Without a building and budget, Tikkun Leil Shabbat is one of the independent prayer groups, or minyanim, that Jews in their 20s and 30s have organized in the last five years in at least 27 cities around the country. They are challenging traditional Jewish notions of prayer, community and identity.
In places like Atlanta; Brookline, Mass.; Chico, Calif.; and Manhattan the minyanim have shrugged off what many participants see as the passive, rabbi-led worship of their parents’ generation to join services led by their peers, with music sung by all, and where the full Hebrew liturgy and full inclusion of men and women, gay or straight, seem to be equal priorities.
Members of the minyanim are looking for “redemptive, transformative experiences that give rhythm to their days and weeks and give meaning to their lives,” said Joelle Novey, 28, a founder of Tikkun Leil Shabbat, whose name alludes to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. It is an experience they are not finding in traditional Jewish institutions, she said.
These communities have been documented in the press before, but mostly in Jewish publications (plus a short piece in Time), and now this article is reaching a much wider audience (including Christian bloggers who refer to us as "Satan's market"). It will be interesting to see the reactions.
I was interviewed for the article, but didn't make it into the final cut. Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts, the reporter (based in DC) wasn't able to make it to Kol Zimrah in New York.
Five good things about this article:
- The quote above from Joelle Novey makes it clear that participants in independent minyanim are there out of a serious commitment to meaningful Judaism, and not because we're looking for something more watered down or because we're looking for a singles scene.
- The article emphasizes that this is a nationwide phenomenon, bringing examples from Denver and the Kansas City suburbs, rather than confining coverage to a few coastal blue cities.
- Demonstrating a fresh perspective that is perhaps only attainable by going outside the Jewish press, the article addresses this phenomenon on its own terms, and doesn't get caught up shoehorning it into angst about intermarriage, "continuity", "affiliation", the future of institutions, etc.
- "A survey that Mr. Landres has undertaken with Mr. Cohen and Rabbi Kaunfer indicates that rather than taking young Jews out of the synagogue pews, they are taking them out of their beds on Saturday mornings." Hopefully synagogues will read this article and begin to understand that independent communities aren't driving people away from synagogues; synagogues are driving people away from synagogues. This generation wasn't joining synagogues before the increase in new independent communities at the turn of the millennium either. (And I look forward to the results of the survey, which are supposed to be released today.)
- The article emphasizes the minyanim's openness towards participants learning to lead services, etc., and active steps that the minyanim are taking to help participants gain new skills. This counters the meme out there that independent minyanim are "elitist" and only for people with extensive prior Jewish education.
Five questionable things in the article:
1. The word "traditional" is being overloaded with at least two different meanings (which is par for the course): "conventional" (as in traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA), vs. "traditional Judaism" (whatever that means). Is a "traditional synagogue" one that has a rabbi and a building and conventional institutional structures, or one that follows "traditional" Jewish practice? There isn't really a positive or negative correlation here, and there's no way to tell which is being referred to except from context. Compare:
- "They are challenging traditional Jewish notions of prayer, community and identity." -> unclear which, perhaps both
- "It is an experience they are not finding in traditional Jewish institutions, she said." -> "conventional"
- "For instance, its once-in-three-weeks services alternate between one with circular seating and a more traditional service, in which the chairs face east and the singing is a cappella." -> "traditional Judaism"
- "Rabbi Edward Feinstein is one leader of a traditional synagogue who applauds the development of the minyanim." -> "conventional"
2. Havurot are referred to in the past tense. In fact, many of the havurot founded in the late '60s and '70s are still around. The article says, apparently to create a contrast, "The minyanim are largely urban." In fact, the major havurot founded in the '60s and '70s (e.g. Havurat Shalom, the New York Havurah, Fabrangen) are/were also urban. I think this distinction between "minyanim" and "havurot" is misleading. Yes, there are minyanim that are not havurot (e.g. rabbi-led minyanim in synagogues), and there are havurot that are not minyanim (e.g. havurot that get together only for non-prayer activities, since a minyan is by definition a prayer group), but all of the communities under discussion could be accurately described as both minyanim and havurot. In fact, this fuzziness can be observed in their self-descriptions. Tikkun Leil Shabbat (founded 2005), one of the "minyanim" featured in the article, refers to itself on its website as a havurah. The Highland Park Minyan (founded 197x), which is representative of the havurot founded at that time, refers to itself in its name as a minyan.
