Thursday, December 20, 2007

Nobody's business but the Turks: 1

We were in Istanbul for the 2nd through 6th nights of Chanukah, and due to various distractions in both the real world and the blogosphere, I'm just getting around to blogging about it now. Some quick takes to get started, and a longer post (here and on Jewschool) about Turkish Shabbat coming later.

  • This series of books looked strangely familiar...

Yes, it's the Choose Your Own Adventure series! That's The Cave of Time on the right (or, as any English and Hebrew speaker knows, The Tunnel of זמן). And who could forget Who Killed Harlow Thrombey? ?

  • This year is Rumi's 800th birthday, and lots of commemorations have been happening in Turkey and around the world, including this whirling dervish performance which we saw at the main Istanbul train station, once the terminus of the Orient Express (which, we were surprised to learn, never actually went to "the Orient" - it didn't even leave Europe!).

EAR will post at some point about the spiritual side of the whirling ceremony, but in the meantime I want to focus on the physics. I was very impressed that the dervishes' angular velocity is completely constant. Even though spinning around is made up of a series of discrete steps -- move one foot, then the other foot, then the first foot again, and so on -- they made it look like it was continuous, as if they were standing on a rotating platform. You don't notice that they aren't unless you look at their feet (since the rest of their legs are hidden under the robes). This must seriously take practice. And they only whirl to the left - I was waiting for someone to call "SWITCH!" in the middle, but that never happened. The dervishes are also much younger than one might have expected.

  • Pulp Fiction be damned - in Turkey, they have a Quarter Pounder and a McRoyal! Perhaps this represents Turkey's dual status, perched between Europe and the Middle East. (No, I can't tell you anything about the food itself at McDonald's - we only went in to use the restroom, or tuvalet.)

  • Thoughts inspired by visiting the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, home to lots of really old stuff: In a final peace agreement, the Temple Mount shouldn't be under the control of Israel or the Palestinians. Leave the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Kotel (i.e. the actual wall), and turn the rest over to disinterested archaeologists (perhaps from Scandinavia), and dig the whole thing up. I bet there's some really cool stuff under there.
  • Does anyone know what the number means?

This is in Taksim Square, but reminiscent of the clock in Union Square. The URL in the picture is of no assistance to those of us who don't speak Turkish.

  • Ok, I'm sorry, but this has to be fake:

That's the Obelisk of Thutmosis III in the foreground, with the Blue Mosque in the background. But come on. If the obelisk has been outside for 3500 years, how is it still so smooth? Shouldn't have somehow eroded? Are there any conspiracy theories about any sort of funny business?

  • In the airport bathroom:

  • Christianity and Islam have had some difficult relations for the last millennium or so, but this snapshot from the Grand Bazaar shows that capitalism heals all wounds:

You might recognize the guy on the left. The one on the right is Muhammad. (First-year Arabic is already paying off!) Before you point out that it doesn't look like him, recall from recent events that there are some issues with visual depictions of Muhammad.

Similarly, meet Mary and Allah:

  • At first, we thought this mosque had once been a synagogue:

(Aside: Note the stores on the street level. You don't see that so much with places of worship in the US.)

Later we figured out that the six-pointed star is a common motif in Ottoman Turkish art:

These pictures are from the Topkapı Palace, seat of the Ottoman sultans.
  • Yes, that was a lowercase dotless I. In English and most languages that use the Latin alphabet, lowercase i has a dot and capital I doesn't. In Turkish, dotted i and dotless I are two different letters, each having its own capital and lowercase form! Crazy! As a result, while waiting for the flight home, I amused myself endlessly while watching the LED display switch back and forth between English and Turkish -- that is, between "TEL AVIV" and "TEL AVİV". Dot goes on, dot goes off! Dot goes on, dot goes off!
  • More later.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

10 Tevet

(Crossposted to Jewschool)

II Kings 25:1-2 and Jeremiah 52:4-5:

In the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it, and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.

