Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Independent minyanim: the book

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

I’ve had the opportunity to lead rocking musical services in a number of great communities (such as Kol Zimrah, NHC, Limmud NY), and been asked “Can you come to my community and lead a service like that?”. And the answer, of course, is no, I can’t. What made that service awesome wasn’t anything that I did; it was the participation of the whole community, which isn’t something that one individual can just parachute into an existing community and create. Then there are other people who get that one person can’t do it alone, and instead suggest “If a bunch of you come to my community and sing loud, then maybe services will be better.” Sometimes this works to one degree or another, but sometimes this, too, fails miserably, because even bringing in a group of enthusiastic people to an existing structure can’t always overcome other entrenched factors.

Both in the specific case of prayer and in the more general case of building meaningful Jewish community, it’s not enough to have a leader, and not enough to have a group of committed participants. The answer is both more difficult (since it’s not as simple as hiring a new rabbi or “bringing in more young people” or whoever the target group is) and more accessible (since it’s about what the community does, not about who does it, so it’s available to any community that is truly committed to it). If a Jewish community is interested in beginning the process of self-examination and transformation to become fully empowered (both in prayer and in other aspects of Jewish life), I recommend starting by reading Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s new book, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010).

Empowered Judaism is a book about the newest wave of independent minyanim, as well as about a larger vision for Judaism and Jewish community. It offers something to many different constituencies: independent minyan organizers seeking to read about best practices from other minyanim, people in other Jewish communities who want to learn what these minyanim are all about and how to incorporate successful elements into their own communities, and future historians of this period in American Jewish history who want something more in-depth about the early 21st-century independent minyan phenomenon than the many superficial articles that have appeared in the press.

Rabbi Kaunfer is a founder of Kehilat Hadar, Mechon Hadar, and Yeshivat Hadar, and shares his personal story in the introduction. This story adds valuable insight to the book: though Kaunfer went to Jewish day school, Hillel, etc. (scoring 100 on the Cohen scale), he also had a period of being entirely disconnected from Jewish community. Saul Alinsky said that there are no permanent enemies and no permanent allies, and likewise, the organized Jewish community would do well to remember that there are no permanent uninvolved Jews and no permanent involved Jews. They seem to be already aware that uninvolved Jews can become involved, and attempt (with varying success) to make this happen, but often assume incorrectly that involved Jews are here to stay under all conditions (and therefore aren’t an effective use of resources), when the truth is that even an Elie Kaunfer can slip away from Jewish communal life when failing to find a meaningful community (and I know this could have happened to me too if I hadn’t found and founded the right communities at the right time), and can’t be taken for granted. Another significant recurring character in the story is God, who is credited in the acknowledgements as “the source of all real empowerment, inspiration, and vision”. God rarely shows up in the big conversations about the independent minyan phenomenon, which tend to focus on communities and institutions and demographics and the mechanics of prayer (all of which are important topics), so it’s also important to have this reminder of that which is le’eila min kol birchata ve-shirata [above all blessings and songs].

The book also includes a firsthand history of the founding and early years of Kehilat Hadar, the Manhattan community that may be the most high-profile of the new independent minyanim. I was a regular participant in Hadar for 6 of the almost 9 years it has been in existence, and was present at a number of specific services and events mentioned in the book, but still learned a lot about the behind-the-scenes details that I wasn’t aware of at the time.

Hadar has always been many things to many people. When I first got to Hadar in 2002, I found a number of people there with whom I had gone to college; we had davened at 3 separate minyanim during college, and now we were all davening at Hadar. Contrary to media accounts that paint independent minyanim as homogeneous communities of “like-minded” people, my experience of Hadar was always that it was a Jewishly diverse group, with no universal common thread linking all of our Jewish ideologies and practices except the fact that we all liked Hadar. And we weren’t even all there for the same reason; like the midrash about the manna, we all saw in Hadar what we wanted to see, even seeing seemingly contradictory things. So you have people who appreciate that Hadar doesn’t identify itself with any denominational labels, people who identify as “observant Conservative” and see Hadar as a manifestation of that outlook, people who want an egalitarian service that feels “Orthodox”, people who appreciate that Hadar spends time on the prayers rather than zipping through, people who appreciate that Hadar keeps the service moving rather than plodding along, people who want full liturgy whether or not there’s good singing, people who want good singing whether or not there’s full liturgy, people who refer to going to Hadar as “going to shul”, people who appreciate that Hadar isn’t a shul, people who want a community with other people their age, people who want a community with a wider age range than they usually socialize with (what percentage of American 22-year-olds have friends in their 30s, or vice versa?), people who are there to meet other single people, people who appreciate that Hadar isn’t a singles scene, people who plan to stay in New York City forever, people who plan to move to the New York suburbs when they have children, people who plan to move out of the New York area entirely, people who appreciate that Hadar gives extensive detailed instructions to its prayer leaders, people who appreciate that Hadar gives no instructions to its participants, people who appreciate that Hadar services are led by volunteer participants rather than professional clergy, people who appreciate that Hadar services are led by skilled leaders rather than just anyone, people who (when Hadar was every other week) wished Hadar met more often, people who liked that Hadar was only every other week, people who like the church basement better than a synagogue sanctuary, people who are at Hadar despite the church basement location, people who want to hear a d’var torah, people who appreciate that the d’var torah is only 5 minutes, and so on.

