This post is the second in a series responding to sessions from Mechon Hadar’s Independent Minyan Conference last month. Thanks again to Mechon Hadar for placing all the audio online to make this ongoing conversation possible.
This time we’ll look at the closing plenary, “Minyanim and the Contexts of Contemporary Jewish Life”, a panel that included Prof. Jonathan Sarna (Brandeis), Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman (Brandeis), Rabbi Prof. Art Green (Hebrew College), and Rabbi Elie Kaunfer (founder of the three Hadars).
Before looking at what each panelist said, let’s look at terminology. Sarna, a historian, referred repeatedly to the “independent minyan phenomenon”, a term that suggests a particular historical moment, which is the frame he used in his talk. Fishman talked about the “independent minyan movement”. Green avoided a single overarching term. Kaunfer mostly did too, but referred at one point to the “minyan crew” and explicitly said that we’re not calling it a movement.
I think “movement” would have been a fine word to use if it only had its secular meaning and not the meaning it has picked up in Jewish discourse. If we’re talking about social movements, informal grassroots actions along the lines of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement, etc., then the independent minyan phenomenon would qualify. But in the Jewish world, the word “movement” has come to be synonymous with “denomination”, and to imply two things that independent minyanim lack: a shared religious ideology, and a shared set of central institutions. (These are two different things, and I have warned that we shouldn’t conflate them.)
Sarna suggests that, even if those institutions don’t exist now, it’s only a matter of time. During the Q&A at the end, he says that there are two views: 1) denominations are in the past and we’re moving into a postdenominational future, 2) (his own view) the other movements won’t go away, but there will be more options. He says that today there’s a minyan conference, and next there will be the United Minyanim, and the Assembly of Leaders of Minyanim, and the Central Conference of American Minyan Leaders, and then you have one more denomination. He draws a parallel from the Reconstructionist movement: Mordecai Kaplan wanted to reconstruct all of American Judaism and ended up with one more Jewish movement.
I think he’s missing two key things here. First of all, in addition to starting a new denominations, Kaplan did reconstruct all of American Judaism; his ideas have taken root in all of the movements. Second of all, this denominationalization could take place for Reconstructionism because Reconstructionist Judaism represents a particular religious ideology that was distinct from the ideologies that the other denominations held at the time. In contrast, what the independent minyanim have in common is the way that the communities are structured, rather than the content of their Jewish belief and practice. The range of Jewish practices in independent minyanim matches the range of Jewish practices in synagogue denominations. In this regard, the “havurah movement” is in the same category as the “independent minyan movement”, insofar as there is a distinction — more on that later — and the Renewal movement is more like the Reconstructionist movement and other denominational movements. The fact that independent communities get together at events sponsored by the National Havurah Committee or Mechon Hadar to talk about their communities and share ideas does not mean that they are moving toward paying dues to a central institution, establishing uniform policies for their communities, or promoting a homogenized form of Judaism.
I would suggest a third view: The other movements won’t go away, but these independent communities do not and will not constitute an (n+1)th movement; there will continue to be movements as well as communities and institutions that exist outside the movements.
Sarna spoke first, and began by saying “When we look back on the minyan phenomenon, we will decide that it was the most exciting development in American Judaism since the havurah movement itself 30 years ago.” As I have written before, I take issue with the idea that the havurah movement is something in the past, or that the recent wave of new minyanim is something fundamentally different. The major havurot founded in the ’60s and ’70s still exist, and havurot/minyanim have been founded continuously from that time to the present. (There was another session at the conference all about precedents from the havurah movement, but I haven’t listened to it yet.) Sarna says that this phenomenon brings together many of the trends that have been building during the decade prior to 2001, the “generally stated beginning of the minyan phenomenon.” I would say that what happened in 2001 was not a radical break from the past, but a tipping point. There were independent minyanim/havurot founded during the ’80s and ’90s too, but they were more limited in number and scope, and didn’t have the same widespread impact that the post-2001 minyanim/havurot have had. The significance of the current phenomenon is its magnitude, and the way that it has become a realistic option for Jewish communal life for an entire age demographic, which wasn’t the case during the ’80s and ’90s. Speaking personally, I was fortunate to graduate from college in 2001, so that I could jump on the bandwagon at just the right time.