As I left my apartment this morning, I noticed that the weather in Jerusalem on 10 Tevet is rainy and very cold. (Not as cold as, say, the northern United States outdoors, but much colder indoors.) And I couldn’t help but wonder: What was Nebuchadnezzar thinking? Why pick this time of year to send his army to Jerusalem, where they’d have to build towers in the cold and rain? Everyone knows that military campaigns start in the spring. The besieged people inside were also presumably doing ok at that point, since they would have already harvested whatever they’d need for the winter. Indeed, according to Jeremiah 52:6, they didn’t run out of food until the summer (the fourth month is Tammuz). So what gives? Clearly, לצערנו, Nebuchadnezzar was successful in the end, but was this the most effective way of accomplishing his objective? Or is this the biblical narrative’s subtle way of indicating that the destruction of Jerusalem was divine punishment and not a mere human conquest, by showing that the destruction went ahead despite questionable tactics (cf. Elijah pouring water on the altar before it gets consumed by fire)? Any thoughts?

May this be the last year that the fast of Tevet is a day of mourning. (Since this is a sad day, I’m not going to amuse myself and about three of you by pointing out that, redemption or no redemption, 10 Tevet will in fact not occur in 2008.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

The results are in: Take III

(Crossposted to Jewschool)

Last week I posted some initial thoughts on the Spiritual Communities Study survey results, and then ZT posted a second round. Since then, they’ve made some revisions to the report, incorporating suggestions from us and other bloggers, so the squeaky wheel has gotten the grease. As crazy as it sounds, I’m now posting a third round of commentary on the survey.

As Desh has pointed out, these results should silence those who claim that independent minyan participants are motivated by selfishness and narcissism, in contrast with conventional synagogues and their participants who are committed to the broader community. In addition to the data that Desh cites, the results show that independent minyan participants have higher “yes” rates than synagogue members on the questions “I have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people” and “I have a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world”. (The report didn’t list the results for the question “I have a Jewish responsibility to care for people in trouble (as with Darfur or Katrina)”, which would also be interesting to see.) Moreover, though there are no comparable numbers for synagogue members, the survey also shows that 95% of independent minyan participants have been invited to a Shabbat meal by someone in their community in the last year, and 86% have invited others. These results come within a few days of another study showing that people are leaving conventional congregations because this sense of community is missing. (Of course, this isn’t true of all synagogues. Kol hakavod to any community of whatever structure whose participants are committed to each other and to the larger world.)

Next, another word on the Reform stuff. I’m particularly interested in this, as someone who definitely marked “Reform” for the first question (in which denomination were you raised?) and probably was among the 3% who marked “Reform” for the second question (what do you consider yourself now?) but I’m not certain. I’m not connected to any Reform-affiliated institutions, but I still think of myself as a Reform expat; the synagogue I don’t go to is Reform. But the fact that I’m not certain highlights the fact that the answer to this second question doesn’t necessarily have any direct real-world manifestations (i.e. affiliations, behaviors, etc.) and is all in the respondent’s head (and might not be in the respondent’s head very often except when s/he is answering surveys like this). But the results are still very interesting and worthy of study. Pardon me if, in the next few paragraphs, I blur the lines between Reform Judaism (which can mean a number of things - ideology, aesthetics, etc.) and the Reform movement (a set of institutions), which I generally try to avoid, but this blurring is an essential aspect of the topic at hand (Reform self-identification). The same, of course, is true about Conservative Judaism (again, defined in a number of ways) and the Conservative movement. (This latter blurring leads at times to serious logical inconsistencies. The report (p. 4-5) says that Conservative leaders claim that independent minyanim are “Conservative congregations flying a Liberian flag”, presumably basing this claim on traits of the minyanim that they would identify as “Conservative”, and/or the fact that participants in the minyanim grew up in the Conservative movement. But the same Conservative leaders would claim that Conservative central institutions, such as the CJLS, have the authority to determine policies and halacha that Conservative congregations should aspire to. Does this include “Conservative congregations flying a Liberian flag”? If so, then they seem to be making the absurd claim that the CJLS (etc.) automatically has plenary jurisdiction over any Jewish community that davens in Hebrew without a mechitza (or whatever criteria they’re using) or has Ramah alumni among its participants, regardless of whether that community ever consented to this.)

In my last post, I wrote about people who grew up in a particular denomination and still consider themselves to be carrying out that denomination’s values even when they’re not affiliated with it or with something with superficial similarities to it. I admit that this is somewhat of an elite position that doesn’t necessarily reflect most people’s experiences. Would I still identify myself as “Reform” (based on background and ideology, but not institutional affiliation or aesthetics) if I weren’t a fifth-generation Reform Jew, a third-generation NFTY alum, and generally descended from Reform nobility? Less clear. Denominational self-identification (which, again, only really comes up for this crowd when we’re taking surveys) is based on a combination of many factors.

