(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)
Independent minyanim have been popping up all over the press lately. First of all, they make an appearance in this CNN piece on “New Jews”, but that deserves a whole snarky post of its own, so I’ll leave it alone for now.
Two articles focus on independent minyanim: one in the August/September issue of Hadassah Magazine (it’s old, I know, but it wasn’t available online when it first came out, so it seems to have slid under the blogosphere’s radar), and one (which is really four and counting) in the latest edition of the URJ’s Eilu V’Eilu.
What do all three pieces have in common? The obligatory quote from Jonathan Sarna, of course. Seriously, is it the law that he has to be quoted in every single one of these stories?
Anyway, the Hadassah piece is in some ways the usual story about independent minyanim, but it does a good job presenting the diversity of independent minyanim, discussing the wide range of different practices within and among minyanim. It also presents independent minyanim mostly in their own words and own ideas, defining them by what they are rather than what they’re not: “pluralism, egalitarianism, social justice and song-filled prayer”, “to take responsibility for our own Jewish lives”, “joy, reverence, inspiring prayer, high-level educational programming with support for beginners, a culture of cooperation and openness”, etc. Unlike other articles on this topic that have appeared in the Jewish press, there is no worrying about Jewish continuity or intermarriage or the future of the denominations, and there is a quote from a pulpit rabbi saying that independent minyanim are swell, since it is “exciting to see people serious about their Judaism and seeking to come closer to God in an active way.” There are a few glitches here and there: this article propagates the error (which was quickly fixed) from the initial release of the 2007 Spiritual Communities Study, saying that “more than half [of independent minyan participants] spent over four months on an Israel program”. (The actual survey question asked about spending more than four months in Israel, not specifying anything about a program.) In a closing section about what happens when minyan founders move out of a neighborhood, there is a sentence about some Tikkun Leil Shabbat founders that is technically correct yet amusing: “Novey and her husband travel to Tikkun Leil Shabbat on Friday nights from their Maryland home.” This makes it sound like they’re trekking into DC from deep suburbia or Baltimore or the Eastern Shore, when in fact their apartment (like my apartment down the street) is just a few feet from the DC line, in a Maryland neighborhood that is more urban than the adjoining parts of DC, and is much closer to TLS than (for example) the distance from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side. (We’ve even walked home from TLS, though it’s not a short walk.) Anyway, props to Hadassah for running this article (and a network of hospitals in Israel).
Eilu V’Eilu is a weekly email sent out by the Union for Reform Judaism, in which two writers each month debate some question, in the style of The Onion‘s popular Point/Counterpoint feature (except that the writers are real people). And sometimes the two sides even disagree, but it seems that they don’t always check to see that the panelists actually have opposing views, so other times (such as when I participated) the two writers basically agree on the main points, and then are forced to search for minor points to rebut. (The best example of this was when the presidents of the Men of Reform Judaism and the Women of Reform Judaism faced off about whether there should still be single-sex congregational organizations. This is like the chairs of the DNC and the RNC “arguing” about whether there should be a two-party system.) This month’s dialogue fits into the latter mold. The question is “Are the growing numbers of independent minyanim a challenge to the movements?”, and the interlocutors are Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of Mechon Hadar and Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. As it turns out, both are supportive of independent minyanim. It might have been more fun, in a demolition derby kind of way, to see Rabbi Kaunfer go up against the old (hopefully straw-man by now) “Independent minyanim are destroying American Judaism by luring young adults away from the synagogues they would otherwise join” argument, but oh well.
In Week 1, Rabbi Kaunfer argues “Independent minyanim are not a challenge to the movements — the Internet is.” The point is that one-size-fits-all (or three-sizes-fit-all) movements are on the way out, since the Internet “allows people to organize into groups with very few start-up costs”, making it easier for communities to serve niche markets. Independent minyanim (independent of the major denominations) thrive in this new reality.
This is a positive development for Jewish life. When people care enough to stake out their own nuanced, complex relationship to Judaism, and reject broad labels in the process, they demonstrate that being Jewish matters deeply to them. If you claim to be “nondenominational,” people can’t make assumptions about your Jewish identity like they can when you claim a traditional denominational label. Instead, you have to explain what about Judaism you connect to—forming the baseline of a robust Jewish conversation.