Sarna lists 7 trends contributing to the explosion of independent minyanim in the last decade:
1) The women’s movement, and the “desire to bring a certain feminist sensitivity into traditional Judaism”. He cites the statistic that the independent minyanim have a 2-to-1 ratio of women to men. (Fishman responds later that this is not unique to the independent minyan scene, but is true of non-Orthodox Judaism in general. It’s not as apparent in the membership rolls of conventional synagogues, because those are composed mainly of families headed by opposite-sex couples, but is apparent in the numbers of who gets involved. I would also respond that gender issues are a significant motivating factor for some minyanim (e.g. the partnership minyanim, as well as minyanim like the Zoo Minyan with a new liturgy) but not others — as I have written, independent minyanim aren’t necessarily more gender-egalitarian or feminist than synagogues.)
2) Jewish spirituality: emphasis on spiritual davening, music, singing, the experience of tefilah. (Agreed. Many of the newer minyanim put more thought into the content of prayer than some of the older ones.)
3) “Back to the sources” movement. Emphasis on high-level learning. The minyanim are now reaping the fruits of an increased emphasis on Jewish education during the 1990s.
4) A reaction against denominational infighting. The infighting between movements that was common during the ’80s and ’90s isn’t happening in the ’00s. Also, funders won’t fund groups that attack other Jews. The minyanim resist denominational labeling, and rather transgress the boundaries.
5) Creation of a new stage of life that didn’t exist before (for Jews and non-Jews): a long stage between college and marriage/children. Back in the day, 3/4 of Americans under age 30 had children. There are no institutions in Jewish life that fill the gap between college (Hillel) and marriage/children (everything else), and the minyanim fill that void.
6) The startup culture. Young people didn’t want to be staid Microsoft, but wanted to be the next Google. Minyanim modeled themselves on startups, and imagined that they would rise or fall like startups, so that something (e.g. KOE) that is the big thing one day might not be the next day.
7) Availability of money. The Jewish community may have made more money in the 1990s than the entire 20th century put together, and this has aided the independent minyan phenomenon. Whereas the havurah movement was anti-establishment and had trouble getting money from the funders, the minyanim became the darlings of the funders and the people they wanted to invest in. Now that the money made in the 1990s was lost in a few weeks in 2008, what will be the impact of the economic downturn on the growth of the independent minyan phenomenon? (Kaunfer responds later that, actually, most minyanim are operating on a shoestring budget, and most have not been successful at getting major grants. I agree that money, though it helps, has not been an indispensable factor — some minyanim operate on no budget at all, and just meet in participants’ homes. So I think independent minyanim will have an easier time than other Jewish organizations in weathering the recession. I would also add that, if some minyanim today have had an easier time attracting funders than the havurah movement of the ’70s, it’s not because today’s minyanim are less “anti-establishment” (after all, they’re still explicitly operating outside the establishment) but because the funders have changed: some of yesterday’s havurah Jews have become today’s establishment Jews, and are thus more inclined to be sympathetic.)
Sarna’s list bears similarities and differences to a list that I made a few years ago. On the occasion of Kol Zimrah’s 3rd anniversary, I listed 12 trends that Kol Zimrah encapsulates:
1) The proliferation of independent minyanim (this isn’t on Sarna’s list because it’s the overall heading of his list).
2) This generation is empowered to be Jewish entrepreneurs (a combination of 3 and 6 on Sarna’s list).
3) More activity outside the denominations (related to 4 on Sarna’s list, though not the same).
4) Communities with no membership or dues, more suited to transient populations.
5) Participatory experience in prayer through music (related to 2 on Sarna’s list)
6) Innovation and experimentation in prayer (also related to 2 on Sarna’s list)
7) Evolving Jewish pluralism, beyond the interdenominational kind
Options for educated liberal Jews who aren’t Jewish professionals
9) Filling the void for people in their 20s and 30s (5 on Sarna’s list)
10) The Internet facilitates rapid communication (within communities)
11) The world is flat – it’s also easier for this phenomenon to spread around the world
12) Growth of liberal Jewish communities in Israel (not on Sarna’s list because he’s just talking about America)
Fishman began by talking about distinctions within the independent minyan “movement”. She told a story about when Tova Hartman wrote a book about creating Shira Hadasha. Fishman had wanted to have a panel with people from different denominations as well as leaders of nondenominational independent minyanim. JOFA said no, it had to be Orthodox institutions, because they were advocating for Orthodox independent minyanim and wanted to see Orthodoxy move in that direction, and if non-Orthodox minyanim were on the panel, this would harm JOFA’s case in the Orthodox world. Fishman said they were missing the opportunity to look at the big picture. She said it reminded her of when “the havurah movement … no longer allowed the announcement of mechitza minyanim.” She characterized this as a “non-Orthodox orthodoxy” and a “fascinating mirror image”, saying that “even within a movement attempting to break down barriers, there are internal divisions”.