The numbers from the survey (p. 16) appear to suggest that the majority of people raised Reform now identify as something else (presumably “Other Jewish”, which has the largest gain), while the majority of people raised Conservative still identify as Conservative. But all we know is the numbers - we don’t know whether the people who identify as Conservative are the same people who were raised Conservative. However, this information is available in the raw data, so in the next report, I’d be interested in seeing these results further broken down — what percent of people raised x now identify as y, etc. In the absence of this additional information, I’m going to propose a hypothesis that might be confirmed or refuted when we see that data: perhaps there is a shift from Reform to Conservative, and from Conservative to Other Jewish.

A possible mechanism for these shifts: Suppose Reuven grew up in a Reform congregation, and Chana grew up in a Conservative congregation, and now they both participate in a (let’s say) “traditional egalitarian” independent minyan and like it better than what they grew up with. Reuven says “Huh. I like this minyan, with its all-Hebrew prayers, better than my family’s congregation, with its English responsive readings. I guess that means I’m Conservative.” Chana says “No way. I know the Conservative movement, and it doesn’t look anything like this. You can call me ‘Other Jewish’.”

(Reuven and Chana don’t represent everyone. There are certainly people who are Reform->Other Jewish, and for the numbers to make sense, there must still be some Conservative->Conservative. But perhaps they represent some people.)

One more question to consider: So why is it in the first place that plenty of independent minyanim are mistaken for Conservative, while there are few to no independent minyanim (of the type studied in this survey) accused of being “Reform congregations flying a Liberian flag”? I’ve already said that lots of independent minyanim represent Reform ideals of informed autonomy, but why aren’t there more independent minyanim that display superficial traits commonly associated with “Reform” (in the same superficial way that Hebrew+egalitarian = “Conservative”, and thus Kol Haneshama “isn’t really Reform”)? (Or why is it that, as the report says on p. 18, “few emergent communities take a Reform-style approach”, except that I would limit “Reform-style” to these aesthetic elements.) Some might chalk this up to “increased interest in tradition”, whatever that means. I disagree. While this may be true of some minyanim, there are others whose participants and general communal outlooks are “progressive” on a number of axes, and still pray in a way that would be somewhat alien to the typical person coming from an exclusively Reform-affiliated background — generally involving an unchanging macroscopic liturgical structure, and prayers all in Hebrew. I think it has more to do with the participatory havurah ethic that characterizes many independent minyanim. The prayer leader is seen as truly a sheliach tzibbur (representative of the community), rather than as a top-down leader. Any of these “Reform” elements that are missing from independent minyanim — and I’m not talking about musical instruments or “Reform” melodies, which are used in some independent minyanim, but I’m talking about English readings and explanations of the prayers and changes in macroscopic liturgy from week to week — require top-down leadership in order to be implemented. Participants can’t simply daven on their own, since there’s no way to know what’s coming next until the leader says so. Thus, the use of a style sometimes characterized as “traditional” isn’t always motivated by “traditional” concerns, but may be motivated by a desire to maximize individual freedom and participation.

Yes, there are also Conservative congregations with heavy-handed top-down prayer leadership, with which independent minyan prayer has little in common. But there are also counterexamples in the Conservative movement, in Ramah and USY, which may be very different stylistically from most independent minyanim, but perhaps have a similar approach to the role of the sheliach tzibbur — similar enough that people aren’t as quick to characterize independent minyan prayer as “not Conservative” the way they characterize it as “not Reform”. Services at URJ camps and NFTY, though different from the typical Reform congregation, still require some degree of top-down leadership, even if it’s coming from a songleader or RCVP rather than a rabbi or cantor.

If the Reform movement is at all concerned about the fact that so many people who grew up in it are ceasing to identify as Reform, then as I’ve said before, the solution is to expand the horizons of what Reform prayer and Reform communities look like, and to create a vision of what a Reform community would look like if its participants were not dependent on top-down leadership.