Yet somehow it works for all of those people (while other communities might, instead, succeed in alienating all of those people). And this history of Hadar provides a window into how this success came to be. It’s also interesting to learn which of the traits associated with Hadar were intended from the beginning, and which came about by circumstance. For example, I already knew that Hadar had never explicitly identified itself with a particular age group (nor do any of the new independent minyanim as far as I am aware, despite how they are painted in the media and the organized Jewish community), but I learned from the book that Hadar “actually tried in the very early days to actively combat this ‘twenties only’ feel”, reaching out to people from other age groups.

The chapter on Kehilat Hadar, along with a later chapter on prayer, provides many concrete lessons for independent minyanim or for any other congregations. Topics include attracting volunteers, fighting Jewish Standard Time (”When everyone has an incentive to be the last person to show up, the people who show up on time are punished for their punctuality by having to wait around.”), “friendliness” (”Think about an inspiring experience that was also empowering — say, your first rock concert with fifty thousand people. Even though there are no greeters, and no one really talked to you, you would never claim, ‘Wow, that U2 concert was really unfriendly.’”), acoustics for davening (”why davening in an apartment or a low-ceilinged basement, while perhaps not visually pleasing, allows for the possibility of ‘good davening’”), and selecting appropriate melodies. Most important, these ideas are not presented as magic incantations to follow because Elie Kaunfer said so (”1. Don’t announce page numbers. 2. ??? 3. Profit!”), but rather, the reasons for and against each one is laid out (though there is no ambiguity where Kaunfer stands in each case), so as to begin a conversation rather than end it. So as the Torah reading coordinator for another minyan, I can come to a different conclusion about whether Torah readers should be required to read multiple aliyot, but I can do so with an understanding of why Hadar does things the way it does, and why other communities might do things a different way. And I had been totally agnostic on the question of whether the Torah reading should be from the front of the room facing the congregation or from the middle of the room (like the prayer leader), but now I understand why the latter might be advantageous.

Jumping off from Hadar, Empowered Judaism goes on to discuss the independent minyan phenomenon as a whole. Unfortunately, the book’s definition of “independent minyanim” includes “founded in the past ten years”. We’ve called them out on this before, and we’ll do it again. The independent minyanim chapter includes a version of the same bar graph we saw in the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study, showing the explosive growth of independent minyanim (increasing from, by definition, 0 in the starting year to over 60 today). But the starting year is no longer 1996: you see, “the past ten years” is defined dynamically, so the graph now begins in 2000. The small number of communities founded between 1996 and 1999 (inclusive) used to be “independent minyanim”, but aren’t anymore. Mark your calendars for April 2011, when Kehilat Hadar will cease to be an “independent minyan”!

The stated reason for the 10-year cutoff is “distinguishing them from the havurah movement”, so that “the havurah movement” is also defined in a time-limited way. Later in the chapter, Kaunfer lays out some differences between “independent minyanim” (i.e. lay-led communities founded after 2000) and “havurot” (i.e. lay-led communities founded before 2000, especially those founded before 1980). And as a National Havurah Committee board member, I am keenly aware that there are generational differences between older and newer communities, when taking the ensemble average of each subgroup. But even if you think that worship styles are enough to define prayer groups of 10 or more Jews with no denomination/movement affiliation as something other than “independent minyanim”, creating a sharp cutoff in a single (moving) year is using a chainsaw when a scalpel is called for. Kaunfer cites “truncated services versus full services” and “circular arrangements versus rows” as examples of differences between “havurot” and “minyanim”. But equating these differences with the binary of being founded before or after 2000 ignores communities like the Newton Centre Minyan (founded in 1973) where they sit in rows and daven the full liturgy, or Tikkun Leil Shabbat (founded in 2005) where they alternate between row seating and circle seating (leading someone to quip that they alternate between being a minyan and being a havurah).