I would respond that of course there are internal divisions. Any time you set up a community or organization with certain values, you are making a distinction between yourself and other communities that don’t share those values. Sometimes communities that share some values and differ on others can work together on the things that they share, and sometimes they can’t. But I don’t think the examples that she cites are particularly problematic.
Those who are closer to this scene can correct me if I’m wrong, but it was always my understanding that the partnership minyan phenomenon has been primarily about the ritual inclusion of women and men in an Orthodox milieu, and about the “independent minyan” structure only as a byproduct. That is, the original teshuva that inspired many of these minyanim said that this type of service was permissible for new communities, but that existing communities should not change their established minhagim. Furthermore, the Orthodox institutions never would have stood for it. So that’s why this happened first in grassroots lay-led minyanim rather than in Orthodox synagogues. This has little in common with the motivating factors behind other independent minyanim — the issues in the non-Orthodox world, where educated young adults feel that they don’t have a place in established synagogues, etc., have not been such a problem in the Orthodox world. So it doesn’t surprise me that JOFA would want to associate with communities that share their primary mission, rather than with communities that share a structure but for unrelated reasons.
As for the other incident: Fishman isn’t talking about “the havurah movement” (which is a decentralized grassroots movement, not an institution) but about the National Havurah Committee, a specific organization, and specifically about prayer services at its annual Summer Institute (not about year-round minyanim). I’ve been involved in the organization since 2002 and on the board since 2004, so I wasn’t around when this cataclysmic event happened in the 1980s, but this event has clearly had a long-lasting impact on many people, both those who are still involved in the NHC and those who are now scattered all over the Jewish world. (Was Fishman herself involved in those days? Is she speaking from personal experience?) The policy that I inherited when I joined the board is that all services organized by the Institute planning committee are egalitarian, but individuals who want to organize their own services are free to do so and will be provided with a space. Many people (including people such as Fishman who seem critical of it, as well as people who support such a policy over the current policy) remember a different policy enacted during this cataclysm, involving a blanket ban on mechitza minyanim. I’ve heard this from enough sources that I don’t think they’re all hallucinating, so I can only conclude that the policy was changed sometime between the 1980s and when I came on board, but no one can identify a point in time when this change happened. So I think the NHC may have to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to figure out exactly what happened when and begin to heal the wounds; there’s no way we can have an intelligent discussion about this without knowing all the facts. As for what the policy should be, there are significant pros and cons to each. But I take issue with Fishman’s implication of hypocrisy. She refers to “non-Orthodox orthodoxy” as if it is problematic for a non-Orthodox community to set boundaries of communal practice, and such boundaries should only be for the Orthodox. If we were to take this attitude to heart, we would end up with the “liberal talk radio problem”. In addition to pluralistic Jewish communities, there also need to be communities that promote progressive Jewish values, and I don’t have a problem with the NHC being one (though the way it makes the most sense to implement those values has probably changed in the last 25 years).
Fishman then talks about how the minyanim define themselves in relation to synagogues. She says that synagogues are not appropriate places for the population attracted to independent minyanim because they have flaws. Synagogues are:
* too married. Single people are uncomfortable.
* too non-egalitarian, either through gender or financial issues. People who can’t contribute financially perceive themselves to be less important.
* too inexpert. Fishman considers this a big difference between the havurah movement and the independent minyan movement, saying that the latter has an emphasis on quality control and doing everything the right way. (I disagree. Hadar, one of the most prominent of the new generation of independent minyanim, has an emphasis on quality control, but many other new independent minyanim do not (much to my disappointment). And many of the older havurot/minyanim have/had their own standards of how things should be done, though these standards are along different axes than the newer minyanim’s standards.) Fishman gives this approach the unintentionally humorous characterization of “If you’re not ready for prime time, you’re not there on the bimah.”
* lacking in authenticity. This authenticity is “double-edged” – doing things in a way that feel authentic historically and Jewishly, as well as morally. This includes the attraction to social justice.
* too large. Part of the attraction of independent minyanim is praying with a group of people whom you know, and there is a desire not to be flooded with more people who are “from the outside”. (I disagree with this characterization of independent minyanim. Most of the newer independent minyanim serve a transient population, and welcome a constant inflow of people. They may not be taking out ads in the Jewish newspaper, but the doors are open. This is a meaningful distinction from the older havurot, with a defined membership.)
