In the final session of the Independent Minyan Conference Shai Held (philosopher in chief of Mechon/Kehilat/Yeshivat Hadar, the sponsor/organizer of said conference) gave a rousing defense of a Torah which was imbued with service and was at its core egalitarian—and that this was the Torah that was embraced by the independent minyan movement. It was a great vort, which I would easily sign on to. (He also taught a wonderful piece from Reb Nachman on Friday night, and he taught it wonderfully.) Shai’s remarks however left me wondering why there were so many non-egalitarian independent minyanim (“partnership minyanim” and non-partnership modern orthodox minyanim) represented at the conference. This was only one of the interesting anomalies of the conference.

I went to the conference as a representative of the Shtibl Minyan (together with fellow Shtibl member Sarah Newman). I found out when I got to NY that this was a leadership conference. First bump. Shtibl is a consensus based minyan. While there are hard-working rotating coordinators of the minyan (two of them, neither of which is me), the Shtibl makes decisions as a community in a process in which everybody has to agree and anybody can block the consensus. (Members, that is. Membership—another term that is used differently by us than by the other minyanim I met at the conference—is based on service to the community, not lucre. Though we accept the latter also.) Yes, it is messy and not always efficient. There is no real leadership group which makes decisions for the membership. In hard cases we create committees which discuss, learn, come to proposals and report back to the membership.
Hadar seems to be setting itself up as a resource center for independent minyanim. As I understand the word independent as it might apply to Shtibl, we are not necessarily looking for a resource center.
I think that the independent minyan phenomenon (not movement) is an important phenomenon for what it says about Judaism outside the Orthodox orbit. There have been independent minyanim in the Orthodox world forever. Some of them have rabbis, some don’t, some are organized around a specific yeshivah that the mispallelim (Ortho term of art for minyan members) learnt at; some are organized more loosely for geographic reasons. (My native informants—blood relatives all—tell me that the current trend is for these minyanim to have rabbis.) These Ortho independent minyanim (OIM) live in a similar tension with the established large Orthodox shuls which we are seeing in relation to the independent minyan phenomenon outside Orthodoxy. The similarity with the OIM is that there is a level of self-confidence that is needed to go off on one’s own and decide to establish a minyan rather than be catered to by an existing structure. On this basis, the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements should exult in the phenomenon since it shows that they have succeeded in educating a generation of Jews who have that self-confidence. Of course they (the movements, that is), on the whole, don’t.
The conference clarified for me that beyond the broad commonality of some manner of independence and self-confidence, the minyanim are a phenomenon but not a movement or even a coherent community. Shtibl to my mind (and, even though I was one of the founders of Shtibl, I don’t speak for Shtibl) was established (ten years ago I might add) and continues as a claim on what a community should be. One of the reasons that we established Shtibl goes to the point that Shai Held was making. We wanted a minyan which would daven together, learn together and work for social justice together in a seamless fashion. In addition, we consciously established Shtibl as a consensus based community. This was a conscious religious and political decision. (We decided not to duchan because of this; and it took us eight years to get our 501c3 status because we had to work out a structure which would satisfy the law and still be consensus based—and because consensus based decision making is the opposite of efficient.) At Shtibl, then, the decision making process is not merely a utilitarian tool to be able to arrive at an end (e.g. that davening will happen, or that we will have a potluck); rather the decision making process is part and parcel of what Shtibl members think a community should be: a place where everybody’s voice is heard and everybody participates. This latter also affects the way we make halakhic decisions. These decisions are also voted on and decided by consensus.
Back to the conference. There was some good learning. In addition to Shai’s session I attended a great session with Miriam Margeles in which we sang two and three part rounds of her beautiful songs. I had a nice conversation with Soferet. There was an interesting though unsatisfying discussing of halakhah and minyanim. The davening was very good. I attended a session on fund-raising which allowed time for Sarah and me to think about how Shtibl might do fundraising in a way which did not undermine our communal values—which were obviously not identical to other communities’ values represented at that table.
What I missed at the conference was an actual discussion about the why of creating communities. How and if any minyan sees itself in relation to a larger Jewish/general community. What community means. There were a lot of minyanim that defined themselves as specifically not communities (“We are not a full-service minyan.”) in ways which seemed to support the mainstream notion of community. There were minyanim that obviously had no intention to challenge the prevailing concept of community in their territory, but just wanted to daven with more joy. These differences needed to be aired and debated and pushed. This is the place at which the current phenomenon might or might not be related to the Havurah movement of the 70s. Are we making a claim about what a community should look like or do we just want to daven in the little room off to the side with a little more singing and dancing? I am signed up for the former. On my four cubits, here in Los Angeles.