Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Empowered fisking

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)
The 21st-century independent minyan phenomenon has inspired many newspaper articles. However, the published “serious” writing (with the appropriate academic or intellectual credentials) on this topic is still far more limited, leading to founder effects, with a few mutations being propagated over and over. For example, Riv-Ellen Prell’s article in Zeek, comparing two generations of independent Jewish communities, is often cited as an authority. While Prell literally wrote the book on an older generation of havurot with an ethnographic study, there is no evidence that she did any primary research on the newer minyanim, or has even been to one; her main source of information on these communities seems to be the roundtable of minyan leaders that appeared in the same issue of Zeek. Yet that article is what there is. In the quantitative realm, the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study gathered lots of valuable data on independent minyanim, but the report (and/or initial media stories about it) also originated some misleading conclusions that won’t go away. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s book Empowered Judaism isn’t the entire story, but there is absolutely no question that Kaunfer knows his subject, and it’s now out there as a real live book.

Margot Lurie’s recent review of Empowered Judaism contains many of the lazy smears about independent minyanim that we’ve been hearing for years (citing such sources as “one parent of a minyan-goer” and “a friend of mine”). Under other conditions, the best thing to do might be to ignore it. But this review is published in the Jewish Review of Books, which gives it the intellectual cachet to place it into the small pond of “serious” writing on this subject. So this review needs to be fisked in the bud before it becomes the next authoritative voice on independent minyanim.

So here we go.

These minyanim are, in some ways, descendants of the “havurot” (fellowships) of the 1960s and ‘70s for which the Jewish Catalog served as a guide. Those participatory communities were marked by a countercultural, anti-institutional, Do-It-Yourself aesthetic, of which the new minyanim, to some extent, partake.
This past Shabbat, I attended Fabrangen’s 40th anniversary celebration. They still meet every Shabbat, and they still don’t have a rabbi or a building. Many of the havurot of the ’60s and ’70s still exist, so the past tense is not the correct way to refer to them. By their continuing existence, they also provide an answer to the question of whether an independent lay-led community can survive as its participants get older.
It is important to distinguish further between two types of independent minyan, which, while often possessing overlapping sets of congregants, have very different motivating impulses. First, there are “partnership minyanim” … Fundamentally a response to the difficult question of women’s roles in the Orthodox world, they rely on a controversial halakhic responsum of Rabbi Mendel Shapiro allowing women to lead non-obligatory parts of the prayer service. … The second type of minyan is not an outgrowth of halakhic re-interpretations within Orthodoxy or a response to segregated gender roles, but an effort to meet a “crisis in spirituality,” …
Lurie is correct to delineate these two separate motivating impulses whose confluence around the turn of the century enabled the independent minyan boom. However, while these impulses may have originated separately, they have become intertwined to the point that it’s not just that the two types of independent minyanim have overlapping participants; it is no longer possible to sharply delineate two types of minyanim. The “partnership minyan” model is being adopted not only by communities that want to increase women’s participation in the Orthodox world, but also by “big tent” communities who (rightly or wrongly) perceive this model as a pluralistic compromise that can accommodate everyone. On the flip side, many minyanim with deep roots in the Orthodox world (such as Shira Hadasha, the flagship partnership minyan) give serious thought to the “spiritual” issues associated with the “second type of minyan”.
There is an open secret about Hadar: like many other minyanim, it is funded by lots of organized community money, offered by institutions eager to keep young Jews connected to their heritage. (This may explain why Kaunfer writes like someone who has devoted a big chunk of his life to writing grant applications.)
Yeshivat Hadar does indeed do a lot of fundraising from foundations, making it possible for students to attend for free and receive a living stipend. However, Yeshivat Hadar isn’t a minyan; it’s a yeshiva. Kehilat Hadar (which is a minyan) is funded almost entirely by donations from its own participants. Kehilat Hadar has received some “organized community money” in the past (e.g. from Bikkurim), but this was never a secret, open or otherwise; when Kehilat Hadar was participating in Bikkurim, this was mentioned at the bottom of every email. And, in having received this funding in the past, Kehilat Hadar is not “like many other minyanim”. Most minyanim have never received any “organized community money”; they are either funded entirely by donations or they operate on a budget of zero (meeting in participants’ homes or other free spaces).

