekshered products, particularly kosher meat, may be available.

    My own personal ideas are smaller northeastern cities like Ithaca and Northampton, college towns that also have some greenery.

  6. My own personal ideas are smaller northeastern cities like Ithaca and Northampton, college towns that also have some greenery.

    I'm totally with you on this, but might we be able to compromise on somewhere a bit less chilly? I don't do so well with cold, depressing winters (and neither does BZ).

  7. Another approach is to gather folks to live near a place which is a natural draw, like Isabella Freedman. Not sure how expensive or not that area might be.

    A word on college towns...I'm not sure if anyone grew up in a small college town, but I did (Chapel Hill) and it's notoriously bizarre... like you get extra points for being different and sophisticated and angst-ridden. I'm not sure I'd want to lay that on children (should I be blessed with them).

  8. I just responded to some of these thoughts with a couple of criteria that could help consider cities. Of the various obvious candidates, my personal experience is deepest in philadelphia, so i discussed some of it's positive characteristics including diversity of available jobs, plethora of universities, good parks, convenient location, and quality/affordable housing stock.

  9. I have some experience with Ithaca - my mom's family is from there, and I spent some time there as well. I don't really know what my "big picture" is on all the issues, but I have three things to say:
    1. Staying put is important. It is important that communities remain - more or less, give or take - a constant. That they develop a minhag, and demeanor, and shared events and even a pinkas kehilla. It makes me sad to see communities that have to build themselves up from scratch every twenty years.
    2. Money is important. Jewish education should be free/cheap and Jewish education shouldn't be funded by philanthropists since then they think they control everything. and Jewish education shouldn't be on alternate sundays, either.
    3. Time is important. Jewish kids might have to give up soccer to "learn Jewish". There are only 24 hours in the day. It all depends on the families and their attitueds to the learning Jewish. There are also more families and more resources today they can use to do their jewish education at home. But there has to be something like a heder everyone goes to to get the "basics".
    4. I'm ambivalent on the public education thing. I went to public school when I lived in Ithaca, and my mother and her siblings went to public school all their lives. But I wouldn't give up the education I got in the mamlachti dati school system, flawed as it is, any day.

  10. As Zach wrote, my generation faced precisely this question and it seemed to come down to did you REQUIRE living in Manhattan for personal or professional reasons, or could you imagine elsewhere? We happily opted for elsewhere, and came to philadelphia. NW Philly's progressive Jewish community is in contrast to the rest of Philly's, which is normal conventional suburban. There is a newly vibrant Center City scene, now, which is bringing more sophisticated jews with it, young and empty nest.
    Mt. Airy was colonized by 3 different populations, which have nicely cross-polinated: RRC, P'nai or, and the original Germantown Minyan/Havurah scene. That minyan subdivided right and left into Minyan Masorti and Minyan Dorshei Derekh, both of which are now intergenerational. (As in young couples and families continue to relocate here - it's a destination neighborhood for Jews-in-the-know.)
    I think a new crowd would push the envelope, since we're all loyal to synagogues. GJC for example put up a successful fight against white/Jewish flight to the 'burbs.
    On the other hand, we would all understand where a new crowd was coming from, and appreciate that it's part of the continued revitalization of Jewish life.
    Check out Chestnut Hill - it is on the train line (R8) and easier to navigate carless. Mt. Airy also has PhillyCarShare.
    Here's a slightly outdated but helpful website about Jewish Mt Airy:

  11. dafkesher: Money is important. Jewish education should be free/cheap and Jewish education shouldn't be funded by philanthropists since then they think they control everything. and Jewish education shouldn't be on alternate sundays, either.

    So Jewish education should have no source of income and be frequent. Are the teachers volunteers or are they paid? If they're paid where does the money come from?

  12. Anonymous: I was envisioning some sort of graduated membership fees or a sort of school tax or something. There can also be a volunteer element, but only a smattering: professional teachers are important.
    If *all* the members of a community participated in the funding of their schools, instead of those with kids in the schools, the costs per parent could be drastically cut.
    Also - if the community has no rabbi, it can direct funds to education which would otherwise go into a rectory.

  13. This gets even more complicated for folks who don't travel on shabbat/yuntiffs.

  14. This gets even more complicated for folks who don't travel on shabbat/yuntiffs.

    I travel on Shabbat and still think there are advantages to having a community in walking distance.

  15. we're thinking Inwood or Flushing. Wanna come?