So what about the “rabbi-led emergent communities”, which do have a rabbi, and tend to have more top-down prayer leadership? In those communities, it’s more likely that the style of prayer might be superficially recognizable as “Reform”. And indeed, more rabbi-led emergent participants (7%) identify as Reform than independent minyan participants (3%). But why is it still only 7%? This is in part because the communities happen to have other leanings — e.g., Kehilat Romemu (NYC) identifies itself with Jewish Renewal (”Other Jewish”), Kol Tsedek (Philly) is affiliated Reconstructionist (also “Other Jewish”), and Ikar (Los Angeles) is unaffilated but led by a Conservative-ordained rabbi. As the report says, “Most emergent community leaders see formal denominationalism as a barrier to entry and as connoting the types of congregations from which they seek to differentiate themselves.” (p. 17)

One more thing: for the record, I think it's dumb that denominational self-identification (for individuals and communities) is so tied to prayer, at the expense of all the other aspects of Judaism. (This is even more true of the border, or "mechitza" if you will, between Conservative and Orthodox identification.) But that's the way it is.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Now that it's legal again...

I can get back to insulting Turkishness.

Here goes. Turkishness sucks!

I'm back in Israel, so you can expect upcoming blog posts about Istanbul, and more about the survey.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The results are in

(Crossposted to Jewschool)

This will probably be the first of multiple posts about the Preliminary Findings from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study (by the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute and Mechon Hadar), since everyone has something to say about it. The JTA and Ha’aretz have already run stories summarizing the results, so I’m going to focus on color commentary here. For the play-by-play, I recommend going to the report itself.

The survey organizers have said that this report is just the beginning, and that more detailed analysis will be released later, including data about individual communities. This is good news, because even though this survey provides valuable information about a demographic that has not been studied quantitatively before, the value of lumping Kol Zimrah and Darkhei Noam together into the same pool is still limited. I eagerly await the fuller results, so that we can read about the diversity among independent minyanim, just as we have now had a chance to see how their populations differ from synagogue populations.

I was involved in publicizing the survey, as an organizer (at the time) of Kol Zimrah, and as a blogger on Jewschool and Mah Rabu. We weren’t thrilled with the survey when we first saw it, because a number of the questions reflected frames that are foreign to the communities being studied. This was in part to enable comparison of the results with the National Jewish Population Survey and other previous surveys, and in part simply because the survey authors were operating in those frames. Fortunately, the survey organizers made edits to the survey in response to feedback from concerned communities. The two most significant changes were: 1) The original draft of the survey required respondents to select only one primary community about which to answer the survey. The problem is that this doesn’t reflect the reality of these new communities, in which it is commonplace for people to participate in more than one. The survey organizers graciously added the capability to answer the survey about more than one community, despite the technological hurdles in making this possible, and the results show that this was the right thing to do: 66% of respondents involved with independent minyanim identified themselves as part of 2 or more communities. 2) The original draft had the choices for the movement self-identification question listed “in order”, from “Orthodox” to “Not Jewish”. This presents an obvious bias towards a frame that places all Jewish denominations on a linear spectrum from 1 to Orthodox, a frame that many of these new communities reject. Before the survey went out, the choices were rearranged into a more neutral ordering. Many thanks to the survey organizers for their flexibility! The final version of the survey wasn’t perfect, but is good enough to provide lots of valuable data.

So here we go.

The survey deals with what it calls “emergent sacred communities”, a term borrowed from the emerging church. I’m not going to address whether this term or categorization is accurate or appropriate, but perhaps other Jewschool contributors will.

These communities are divided into three categories: “independent minyanim”, “rabbi-led emergent communities”, and “alternative emergent communities”. As Desh points out, the third category might as well have been called “other”. It includes communities that don’t qualify as independent minyanim because they aren’t independent (because they’re sponsored by a synagogue; note to ZT: there’s a big difference between this and communities that have relationships with synagogues or whose participants once belonged to synagogues) and/or aren’t minyanim (because their primary activity isn’t prayer). I’m very glad to see that the report distinguished between independent minyanim and rabbi-led communities. Media coverage and the Jewish establishment have often conflated these into a single phenomenon, but the structures of the communities are significantly different, and as the survey shows, so are the participants. The report also makes a point of saying that the second category is led by “rabbis functioning as rabbis”. The word rabbi has two meanings — an honorific title signifying a level of educational achievement, and a job description — and when we confuse these meanings, a breakdown in communication ensues. Whether or not a community’s leadership includes the first type of rabbi is of no more significance to the community's definition ("rabbi-led" vs "lay-led", etc.) than whether the sheliach tzibbur has a Ph.D. or an actuarial license. However, it makes a big difference when the community includes a job description of “rabbi”, perhaps especially when the rabbi founded the community (as in many “rabbi-led emergent communities”) rather than being hired by a pre-existing community (as in many conventional synagogues). The report also notes that these three categories “all fall under the more general rubric of ‘emergent Jewish spiritual communities,’ which can also be extended to include conventional synagogues that have been transformed under the leadership of an emergent rabbi, a group that falls outside the purview of this report.” What is an “emergent rabbi”? Is “emergent” (as some have suggested) just a synonym for “cool”?