(As an aside, I wonder if the founders of the three Hadars are starting to regret their decision in naming the newer two. It may have made sense from a marketing perspective, since Hadar was already a successful brand, but it means they and others are forever stuck making this sort of clarification when people inappropriately conflate the various Hadars.)
Through this, Jewish organizations, while creating opportunities for young Jews to worship and study—and they do create these opportunities, and these opportunities are valuable—also prop up a not-very-impressive aspect of elite American culture: the long-extended enabled adolescence. In an interview with Tablet, Kaunfer called this period the slacker-sounding “post-college, pre-whatever.” It has also been described by Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor, as “emerging adulthood,” and in David Brooks’ more august term as “the odyssey years.”
On the ground, what this looks like is upper middle class Americans spending the ten to fifteen years after college messing around and “figuring out their lives” while postponing marriage, children, and responsibilities.
Let’s first assume for the sake of argument that “emerging adulthood” exists. What is the mechanism by which independent minyanim (whether they’re funded by their participants or by the Elders of Zion) prop it up? Is the idea that if the only Jewish community option were suburban family-centered synagogues, then young adults would be in a bigger hurry to get married, have children, and buy a house in the suburbs so that they could be part of those sweet sweet synagogues, and independent minyanim are the crutch holding them back?

More likely, the societal factors contributing to later ages of marriage and parenthood were around before this latest wave of independent minyanim, and are much larger than our tiny Jewish community. If these minyanim didn’t exist, no one would have children and settle down any earlier, but a lot of people would spend more time alienated from Jewish life.
One way or another, the bill for this eclectic adventurousness is footed by parents, or, for the best and brightest, by various institutions and sinecures.
Wait a minute. Here, Lurie is characterizing independent minyan participants as unemployed trustafarian slackers, but just two paragraphs earlier, she wrote about “the e-bankers, lawyers, and bright-eyed young professionals who form a core segment of the minyan: stockbrokers in Birkenstocks.” So which is it?

Probably a little of both, but again, that has nothing to do with minyanim. Lurie (and perhaps Arnett, Brooks, et al.) are conflating multiple factors that need not go together. To be sure, the growing population of childless young adults does much to enable urban minyanim such as Kehilat Hadar (and not the other way around); because they’re not raising children, they can afford to live in neighborhoods such as the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and have the time to contribute volunteer energy to creating and sustaining minyanim. But that has nothing to do with “messing around and ‘figuring out their lives’”, or “postponing … responsibilities”. Many of these childless young adults are employed in “responsible” jobs.