* too complacent. Not willing to upset the status quo.
Fishman says that the independent minyanim are a “movement that saved a generation”, and this “highly sophisticated generation, which might have found their spiritual fufillment in other ways” is “now intensely and passionately tied to Judaism” because of independent minyanim. I agree. Without the opportunity to be involved in these communities, we wouldn’t necessarily have stuck around patiently until we had children.
But then Fishman immediately contradicts herself, as she begins discussing the challenges facing the “movement”. She asks what is happening to denominational Judaism, and says that she sees independent minyanim as a commitment drain, attracting the young people who in another historical period would have become the “elite” of the Conservative and Reform movements. How can both this and the preceding paragraph be true? I think the preceding paragraph is more on the mark, and the denominational movements were wrong to take us for granted.
Another challenge she mentions is communities becoming cliques: there are many stories about people who showed up at independent minyanim, weren’t greeted, and were not made to feel they were part of what was going on. I would respond that this is not unique to independent minyanim, but can characterize Jewish communities of all shapes and sizes. It’s something for all Jewish communities to work on (while avoiding the whiff of desperation associated with being too friendly to newcomers).
The last challenge she discusses is the “rhetoric of disdain for conventional Judaism and conventional Jewish leaders”, and says that conventional Jewish leaders deal with lived Judaism through times such as childbearing, illness, and end-of-life issues.
Rabbi Green shared some stories about the founding of Havurat Shalom in 1968. He ran into Abbie Hoffman, who invited him to go stir up trouble at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, but he said he couldn’t, he was busy with this new Jewish thing (which didn’t have a name yet). Initially they were thinking about calling it “Kehilat Kodesh”, until Rabbi Dick Israel z”l said “That’s the most pretentious thing I’ve ever heard”.
Green talked mostly about rabbinic leadership (which was also the topic of another conference session which I haven’t listed to). In the old days, he and his cohort didn’t believe in earning a living as a rabbi, and looked to Rabbi Yochanan haSandlar (the shoemaker) as a model. But he left Havurat Shalom (which had been more or less a full-time job for him) in 1973 because he couldn’t afford to stay. So he’s still been thinking about the role of rabbis, especially now that he’s training rabbis. He says that most non-Orthodox rabbis are there to reach out to the Jewish periphery, to keep people from falling off, and bring people at the edges to a greater interest in Jewish life. But at the same time, the “elites” reject that model and would rather be in do-it-yourself minyanim/havurot without rabbinic leadership. So he asked if there can be a balance. The role of rabbis in these communities has been the subject of an acrimonious conversation here at Jewschool.
I have to say that I don’t find Green’s arguments in favor of rabbinic leadership to be very convincing. I think there are more compelling arguments out there, such as the one that Fishman refers to: we need structures in place to deal with unanticipated emergencies, such as serious illness and death. We can do DIY weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs just fine, but funerals would be unrealistic.
Green refers first to the personal pain of rabbis “who feel rejected by the kind of Jews they’d like to be part of.” He says that his students ask “Am I going to wind up being rabbi of a synagogue I’d never join if I weren’t its rabbi? Can’t I be rabbi of a community I’d like to be part of, and be part of it at the same time?”. I would respond that that’s no reason for communities that have previously gone without rabbinic leadership to get a rabbi. If a community is going to have a rabbi, it should be because the rabbi meets a communal need, not because the community meets the rabbi’s personal need.
Green then tells a parable from his Havurat Shalom days. In those days, you had to apply to join, and a “serious young man” with all the right qualifications but an obnoxious personality applied for membership and was rejected twice. Green says that this was like a fraternity blackball, and feels that he failed by not saying that they couldn’t reject this person. If he had been the rabbi of the group, he could have said “This is a principled stand we have to take; we’re not just here to have fun,” but he didn’t feel that he could do that, because he was just one of the group, which didn’t believe in professional leadership. Green thinks that this demonstrated the need for a rabbi, someone who can combine chesed and din and can say “This is not about me; this is not about my needs” and can make sure that the community lives up to its values.
