Thursday, April 30, 2009

Independent minyanim in the Washington Post

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Today’s Washington Post has a story on independent minyanim, with a focus on communities in DC. There’s no breaking news for those who are familiar with this scene; like the New York Times piece in November 2007, it primarily introduces the phenomenon to a general audience. But this may be the first mainstream (non-Jewish) media source to report on the USCJ grants for minyanim. (This grant program was pooh-poohed to some degree here on Jewschool, but anecdotal reports suggest that it seems to be taking off. Is there any data on how many minyanim are participating so far? What’s the breakdown between previously existing minyanim and new ones?)

Gathering in group homes and college dormitories, in rural woods and apartment buildings, a growing number of young Jews are spurning traditional synagogues and forming worship communities that blend ancient traditions with modern values in ways that religion scholars say could redefine American Judaism.

The young people represent some of the most devout of their generation and, worried that they are being lost, rabbis and other Jewish leaders in the Washington region and elsewhere are working hard to bring them back into the fold, including offering financial grants to independent groups who are willing to create partnerships with traditional worship communities.

This article shares many strengths and weaknesses with the NYT article. The tone is generally positive, stressing that independent minyan participants are committed to Judaism. For the most part, this article addresses independent minyanim on their own terms, and is less caught up in Jewish institutional baggage than are similar treatments in the Jewish press (though somewhat more so than the NYT article).

Then there are the serious problems. As I wrote in regard to the NYT article:

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.

One commenter argued that the NYT article consistently used “traditional” to mean “conventional”, but that’s much harder to argue here. Compare:

  • “a growing number of young Jews are spurning traditional synagogues” -> “conventional”
  • “independent groups who are willing to create partnerships with traditional worship communities” -> “conventional”
  • “the large denominations that have traditionally divided Jewish worship life” -> “conventional”
  • (in the same sentence) “Reform, the most liberal, Conservative and Orthodox, the most traditional” -> “traditional Judaism” (probably referring to “Orthodox”, but I initially read it as referring to “Conservative and Orthodox”; this is why God invented the serial comma)
  • “in a break with tradition, women lead parts of the service. ” -> “traditional Judaism”
  • “the traditional children’s parade that is part of the Jewish festival observing Purim” -> unclear

I’m not just griping about word choice. It’s intellectually sloppy to conflate these two concepts, and a misrepresentation of the significance of the independent minyan phenomenon. In terms of Jewish ideology and practice, independent minyanim are all over the map, and so are synagogues. Independent minyan participants may be “spurning traditional synagogues” in the sense of conventional institutions, but are neither moving (en masse) toward or away from “traditional” Judaism. Some may be moving toward “more traditional” practices and others toward “less traditional” practices (insofar as these comparatives are meaningful) and others neither, but that’s not the interesting story. The interesting story is that people all over the Jewish map are creating active participatory Jewish communities.

Small errors:

DC Minyan and Rosh Pina use the Orthodox liturgy, but some worshipers follow along in the Conservative prayer book. Both have separate seating for women and men, but Rosh Pina uses a partition as in Orthodox services and, in a break with tradition, women lead parts of the service.

I’m not sure the reporter realizes how small the differences between “the Orthodox liturgy” and “the Conservative prayer book” are (though the bring-your-own-siddur trend is significant even when the siddurim share basically the same Hebrew text). DC Minyan also has “women lead parts of the service”. This may be a “break with tradition” within the Orthodox world, but is not so for participants in these minyanim who come from egalitarian backgrounds; rather, the separate seating and fixed gender roles are the real “break with tradition” for those participants.

With the people interviewed for the article, the framing gets worse.

I think it’s the rule that Jonathan Sarna has to be quoted in these articles.

“It is an interesting mix between the egalitarian, pluralistic, inclusive values coming from the left and the values of learning and of observance coming from the right,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “They are making a new synthesis of these traditional and modern values that we haven’t seen before.”

GAH! Learning is a value “from the right”?! There’s nothing right-wing about learning, and there’s certainly nothing left-wing about ignorance. This makes me long for the days when, according to the stereotypes, Reform Jews had three Ph.D.’s from German universities and Orthodox Jews were illiterate huddled masses from the shtetl.

Egalitarian pluralistic inclusive left-wing Jews who embrace learning and observance (by the appropriate definition of “observance”) aren’t moving to the right or making a synthesis with right-wing values; they’re becoming serious committed left-wing Jews rather than apathetic left-wing Jews.

Still, some researchers question the future of the groups. A previous generation of independent prayer groups started by baby boomers in the 1970s is still active but has stalled in growth. Some experts wonder whether the current generation of minyanim leaders will move from the urban centers where most minyanim are based when they have children and melt into suburban synagogues, which offer extensive educational programs for Jewish children.

Ah, “some-say” journalism at its finest. Who are these anonymous “some researchers” and “some experts”, what is their agenda, and why aren’t they willing to be quoted by name? (Are they the same ones who appeared in the NYT article? “The minyanim are noticing that some of their worshipers are getting older, and it is unclear how they might evolve as participants have children and move to the suburbs, said members and experts on the movement.”) Let’s examine their claims. What do they mean by “stalled in growth”? Individual groups growing in number of participants, or overall growth in the number of groups? If the former, then the groups that have lasted since the 1970s aren’t necessarily aiming for growth; they may be happy at their current sizes. If the latter, then obviously the number of “independent prayer groups started by baby boomers in the 1970s” isn’t ever going to grow; that number was locked in as soon as the ’70s ended. But if the “started in the 1970s” constraint is removed, then the number of groups continues to grow, and the newest generation of independent minyanim is part of that growth. One longtime NHC veteran posted on NHC-DISCUSS, in response to this line, “These new communities are exactly the growth we hoped for.”

As for the wonderings of “some experts”, why are independent minyan leaders any more likely to “melt into suburban synagogues” than they were to melt into urban synagogues? If anything, “the urban centers where most minyanim are based” offer a much wider range of synagogue options than the suburbs do, and the minyan founders still opted for None Of The Above and started something new instead, and can do the same if (if!) they move to the suburbs. Yes, many suburban synagogues “offer extensive educational programs for Jewish children” (as do many urban synagogues), but these programs wouldn’t necessarily be any more appealing to this crowd than anything else that the synagogues offer. I’m excited about the prospect of exploring new options for Jewish education for my future children beyond what has already been done. These “experts” are hiding their heads in the sand if they think this is a passing fancy.

The article ends on a happy note:

Gil Steinlauf, Adas Israel’s new senior rabbi, said the synagogue has shifted from merely “tolerating these smaller groups to welcoming them. . . . It’s a radical shift, particularly in this congregation.”

Readers, what (if anything) have you noticed on the ground in the way of recent changes in the relations between grassroots communities and established institutions?


  1. I just saw that Jonathan Sarna wrote the forward for Elie Kaunfer's upcoming book. Given that my main association with Sarna is this blog post, and it's not a positive one, I'm quite curious to read this forward now...