It seems that Lurie wants to attack various full-time year-long programs run by the Jewish community as enabling a prolonged “odyssey”, but if so, she’s going after the wrong target: most independent minyanim meet on Shabbat, when even most employed people have the day off, so participating in an independent minyan (unlike, say, spending a year learning in Israel) doesn’t postpone anything.
Certainly, in opting out of synagogue life, most young Jews become unaccustomed to supporting Jewish institutions financially.
This is true, but “most young Jews” aren’t involved with independent minyanim either. Among those who are, they do become accustomed to supporting their communities financially. And unlike synagogue members, who pay membership dues in exchange for perceived benefits (like paying for a gym membership), most newer independent minyanim don’t have formal membership, and therefore independent minyan participants who donate to their minyan do so without the expectation of getting anything directly in return; they do it because they know the community needs their support.
In a faith that initiates its 12- and 13-year-olds into adult responsibility, the concept of thirty-year-olds as “emerging adults” should be, at the least, suspicious.
For sure. But independent minyanim may be the sector of Jewish life that treats thirty-year-olds least like “emerging adults” and most like (adjective-free) adults, with adult responsibilities. Unlike conventional synagogues that run “20s and 30s groups” that are extensions of the youth group, and unlike Federations with their “Young Leadership Divisions”, independent minyanim are places where adults of any age can take full responsibility for running the community, without being marginalized as “young people”. Far from being slackers, the 20somethings who start minyanim are taking action when they don’t even have to.
Now that independent minyanim have been through several crop cycles, it is reasonable to speculate about their future. “When people ask what will happen to the minyan as it ages, my experience suggests that it simply won’t [age],” writes Kaunfer. “Most people past their mid-thirties leave the urban area, and a new crop of college graduates moves in . . . The institution itself is actually quite stable, because it caters to a demographic that is constantly replenishing itself.”
This quote from Kaunfer isn’t about the future of independent minyanim in general. When he says “the minyan”, he’s not talking about an abstract minyan, but rather, a specific minyan: Kehilat Hadar. And this model of dynamic equilibrium has proven to be correct for the Upper West Side. It’s not correct everywhere, but he’s not claiming that it is. Kaunfer has listed a number of other possibilities.
Pretty soon, those who stay will need Hebrew school, they will need bar/bat mitzvah training, and before you can say egalitarianism, bang, they’re a shul.
And here we have the framing of independent minyanim as rumspringa (a classic move by Jewish establishment types who want to avoid feeling threatened): these responsibility-free young adults are running wild now, but once they have children, the clock will strike midnight and poof! what they’re looking for in a Jewish community will revert back to what their parents’ communities do. Then they’ll uncritically accept–nay, “need”–the institutions of Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvah just the way they are. There’s no chance that they’ll embrace new models of Jewish education just as they embraced new models of prayer communities, and there’s certainly no chance that anyone has done this before and emerged unscathed (oh wait, see above, about Fabrangen’s 40th anniversary).
The Havurah movement had a necessarily different relationship to institutions (part of their function, in the early years, was to earn 4D draft exemptions for those participants who were studying for ordination), but even they could not resist the institutional pull: in 1979, the National Havurah Committee was founded.
It was Havurat Shalom (a specific havurah) that was set up as a seminary to earn draft exemptions, not “the Havurah movement” (whatever that means). And I have no idea what the NHC example is supposed to prove, or what Lurie thinks the NHC is. The National Havurah Committee is an organization with one not-quite-full-time staff member, one summer intern, and a whole lot of volunteers, and it provides resources, events, and networks for anyone interested. Unlike a denomination, the NHC has no affiliated congregations. The hundreds of havurot and minyanim across the country have become no more “institutional” due to the NHC’s presence than they would be without it.
There are, however, ragged edges to these commitments. Most minyanim that stress prayer over other forms of Jewish communal life do not meet weekly (Hadar is now an exception). To one parent of a minyan-goer, this signals the unseriousness and “lack of commitment of a generation—they can’t even commit to coming to shul every week.”
Are you for REAL? Here’s a simple exercise: take a Reform or Conservative shul, and count how many people are there on the high holidays. Then count how many people are there on an average Shabbat. Then calculate the ratio of these two numbers. Next, do the same calculation for an independent minyan (that does high holiday services). Not even the same order of magnitude! If the average minyan-goer shows up every two weeks or so (i.e. every time the minyan meets), that is FAR more frequent than the average synagogue member. (And that doesn’t account for cities with multiple alternating minyanim, where many people go SOMEWHERE every week even if it’s not the same place.)
In what is perhaps the most disturbing result of this antiauthoritarian impulse, independent minyanim have encouraged the growth of communities without rabbis, and sometimes without anyone above the threshold of don’t-trust-anyone-over x (adjusted for my generation’s protracted youth).
Communities without rabbis (in the sense of a job description, not a professional degree), yes. Age thresholds, no. Yes ,there are many independent minyanim with populations mostly in the 22-40 range, but none of these minyanim explicitly encourage that homogeneity (unlike “20s and 30s programs” from the established Jewish community, which do). There are various reasons (some of which Kaunfer explores in his book) why people above a certain age are less likely to be found in these communities, but anyone who wanted to be there would be welcome.
Where, finally, do the minyanim stand in the rough spectrum of practicing American Judaism?
“The minyanim” are not the Borg. They really are independent — of the denominations and of each other. If there is a “spectrum”, then there are independent minyanim in many places on it (and off it).
Hadar and other communities are to be praised for appealing to the Orthodox, which the havurot never managed to do.
Why is appealing to “the Orthodox” more praiseworthy than appealing to anyone else? And who are “the Orthodox”? Obviously, most Orthodox-identified people wouldn’t daven somewhere like Hadar.
Certainly the right wing of Hadar is left-wing Orthodox in observance.
“Certainly”? Who is “the right wing of Hadar”, and what does “left-wing Orthodox in observance” mean? The only part of this sentence that I understand is “is”.

