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.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Fox in socks

ALG and I have completed our study of Masechet Makkot. Stay tuned for a formal siyyum in late July or August.

To calculate when I'll be finished with Sha"s at this rate:

  • Berachot, chapter 1 (1999-2000, with JER): 11 dapim
  • Berachot, chapter 2 (2000, with JER): 5 dapim
  • Berachot, chapter 4 (2004-05, remotely with EAR): 5 dapim
  • Berachot, chapter 7 (2000-01, with EAKO): 7 dapim
  • Berachot, chapter 8 (2004, with EAR): 2 dapim
  • Sukkah (2002-04, with MR): 55 dapim
  • Rosh Hashanah (2004-05, with MAK): 34 dapim
  • Megillah (2005-06, with MAK): 31 dapim
  • Sanhedrin, chapter 8 (2000-01, in RSH's class): 7 dapim
  • Makkot (2005-07, with ALG): 23 dapim
Total: about 180 dapim in a little under 8 years. Let's call it 90 months, or 2 dapim per month. There are 2711 dapim in the whole Talmud Bavli, so at this rate I should take about 113 years to finish the whole thing. Everyone's invited to the siyyum in the year 2112!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Stand up and be counted

Independent minyanim/havurot/communities have been transforming American Judaism for 40 years, but there has been a particularly significant wave in the last few years, with new communities starting (it seems) every few weeks. There has not yet been a systematic study of the population of these independent Jewish communities, to gather data about who we are and what our values and concerns are. Mechon Hadar and the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute are now conducting such a survey, designed by sociologist Steven M. Cohen. You can participate in the survey at www.communitysurvey.info and share information about yourself and your community.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Dates announced: Mah Rabu farewell tour

In about 3 months, I'll be on a plane to Israel! In the meantime, I'll be based in New York City and making a farewell tour around the eastern United States. The dates below are the minimum time I'll be in those places; most of these stays can be extended in either direction (since I'm not working after June 27). Drop me a line if you'll be in any of these cities on or around any of these dates and want to hang out.

  • [Dates TBA]: Pittsburgh
  • June 29 - July 1: Baltimore
  • July 13-14: Washington DC
  • July 20-21: Boston
  • August 6-12: Rindge NH
  • August 17-19: Chicago