I don’t think this issue is really about the presence or absence of a rabbi. First of all, most newer independent minyanim avoid the specific issue from this anecdote by not having selective membership, and often not having membership at all, so this situation would never come up. Of course, there are other times when the community’s inclusive values come into tension with other concerns. But it doesn’t seem self-evident to me that rabbis are more likely than other people to stand up for these values. On the contrary, if a rabbi is brought in from the outside (the way rabbinic employment typically works), then the rabbi may be less in sync with the community’s values than are those who founded the community on those values. There is an argument here in favor of having a leadership structure that isn’t completely flat, and having some designated people whose role it is to make sure the community lives up to its values, but the job title that goes with this role isn’t necessarily “rabbi” — it might be “president”, or “gabbai”, or “steering committee”. It doesn’t take a rabbinic education or a salary to give someone a sense of responsibility for their community. I have been involved in internal discussions for a number of communities without rabbinic leadership, and these discussions often explicitly hinge on the community’s values.
Green then repeats the common charge that these communities are “elitist”, and not worried about people who need to have pages announced. He says that the fact that they don’t announce pages is a statement of who is welcome and who isn’t, and a rabbi could make these announcements so that the community is more welcoming. We’ve had another discussion here about stage directions during prayer. It’s a complicated question, but two things are clear: 1) Communities that don’t make these announcements aren’t necessarily trying to keep people away, and 2) If the community does decide to announce page numbers, this task doesn’t require 5 years of post-graduate education.
Finally, Green says that Jewish learning has become more democratized, and the difference between those with rabbinic education and those without has become smaller, but the rabbi has to foster the growth of the havurah/minyan as beit midrash. He says that Jewish life will not thrive if its central institution is primarily for davening on Shabbat, and there needs to be an active commitment to Jewish learning. I agree that the commitment to Jewish learning is essential. But this doesn’t need to happen through the same communities where we go to daven; in areas with a large enough Jewish population, Jewish community can be more a la carte, and Jewish learning can happen through separate organizations. Also, most liberal American synagogues cannot be characterized as batei midrash, even if they have a rabbi on staff, or multiple rabbis. Many independent minyanim (without rabbis) have more of a culture of serious Jewish learning than many synagogues (with rabbis). So having a rabbi is not sufficient.
Rabbi Kaunfer began by saying thank you to all the Jewish institutions and people who “paved the way for this moment in Jewish life”. He echoed previous speakers who said that this investment has paid off.
Kaunfer responds to people including ZT about the use of the word “independent” to describe minyanim. He says that it doesn’t mean we are independent of all other Jewish structures, history, and tradition. He draws an analogy to the American political system, with Republicans, Democrats, and independents: independents don’t claim that they invented the voting booth, and will reinvent American government as a parallel. Rather, it’s about seeking out our own place. He says that we don’t mean independent from the heritage that we come from, but we’re about being a next chapter in that book.
Kaunfer says that the minyanim themselves are means to an end. If we go out of existence in 15 years, he’ll say “Thank God” only if something better comes along. If we come back in 15 years and none of specific minyanim are around, but something has replaced them, that is the original Jewish way of moving through history. We’re in a world where it’s difficult to move beyond an institution, and that’s anathema to what the Jewish people are. (Is he channeling Rushkoff?) He hopes that the end result is not the specific communities, etc., but the idea that empowered Jews can stand up and build their own Jewish communities.
Kaunfer closes with two frames of analysis of what the minyanim represent:
1) The “narrow view”. The minyanim are reacting to a demographic space that didn’t exist before. It’s the new Hillel. Hillel has a constant inflow and outflow in a narrow age band, and no one would ask a Hillel student “What are you going to do at Hillel when you start to have kids?”. Now that people delay marriage for longer, minyanim step in at a particular demographic moment. This age band of people also cycles in and out. Due to economic pressures of real estate in urban areas, people can’t sustain families there even if they’d like to. So the question of “What happens when you have kids?” is irrelevant, because by the time you’re at that age, you’re out of those minyanim. (I’ve been saying this too.) As a narrow view, we’ve been successful, and this is an important step. It’s not threatening, because it’s just filling a void. (I would note that many have felt threatened anyway.)
2) Is there a larger frame? This is an unanswered question. Is there a legacy beyond creating community for people in a 10-year space? What happens when you move to new places? Will these minyanim offer an empowered model of Judaism for people who have cycled out of the original minyanim?
I say yes. We can look at the original havurot (which are now 30-40 years older than when they started) for precedents, both positive and negative. They’ve dealt with these issues before and have collected wisdom over time; on the other hand, there’s a reason why my generation started new communities rather than just joining the existing havurot. The question of how to keep this empowered model going is a question to keep working on — not necessarily for the specific minyanim that will continue to operate in their geographical areas, but for those of us who move to and already live in places where these communities don’t exist (yet).