Trying to place these minyanim on conventional left-right spectra is a fool’s errand. There are people who are dumbfounded that Hadar does same-sex aufrufs and full Torah reading, but that’s only a contradiction if you start with faulty assumptions.
But still: Kaunfer is a dyed-in-the-wool, Cradle Conservative Jew, as are 46 percent of all independent-minyan-goers.
The actual statistic from the 2007 Spiritual Communities Study is that 46% of independent minyan goers were raised identifying as Conservative — no mention of how many of them were “dyed-in-the-wool”. And 46% is still less than half, so we can conclude that the majority of independent minyan goers were not raised in the Conservative movement. In comparison (from the NJPS data presented in the same report), 35% of synagogue members identify as Conservative, so the independent minyan population is not dramatically different from the synagogue population in this regard.
If the independent-minyan movement is, at heart, a Conservative critique of Conservative synagogue life, does it not follow that the phenomenon is much less expansive, and less important, than is claimed?
If the independent-minyan movement is, at heart, a front for the Mexican drug cartels, does it not follow that they should face federal prosecution?
If my grandmother has wheels, does it not follow that she is a streetcar?

Even I could do a better job arguing the case for “independent minyanim are really Conservative deep down”, and I don’t even believe that position! Making this claim based on a few leaders (who started one independent minyan, not “the independent-minyan movement [sic]“) and less than half of the overall independent minyan population is pretty weak.
Furthermore, the innovations of independent minyanim are fully compatible with Conservative Judaism itself.
They’re also fully compatible with the phlogiston theory, bimetallism, and plate tectonics. Nu?
Conservative synagogues would like nothing more than to welcome independent minyanim, and their young members, into the fold.
Especially if their young “members [sic]” will provide warm bodies to maintain the status quo at those synagogues.
But the minyan movement has taken on a life of its own, abandoning rather than revitalizing the Conservative world.
Except for the majority of independent minyan participants who couldn’t abandon the Conservative world, because they were never in it to begin with.
Such a non-normative concept of halakha is empowering mostly in the sense that it empowers people to think that they are keeping halakha whether or not they really are.
I carry around Beg The Question cards, to promote the proper use of the expression “to beg the question”, but then I often find myself at a loss when trying to think of correct examples of “begging the question”. But thanks to this sentence, now I have one.

To spell it out: Lurie’s critique of this approach to halakha (in which there is not “a simple yes-or-no answer”, but there is support for either conclusion) relies on the predicate “whether or not they really are [keeping halakha]” having a well-defined objective truth value. That is, showing that this approach to halakha is invalid relies on the basic assumption that this approach to halakha is invalid.


  1. It's no surprise that she writes for the most conservative and rehashed of Jewish sites - Jewish Ideas Daily.

  2. 1. @DafKesher: Jewish Ideas Daily is primarily an AGGREGATOR. Of course it has content from other sites. If it didn't, it wouldn't be an aggregator.

    2. @Bz: How do I know that Mechon Hadar doesn't take some of its community money and spend it on the minyan? I am not accusing anyone of anything. I am just pointing out that, in other organizations, it has happened. Lurie still should have done more research, but you are right that the Hadar brand is more trouble than it is worth.

  3. Mechon Hadar and Kehilat Hadar are separate organizations, with separate budgets. Kehilat Hadar lists its sources of income on its website. Any payment from Mechon Hadar to Kehilat Hadar would be outside income from Kehilat Hadar's perspective. So unless Kehilat Hadar is lying about the sources of its income (and Elie Kaunfer is lying to the Jerusalem Post), this isn't happening.