The introduction to the report heavily cites articles from the Spring 2007 issue of Zeek, which was devoted in part to independent minyanim. Since these articles were only in the print edition and not online, they have been deprived of the additional attention that they would receive from various Jewish online communities, but the footnotes to the report have alerted me to the fact that Mechon Hadar has made some of the articles available online. Perhaps when the dust clears from this survey report, some of those articles will be blogged in greater depth.

There’s a paragraph on page 4 whose content is interesting if you get past the inappropriate frames. It says “An important pattern which appears is one of religious traditionalism and social progressivism”. Unfortunate assumptions in this phrasing include 1) these “social” issues have nothing to do with religious values; 2) ritual practices that converge with “traditional” practices are undertaken for reasons of “traditionalism”. However, the specific examples in the paragraph are enlightening, and underscore the fact that the new independent communities don’t fit into the linear spectrum of “left” to “right” that many people in the establishment (including, apparently, the author of this paragraph) take for granted. The paragraph goes on to refer to “this decoupling of religious and social traditionalism”, but perhaps nothing is being “decoupled” at all — perhaps someone’s strict kashrut practices and his/her stance on the equality of all people regardless of gender and sexual orientation stem from the same religious value system. This paragraph demonstrates its bias more explicitly in the last sentence when it uses the language of “more observant” (a category that is presumed to be well-defined across different groups of Jews, and to exclude “social issues”). But again, if we hold our noses and look at the actual phenomena being described, this describes an important trend that may confound people from another generation (including the people in the Conservative movement who really thought that the people advocating LGBT equality are less fill-in-the-blank).

Page 5 says “From another quarter, former members of the chavurah movement of the 1960s and 1970s, will no doubt seek and perceive parallels with their own endeavors a generation and more ago. At the same time, leaders of emergent communities are just as likely to see and emphasize that which differentiates current efforts at Jewish spiritual community‐building from those that their parents’ generation initiated.” I’d be the first to point out that there are differences between the grassroots efforts of the 1960s and ’70s and those of today; I’m conscious of these differences all the time as a National Havurah Committee board member. But the fact that I’m in that position highlights that the first sentence in this paragraph is inaccurate and unnecessarily nasty. “Former members”? Certainly there are people who were involved in the chavurah movement a generation ago and have moved on, some of them to influential places in the Jewish establishment. (I hear that another Jewschool contributor is working on a “Where are they now?” feature.) But, as I wrote last week in connection with the New York Times article, “the chavurah movement” is not a thing of the past. Many of the chavurot founded in the ’60s and ’70s still exist, so these “former members” are in fact current members of those communities. The National Havurah Committee still exists, and (as the JTA has reported) has become a hub for networking among some of the new “independent minyanim”. So it’s not just the aging hippies who are seeing a fundamental similarity (despite the differences) between the new communities and the older ones; it’s the participants in the new “independent minyanim” themselves. I would go so far as to suggest that the “independent minyanim” in the study have more in common with the first-wave chavurot than with the “rabbi-led emergent communities” in the study.

Page 8 has a list of the 15 communities with the largest number of respondents in the survey. I’d be interested to know whether this is the total number of people who put each community down on their survey, or just the number who marked it as their “primary community”. Four communities on the list are in New York City, and there is overlap between all of them. (Four, not five. The Washington Square Minyan is actually in this Washington Square, not this one. Except that I heard that it’s not in that one either. I’ll let the Boston locals sort it out.) There’s no difference for the purposes of this preliminary report, but this will become relevant for future analyses that look at individual communities. I think it makes the most sense not to restrict it to people who identified something as their primary community, since that’s somewhat arbitrary. For instance, if someone goes to Hadar every time it meets (2-3 Saturdays a month) and to Kol Zimrah every time it meets (1 Friday a month), which do they identify as their primary community? It probably depends on who their social network is, and who they associate with outside of those 1-3 times a month, but they might in fact be fully involved in both communities.