To be sure, Kehilat Hadar has distinguished itself from preceding lay-led communities in a number of ways, and Empowered Judaism, in detailing these ways, makes a solid case for Hadarican exceptionalism. But it would be more convincing to claim that Hadar is different from every community, founded before or since, than to claim that Hadar and all communities founded later are different from all communities founded earlier. Not every “independent minyanim” founded after 2000 does all the things that Hadar does; there are even communities with lineal descent from Hadar where they don’t start on time, or don’t think carefully about ensuring quality davening, or aren’t egalitarian. The 10-year cutoff may have been useful for a sociological study documenting a specific historical phenomenon, but now it’s time for all empowered participatory Jewish communities to learn from one another.

Despite this arbitrary chronological cutoff, Kaunfer’s stance toward the first-wave havurot is overwhelmingly positive: “The real surprise is not that havurot and minyanim share similarities, but that modern synagogues and other institutions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jewish life persist. Judaism has always been a religion of grassroots community organizing, and the rabbinic model of the twentieth-century synagogue is perhaps the most foreign to the traditional Jewish heritage. … The real question is not how are independent minyanim new, but how are suburban synagogues — a product of the early to mid-twentieth-century — a depature from a Jewish organizing heritage shared by minyanim, havurot, and dozens of Jewish communal structures of years past?”

In addition to Kaunfer’s own reflections from Hadar, Empowered Judaism also collects a set of short pieces from organizers of other minyanim, highlighting various lessons their communities have learned. So we hear about Tikkun Leil Shabbat’s approach to dishwashing and pluralistic potlucks, Altshul’s experience meeting in a synagogue, Shira Hadasha’s structure for supporting people in bereavement and illness, and more.

The last part of the book looks beyond independent minyanim and prayer, to a vision of the future. There is a chapter on Yeshivat Hadar and its model of educating empowered Jews, and a chapter on rethinking Jewish institutions. The final chapter is entitled “Pathways Forward: The Real Crisis in American Judaism”, likely intended to evoke the first chapter of Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, “The Present Crisis in Judaism”. And like Kaplan, who wrote about this crisis as a “spiritual cataclysm”, Kaunfer writes that the crisis isn’t about “Jewish continuity” or intermarriage, but rather that “two Jews can marry each other and have Jewish children without any connection to Jewish heritage, wisdom, or tradition.” He concludes with a call to “recognize that a new Jewish world is possible.”

While Hadar and the other minyanim discussed in the book each have their own Jewish approaches, this larger vision for Jewish life is laid out in a way that is independent of specific Jewish ideologies: “the Jewish community would be better served by connecting to the original ‘big ideas’ of our heritage: Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasadim, for instance.” This vision is thus accessible and applicable to Jews of any denomination or non-denomination. For its practical wisdom and its big-picture perspective, I recommend Empowered Judaism to anyone thinking about their own Jewish community or about “the” Jewish community.


  1. I have just purchased Kaunfer's book, and have not had time yet to read it. But I have recently commented on the subject in my address to the 450 Reform rabbis at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in San Francisco on March 8. Somewhat out of context, I offer this to your readers.
    "The August/September issue of Hadassah Magazine featured an article called “Individualism and Community,” highlighting many of the independent minyanim that have been created in the past ten years or so, mostly in urban centers in North America. These minyanim defy category – they are generally not connected to or defined by a national movement; they range from occasional Brigadoon-style happenings to those that meet every shabbat evening and morning; some have created educational programs for adults and children; some focus on social justice and some on music; some meet in synagogues, some in private homes, and some in church basements. What they have in common is that they are all highly participatory and most are completely led by volunteers. Many of their founders and participants are 20- and 30-somethings who grew up in Reform and Conservative congregations and camps. Theirs is do-it-yourself Judaism, and it is high quality and high commitment. They include some of our best and brightest, and they have little or no interest in joining our congregations. I know that they represent an elite minority, but we ignore them at our peril.
    Their model is not attractive to or practical for everyone, but may have something to teach us. They began with their values and built structures around them. Their practice of being caring communities has been there from the inception, and is not grafted upon existing institutions in reaction to perceived indifference. Our communities can learn from their can-do spirit and their challenge to each individual to feel empowered to contribute to the group effort. We need to do some serious thinking about how our structures function in the Jewish world of the 21st Century, how those structures may need to change, and what values we want to be basic to our communities."

    Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus
    President, CCAR

  2. It's good to see that the independent minyanim are on the radar of at least the CCAR. They should be, because I agree that they can teach the institutions something. And they may represent something that is happening temporarily, or they could represent the beginnings of a permanent shift in the demographics. I'm nearly done with Kaunfer's book, and I'm a member of the age group that is drawn to independent minyanim. Why am I drawn? Because the institutions I have available to me locally cannot meet my need for Jewish expression. And maybe that is a common theme among young singles in my age group.

  3. I wonder if there will be another wave of independent minyanim birthed in the backyard minyanim of the pandemic. Some of us got a taste of independence from our institutions and are not so eager to go back to the way things were.