  4. Good enough, Bz, but I am not sure that, rhetorically speaking, you should use the Jerusalem Post as your paragon of journalistic integrity.

  5. I certainly don't, but in this case they printed his letter verbatim.

  6. The only comment I have on this well written piece has to do with numbers. From the Natinal Spiritual Communities Survey report, page 16 of the PDF, the affiliation section. When it talks about independent minyanim:
    46% identified as conservative growing up. 37% currently do
    20% identified as orthodox growing up. 15% currently do
    18% identified as reform growing up. 3% currently do
    12% had no denomination growing up. 45% are currently not identifying with any
    4% were not previously Jewish.
    So, where does that leave us?
    What I would say is that the independent minyanim attract a disproportionate number of conservative Jews. Also, the founders and leaders of these minyanim, in my own experience, are disproportionately from a conservative background. Finally, the practices are often heavily influenced by conservative Judaism, or at least by things that attract observant knowledgeable conservative Jews. Just about every conservative jew who I know living on the Upper West Side is a Hadar regular, for example. They go to other places as well, but Hadar is something they all have in common.
    The second number to me is the most interesting - sure, there are clearly a group who grew up conservative, attend the independent minyanim, and now do not identify with any denomination. But there are still 37% who voluntarily identify as conservative. As a leader in a conservative synagogue I have to admit, I like that number a lot.
    Another thing - in my parents Shul in Teaneck, NJ, Hadar has had a real positive effect. Hadar style davening is the primary influence on the synagogue's bi weekly Koleinu minyan and the existence of the minyan has brought some Hadar members in to the Shul when they decided to move out to the 'burbs.
    I think institutional Judaism needs to be shaken up every few decades. Sure, the independent minyanim are not Havurah, nor should they be! But, just like Havurah, the benefits of their existence to the rest of North American Judaism will far outweigh their numbers.

  7. Eitan writes:
    12% had no denomination growing up. 45% are currently not identifying with any

    Just a clarification: the 12% and 45% are "Other Jewish", which is an aggregation of all the categories apart from the Big Three denominations and Not Jewish. So this includes non-denominational, Just Jewish, etc., as well as other denominations such as Reconstructionist.

    What I would say is that the independent minyanim attract a disproportionate number of conservative Jews.

    Disproportionate, yes, but not massively so. According to the survey, independent minyan respondents were raised 46%-20%-18% Conservative-Orthodox-Reform, compared with 35%-26%-19% for synagogue members. Not a huge difference.

    Also, the founders and leaders of these minyanim, in my own experience, are disproportionately from a conservative background.

    I don't know what minyanim are part of your experience, but if your experience is primarily with trad-egal minyanim, there may be a sample bias. There are many flavors of independent minyanim.

    Just about every conservative jew who I know living on the Upper West Side is a Hadar regular, for example.

    Are you defining Conservative as raised, currently identified, or something else?

    The second number to me is the most interesting - sure, there are clearly a group who grew up conservative, attend the independent minyanim, and now do not identify with any denomination. But there are still 37% who voluntarily identify as conservative.

    I wouldn't assume that the 37% who identify as Conservative are a proper subset of the 46% who were raised Conservative. (We don't have the crosstabs to confirm one way or the other.) I discussed this in this post when the survey results came out.

    Sure, the independent minyanim are not Havurah, nor should they be!

    What do you mean by "the independent minyanim", "Havurah", and "not Havurah"?

    If you're drawing a distinction between independent grassroots Jewish communities founded during different eras (where "the independent minyanim" = the newer ones, and "Havurah" = the older ones), then yes, very broadly speaking, there are generational differences, but there are also similarities, and (as I have discussed here and elsewhere) the differences are not always sharp.

    If by "Havurah" (with a capital H), you mean the National Havurah Committee, then this is not correct either -- there is very significant overlap between people involved in the newer independent minyanim and people involved in the NHC (and a number of minyanim founded in the last 10 years have been directly catalyzed by the NHC network).