Another interesting thing about this chart, noted on page 9, is that “[t]he only countable number of participants, and a very crude approximation of participant numbers, is found in the number of entries on these communities’ e‐mail lists.” (I’d be interested in seeing statistics on how many of the communities do and don’t have a formal category of “membership”.) Page 10 says that it is “impossible, at this point, to make an accurate estimate of the total number of people encompassed by these dozens of communities”, since many people who participate in the communities never join the email lists, and conversely, many people are on the email lists even though they don’t participate or don’t even live in the same city. (I make a point of being on the email list of every independent minyan in NYC (where I don’t even live this year, but I’ll be back there soon enough) and several in other cities too. As a result, I’m on the email lists of at least 15 independent Jewish communities. I wonder how much I singlehandedly skew the data. So it’s a good thing they didn’t try to draw any conclusions from these numbers!)

As Desh points out, the graph on page 11 (showing the number of “emergent communities” that existed in each year) is misleading — if “emergent communities” are defined as communities founded in 1996 or later, then of course the number is going to shoot up after 1996! Certainly independent Jewish communities have multiplied since 1996, but not by the factor that this graph suggests. It would be interesting to see such a graph going back to the ’60s, though I’m sure it would be much harder to gather that sort of data, in part because of all the communities that have ceased operation. (Side note: the JTA article uses the verb “fail” to describe such a cessation of operations. I think that verb represents an institutional mentality that is not shared by these grassroots communities. These communities aren’t trying to build something that will last forever; they’re trying to build something to meet a need at a particular time. Kol hakavod to those communities that have had the flexibility to shut down when it was time, rather than keeping things going longer than they should have. Cf. the recent discussion about Jews In The Woods. Were the Jewish communities of Sura and Pumbedita “failures”?) Desh says “There is some useful data in there, but it’s hidden in the second derivative.” I wouldn’t go quite that far - I think the first derivative is also useful, showing a steady growth in these communities by whatever definition.

If we look at the second derivative, we can see that the tipping point is right after 2001. My Urban Kvetch insinuates, and a December 2004 article in the Jewish Week says explicitly, that this is due to an interest in spirituality following 9/11. I disagree. The founding of Kehilat Hadar (in New York) and the teshuva that led to the founding of Shira Hadasha (in Jerusalem, thus not included in the survey, but relevant because of the many American communities patterned after it) were both in spring 2001, back when the Empire State Building was still just the third-tallest building in NYC. Both of these communities are perceived as flagships in their particular subgenres of minyanim, and though many of the factors for this explosion in new communities were already in place, the influence of these specific communities as successful proofs-of-concept lowered the barriers to the creation of other independent communities. This process was already chugging along before 9/11.

Page 12-13 shows that women outnumber men by 2 to 1 in the new communities, compared to nearly 50-50 in conventional congregations. An explanation for the latter is that synagogues are made up largely of heterosexual couples (which are 50-50 by definition) and children (50-50 because they have no choice about whether to be members, so they’re randomized). Since independent communities have large numbers of unattached individuals, this explains why their ratios don’t have the same reasons for being 50-50, and could potentially be anything. However, I haven’t yet seen a satisfactory explanation of why they are skewed so much in this particular direction (a trend that has already been noted anecdotally). Any thoughts?

Page 13-14 shows the demographics that we all know: independent minyanim have more young adults and unmarried people than synagogues.

The title of the chart on page 15 (”Shifts in Denominational Affiliation”) is highly misleading. The survey question asked “Regarding Jewish religious denominations, in which of the following were you raised, and what do you consider yourself now?”. The first question is indeed asking about denominational affiliation, but the second is asking about self-identification. Insofar as people affiliate only with these “emergent communities”, their current denominational affiliation is… nothing at all! The heading on page 16 (”very few are Reform”) is similarly misleading — what does “are” really mean?