Certainly, there are discernible differences between independent Jewish communities founded in the 1970s and independent Jewish communities founded in the 2000s, though not necessarily all that much larger than the differences between Tikkun Leil Shabbat and DC Minyan (both founded in the 2000s and featured in the article), and not large enough to negate the fact that all these communities are fundamentally manifestations of the same phenomenon. (That said, even though the creation of new grassroots Jewish communities has continued uninterrupted since the 1960s, the rate and popularity have skyrocketed since the turn of the millennium, so this story is indeed newsworthy as current news.) Many core participants in the post-2000 independent communities are also active participants in the National Havurah Committee (founded in the late 1970s), whose network and Institutes have been vital in the creation and sustenance of many of these communities.
3. "The fact that women at the minyanim can lead prayers and read the Torah is central to their popularity, including among those raised in the Orthodox tradition, which limits women’s participation in services." I have to say that this section of the article was surprising to me. To be sure, gender egalitarianism was a major chiddush for the early havurot, since many of their participants came from the Conservative movement (which was generally not egalitarian at the time), and the havurot were egalitarian. Today, participants in independent Jewish communities come from all movements, and the independent communities themselves include both communities that are fully egalitarian and communities that aren't. So it wouldn't have occurred to me to list gender egalitarianism as a significant difference between synagogues and independent communities. Every Jewish community I have been a part of since birth, whether institutional or independent, has been gender-egalitarian, so that's not a factor in my choice to participate in independent communities, and some people are participating in independent communities that are less gender-egalitarian than the synagogues they grew up at.
So all that said, here's a (perhaps Tosafot-like) way to read this that makes sense: Yes, even in the absence of independent communities, someone who grew up in a (non-egalitarian) Orthodox congregation could still have joined a(n egalitarian) Reform or Conservative synagogue. But if s/he were to do that, s/he would likely be missing out on the positive (non-gender-related) sociological aspects of Orthodox communities. Independent minyanim/havurot (the egalitarian ones, anyway) provide a way to get these positive elements while also having a fully egalitarian community. On the flip side, someone who grew up in an egalitarian synagogue who is looking to find these positive elements now has the option of going to an egalitarian independent community, rather than having to go to a non-egalitarian Orthodox synagogue.
So it's not that independent communities on the whole are more gender-egalitarian than synagogues on the whole; it's that if you compare an independent community and a synagogue that have comparable levels of Jewish education, active lay participation, sense of community, etc., then the independent community is more likely to be more gender-egalitarian.
4. "Tikkun Leil Shabbat draws Reconstructionist Jews, Orthodox Jews and everyone in between." Grrr. It's the one-dimensional linear spectrum. I won't belabor this, since I've said enough about it in the past. It's interesting that "Reconstructionist" is chosen as one end of the spectrum; it's a less conventional choice than the usual "Reform" or "secular". When people try to line up the movements from left to right, they often can't decide whether Reconstructionist belongs between Reform and Conservative (they have more Hebrew than Reform! but less than Conservative!), or at one end past Reform (they had LGBT equality before it was popular!). Which really should clue people in that the linear spectrum just doesn't work, but somehow it doesn't.
5. "A flowering of Jewish day schools in the 1980s produced a generation with a strong Jewish education and 'the cultural wherewithal to create their own institutions,' said Steven M. Cohen, a professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion." I agree with everything in this statement from "produced" onward, as well as the following sentence crediting Hillel experience with empowering this generation. But the significance of day schools in this empowerment is an unproven conjecture. I have it on good authority that the founders of Kol Zimrah (and the majority of its current steering committee) did not go to day school. Perhaps the survey results will tell us more.