  16. kids will always want to rebel against parents (which is good b/c it ensures that we humans continue improving things) and challenge what there parents had thought would be an ideal jewish upbringing. some of the havurot kids that really get into the jewish tradition aspect will probably end up being orthodox. and some kids who really get into the social justice aspect will probably end up being secular humanists who are culturally jewish but dont actively participate in a community.

  17. Progressive Jews should move to the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia. Starter homes can be found for under $200,000. Come and visit and you'll see. Join the Dorshei Derekh minyan at Germantown Jewish Centre. This is what you're looking for.

  18. For those searching for a potential neighborhood, I'd also add (as someone else mentioned)the Philadelphia suburb of Melrose Park/Elkins Park. (These are adjacent neighborhoods in the township of Cheltenham.) This is a racially/ethnically integrated suburb (including African Americans, Koreans, Jews, whites, and people with other backgrounds) with a substantial Jewish population.

    There are two large and one small Conservative congregations in the community,(one, Adath Jeshurun, with a traditional-egalitarian havurah), two Reform congregations, and an Orthodox congregration (Young Israel.) There is an eruv, an excellent kosher bakery (great whole wheat raisin challah) and a Jewish community campus including Gratz College (large Judaica library open to the public), Jewish day care, Solomon Schechter elementary and middle school, and community p/t Jewish high school. No Reconstructionist congregation yet, but it is only 2 miles or so to RRC. The public schools are good.

    Melrose Park and Elkins Park are accessible to Mount Airy (Germantown Jewish Ctr)- 6 miles/20 minutes by car. The neighborhood has good public transit to Center City and the airport. While it is close to the city (we live 2 blocks outside of Philadelphia itself)it also has a smaller city feel, with shops in walking distance of a number of areas and CSAs (Community supported agriculture) that deliver to the neighborhood. Public/community services (police, your town council member, the neighborhood assn.) are readily accessible.

    In terms of housing, there is a wide variety of types and ages, including rentals and condos. Three BR houses are available from under $200K to $350K -- I would say prices are cheaper than Mt. Airy and certainly cheaper than the Main Line -Western suburbs of Phila. So if people wanted to join existing groups or to start their own Jewish community, this could be
    an area with potential.

  19. Thanks to all who have suggested locations, and it's great to hear about places with affordable housing and strong public schools. But I should note that the existence of synagogue in a location isn't necessarily (in itself) a plus in my eyes. NYC has hundreds of synagogues, and I don't go to any of them. As I see it, synagogues are useful iff 1) they have a population who would be up for starting an independent community, 2) they are open to radical transformation (or not-so-radical hosting of alternative options in their building), or 3) they're already just fine. In "Profile of an 'Unaffiliated' Jew", I explain why most existing liberal synagogues don't meet my criteria for #3 (and though that article focuses on people in their 20s and 30s, a number of people over 40 have said that they identify with it), though I'd be happy to hear about exceptions.

  20. i dont think we are going to see folks move en mass to a particular place. Nor do I see things at the scale of KZ, TLS, Kavod happening. I envisions a small havurah in my Jewish future. 10-15 families. That's 20 - 35 adults and who knows how many kids. If we get together every other week, for prayer, and perhaps rotate though facilitating some kind of multi-age school, dayenu.

  21. Having experienced KZ (or some other independent havurah)is sufficient for anyone who wants to be able to start one's own Havurah. One couple I know advertised in a local newspaper (small city in CA about 200K) for anone wanting to participate in a group Pesah Seder and 50 plus people showed up to 'join'. A subset of them become suddenly a Havurah that kept meeting. My wife and I started more than four indy's over time to provide the environment we were not getting from the establishment. One was for study, another was for Kab Shab and still another was an occasional Shabbas Minyan all of which nourished us as we learned what we could do with them. So if you don't all land together someplace you can all still help start your own in many places which will benefit all of us. And please help make them intergenerational. All the different voices of the generations have interesting takes and multiple points of view.

  22. As usual, you are contributing something useful, thoughtful, radical, and respectful at the same time! For what it's worth, at the next life-transition for me, I'll be looking for something similar (having more or less finished child-raising), but where I go will be basically entirely job-driven (since it's an academic job, that will probably mean a place with some reasonable population of Jews, of course). A place where people in their 20s and 30s will continue to do some organizational heavy-lifting for the benefit of people like me is of course great, and I hope I find it. (And of course a few experienced parents can enrich a community of new parents -- though the general tendency of new parents is to behave as if having children (like sex) was invented right around the time they started.)