Now let’s look at the data. As the report points out on page 14, the breakdown of what denominations independent minyan participants grew up in is essentially the same as the breakdown for synagogue members in the NJPS. Unsurprisingly, among all the groups of “emergent communities”, there is a massive shift away from denominational self-identification and toward identification as “other Jewish”. A surprising result is that, among independent minyan participants, Reform self-identification drops from 18% raised to 3% current, with a much smaller drop in Conservative self-identification. I disagree with the report’s suggestion (p. 17) that there is a “basic incompatibility between Reform identity and emergent participants’ Jewish identity”. I would argue that many independent communities actualize the Reform movement’s professed ideals of informed autonomy much more effectively than do most Reform-affiliated congregations. The problem is that the “Reform” label has been affixed to a particular set of styles which are strongly associated with top-down synagogue worship and thus in opposition to what grassroots communities do, rather than to an aspiration that can be realized in a fully informed and participatory community. And as I have written before, the leaders of the Reform movement are complicit in this.

Suppose someone grows up in the Conservative movement, internalizes its values, and then joins an independent minyan that s/he feels best actualizes those values (perhaps better than a Conservative-affiliated synagogue). Then the vibe s/he gets from the Conservative movement is that this independent minyan is really Conservative deep down and why won’t they admit it, thus s/he is still living a Conservative Jewish life, just in a different framework. (This view about independent minyanim, which has been stated by Conservative leaders in various public forums, is inaccurate for a number of reasons, including 1) Conservative Jewish identity is tied to institutions, with which these minyanim are not affiliated, 2) this ignores the many other participants in the minyanim who have different perspectives and are there for different reasons, etc. etc., but that’s not relevant here; what is relevant is that these people can see that, justifiably or not, the Conservative movement is leaving the light on for them.) In contrast, suppose someone else grows up in the Reform movement, internalizes its values, and then joins an independent minyan that s/he feels best actualizes those values (perhaps better than a Reform-affiliated synagogue). Then the vibe s/he gets from the Reform movement is that s/he has left the fold. I mean, the whole service is in Hebrew, for crying out loud! Many in the Reform movement would see independent minyanim as something thoroughly alien to Reform, rather than as a vision of what Reform communities could look like if their participants were more informed and autonomous. So it’s no wonder that the independent minyan participants start to see their own Jewish identity as something other than Reform. I hope that Reform leaders are looking carefully at this survey and thinking about its consequences.

The data on p. 19 shows that independent minyan participants attend services more often than synagogue members. But this may actually be understated, due to a problematic question. The report shows how many people attend services more than once a month, and how many people attend services in their community more than once a month. The problem: some of these communities only meet once a month! So a respondent might attend a particular minyan every single time it meets and still be placed in the “no” category for this question. When the detailed analysis comes out with information about specific communities, I hope that the frequency of the communities’ services is taken into account when analyzing the frequency of participants’ attendance.

Page 21 shows data about Jewish educational background. Discussions of independent minyanim in the press and elsewhere often emphasize day school backgrounds, but I must say that this doesn’t seem to be supported by the data. Yes, independent minyan participants attended day school at higher rates than synagogue members, but the same is true for all of the other educational contexts in the survey. The data shows that 40% of independent minyan participants attended Jewish day school for elementary school and 29% for high school, which, last I checked, is still a minority. In contrast, significant majorities participated in Jewish youth groups, Jewish camps, and Hillel or other college organizations, compared with minorities of synagogue members for all of these, so it would seem that these have had a greater impact on independent minyanim and their participants. I’ll freely admit that my skepticism about the day school claims is motivated by a pro-public-school agenda, and I ask that anyone analyzing the data with a pro-day-school agenda admit that as well.

Also in the chart on p.21, with analysis on p.22, there is discussion about those who have “participated on a program in Israel lasting four months or more”. That’s not what the survey asks at all. The actual question was “Since graduating high school, have you spent 4 months or more at one time in Israel?”, and doesn’t say anything about a program. I write this as someone who answered “yes” to this question, but would have said “no” if it had asked about a program. Now anecdotally, based on my experience as a member of the American independent minyan demographic living temporarily in Israel, I would conjecture that there wouldn’t be a huge difference between the results of these two questions (that is, when I was in Israel outside of an organized program, I felt like an outlier). But if we’re going to draw conclusions based on anecdotal conjectures, then what’s the point of having a quantitative survey?

I’ll leave the discussion about marriage and dating to someone else.

Page 28 shows that participants in the new communities are less likely than synagogue members to say that they always feel proud about Israel. Given that a far higher number of independent minyan participants have been to Israel (p.22) or plan to visit in the next 3 years (p. 28), I would conclude that this means that they have a more mature relationship with Israel. It’s easy to feel proud of Israel all the time when you’re sitting in the US; it’s much harder when you’re actually there.