Rabbi Kaunfer makes a solid argument that more segmentation is actually a good thing. I agree with the overall message, but unfortunately, there are a number of distracting minor issues with the article (though I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and assume based on past experience that some of these errors may be due to editing). Rabbi Kaunfer writes “New self-proclaimed movements sprung up — Reconstructionism, and the Renewal and Chavurah Movements.” The “Chavurah movement” is not now and has never been a “self-proclaimed movement” parallel to the “big three” or the Reconstructionist movement. Rabbi Kaunfer himself has argued for why the latest wave of independent minyanim do not constitute a “movement” in that mold, and the same is true for earlier waves of havurot. It goes on: “The lines between the big-three movements also blurred: what is the fundamental difference between the right wing of Reform and the left wing of Conservative, or between the right wing of Conservative and the left wing of Orthodoxy?” As I have argued before, the wing of Reform that he’s talking about (where one finds Hebrew, kashrut, etc.) is actually the left wing when viewed within an intra-Reform frame (rather than projecting frames of other denominations onto Reform); the right wing of Reform is the small-c conservative wing that holds onto tradition for tradition’s sake (aka Classical Reform). It’s the lefties of both movements that find common ground. (Cf. the advocates for the peace process are left-wing Israelis and left-wing Palestinians.)
Rabbi Kaunfer writes: “At Mechon Hadar, we have tracked the growth of independent minyanim (see www.mechonhadar.org). In the past ten years, they have exploded. In 2000, there were three of them; in 2009 there are more than sixty.” Here he is using the definition of “independent minyan” that was used in the 2007 Spiritual Communities Study. That study was only looking at communities founded since 1996. So what he means is that three independent minyanim were founded between 1996 and 2000 (and, possibly, still existed in 2007 — I’m not sure whether or not these figures include minyanim that ended before then), while many more were founded between 2000 and 2009. Yes, it’s true that the growth of independent minyanim has exploded in the last ten years, but this is a misleading way to show it. By this definition, no independent minyanim at all existed in 1995! This isn’t true, of course. For example, the Newton Centre Minyan qualifies as an independent minyan by most definitions, but it was founded in 1973. Rabbi Kaunfer links to this Zeek article which identifies differences between the minyanim founded in more recent years and the havurot founded in the ’70s, and as a general trend, these cultural differences are real, but it’s not a sharp line by any means. While Hadar and some other post-1996 minyanim may focus on “quality control”, plenty don’t and are included in the statistics nonetheless. The somewhat arbitrary cutoff of 1996 may have made sense for the survey, just so that there would be some boundaries in which communities are being studied, but I don’t think it makes sense going forward to define every community founded before 1996 as automatically not being an “independent minyan”.
Rabbi Mintz’s opening piece (which spreads the same inaccurate claims from the Spiritual Communities Study, inflating the growth rate of independent minyanim and repeating the “Israel programs” claim) is a very welcome voice to hear from the synagogue movements:
If independent minyanim can appeal to those who may not at this point in their lives step into a synagogue, why should we be threatened? Why shouldn’t we pay attention to where these young Jews are heading and strengthen our movement by creating vibrant minyanim of our own? No one is stopping us. […] The Reform Jewish community needs to not only blow our own shofar, but also to listen closely to the new voices that are blowing our ancient instrument. They are showing us the possibility of a new engaged, immersed, committed generation.
Instead of suggesting that independent minyan participants are doing something wrong by building meaningful Jewish communities, or that it doesn’t matter because they’ll come crawling back when they have children, Rabbi Mintz is saying that synagogues and movements can look inward and learn from the successes of independent minyanim and use this to strengthen their own communities. This message is particularly welcome coming from the Reform movement, which thus far has not appeared to be as aware of the independent minyan phenomenon as the Conservative movement has been. Let’s hope this is where things are headed in the future.
In Week 2, Rabbi Kaunfer apparently didn’t see anything to dispute, so instead he asks and answers the question: “what is the future of the ‘alumni’ of independent minyanim?” And the answer is fantastic; you should just go and read it. The key point is that there’s not just one path that everyone takes when they get priced out of the old neighborhood, but many possibilities:
- More independent minyanim
- Minyan-synagogue hybrids [not to be confused with human-animal hybrids]
- Minyanim as training grounds for future synagogue members
- Rabbis who bring independent minyan ethos to their communities
- Minyan participation as a deviation from an otherwise unengaged Jewish life
Rabbi Mintz responds to something that isn’t actually what Rabbi Kaunfer said. She says she disagrees with his statement that the Internet is threatening the movements, and gives examples of how synagogues (not just independent minyanim) are using the Internet successfully to build community. But Rabbi Kaunfer wasn’t talking about synagogues, he was talking about movements. It’s important to keep the synagogue-vs.-minyan/havurah axis separate from the denominational-vs.-nondenominational axis separate in principle, even if they’re not entirely uncorrelated. And if anything, Rabbi Mintz’s examples support Rabbi Kaunfer’s claims: one of the examples she provides of a thriving synagogue is New York’s B’nai Jeshurun, which is not affiliated with a movement!
Coming next, in Week 3, they’ll respond to questions and comments sent in by readers.