I was shocked by the result on p. 30 that independent minyan participants give to UJA-Federation at the same rate as synagogue members. Given that the question was phrased “In 2006, did you or anyone in your household make a financial contribution to a UJA-Federation campaign?”, I wonder if some of this was due to confusion about the question — perhaps some single 20something independent minyan participants saw “household” and reflexively thought of their parents.

Page 34 shows that a relatively small number of people said social justice was a reason for their participating in these communities. We should not infer from this that participants in these communities aren’t interested in social justice, but merely that this isn’t an organizational focus. These communities operate within a more a-la-carte understanding of Jewish community, and don’t attempt to cover all elements of Jewish life. Therefore it’s quite possible that the survey respondents are committed to social justice through other venues, but the survey didn’t ask about this.

So that’s just a first look at the survey results. Despite these minor criticisms (which are offered in a constructive spirit), the survey really is an amazing piece of research, which reaches over 1000 participants in 58 communities in 28 states. Many thanks to the survey organizers (Steven M. Cohen, J. Shawn Landres, Elie Kaunfer, and Michelle Shain) for all their work in shedding light on an important and growing Jewish meta-community.

There's more to come from other Jewschool contributors in the next few days. What are your thoughts?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Independent minyanim in the NYT: Blog roundup

Wherever would we be without Technorati? Since the independent minyan article appeared in last Wednesday's New York Times, lots of bloggers have weighed in about it, and I'm collecting some of the interesting ones here. I wrote a commentary here on Mah Rabu, and there has been an active comment thread at Jewschool. Post links to others if you have them!

Jewish Blogs:
  • Jeremy Burton at JSpot writes about independent minyanim in general and his own experiences at Darkhei Noam.
  • David at JewsByChoice.Org: "The Rabbinic tradition, which codified and preserved Judaism through centuries of Diaspora, has also helped calcify it into a carbuncle of a tradition, sealed in a dry and didactic anal retentiveness, with the result that the rabbinate has become both creator and guardian of an increasingly arcane and divisive form of spiritual practice."
  • On the Far Side compares us to "hilltop youth".
  • Andy Bachman: "This is a Lay Led movement in its own right that we should sit up and pay attention to because it is one of the most serious manifestations of the religious future that we can fathom."
  • Divrei Chaim assumes that everyone is Orthodox in the state of nature and says: "2800 people are not leaving the derech because they cannot square the age of the universe with braishis or because they cannot see how torah m'sinai fits the documentary hypothesis - they are leaving because established religion, Orthodoxy included, has proven itself spiritually irrelevant to their lives. That is a thought that should scare us."
  • Faithhacker: "I just want to emphasize that you don’t have to live in NY, LA or Chicago to be a part of a strong and innovative Jewish community."
  • The article launches a dialogue at Yiducation.
  • The Lilith Blog: "Rather than forsaking Judaism because of their distaste for tradiitonal Jewish institutions, young people are inventing new institutions that make Judaism fun and meaningful, in ways that fit with their lifestyles and value systems. Jewish life is hardly dead in their hands, but the kind of Jewish life that divides us as one people could be."
  • Temple Board Authority talks about what this means for established synagogues. "I happen not to think that these minyanim represent a threat. They do represent something of a failure, but at the same time, they signify that the generation that has been lost to the synagogue has not been lost to Judaism."

Christian Blogs:

  • Musings of a Jaded Optimist and Second Drafts are surprised to discover parallels to Christian "emergent churches".
  • Boy in the Bands would like to see more parallels in the Christian world.
  • Christian Research Net says we're part of "Satan's market", with an "'I want what I want and I want it now' approach to God". Likewise, Blogged Down World asks questions like "Is worship more about what I want or more about what God demands bibilically speaking?" This line of argument represents a fundamental misunderstanding of Judaism. Unlike Christianity, we don't have a doctrine of apostolic succession. We may have a concept of Knesset Yisrael, but not of The Church. As a result, established Jewish institutions might attempt to justify themselves (and delegitimize grassroots efforts) sociologically, but none would dare attempt to do so theologically. I.e., they might claim to be better for the Jews, but not closer to God. (And the streams of Judaism where they'd be most likely to attempt that claim are the very same streams whose adherents are most likely to organize a pickup mincha minyan in an airport baggage claim.)
Post more as you find them! Tomorrow's project: blogging about the survey results.