We were planning on heading out to the Kane Street Synagogue on Friday night, but a last-minute email from Jewschooler Kung Fu Jew had us heading out into unfamiliar territory–Crown Heights–for the first ever meeting of Shir Chadash, a new egal minyan. I called KFJ to ask for details. He didn’t have many. He didn’t know if musical instruments would be allowed. (He didn’t even know if my ballpoint would be allowed–luckily, no one seemed to mind.)
For future reference, my answer to the question, “Do you want to go to the first meeting of a new egal minyan?” is always yes.
A perfect storm of Jewschoolers, former leaders of Kol Zimrah and some former leaders of at least one DC minyan are now living way the hell out on the far reaches of the 2 and the 3. For a long time, folks have been talking about starting a new traditional egalitarian minyan for the area.
Finally, last week, after a lot of talk, one guy–Brian Immerman, a fourth-year Reform rabbinical student and a former teacher of mine–decided to just go for it. He e-mailed some people and by the middle of Lecha Dodi, about 20 Jews were in his living room to daven.
My notes on the first meeting of Shir Chadash:
- WHO?: It’s not clear to Brian–or anyone else–as we settle in to begin Kabbalat Shabbat, who is coming. Apparently there’s a Facebook event, someone posted it to the Brooklyn Jews email list and word is spreading. It’s not even clear who in the world is in a position to know about Shir Chadash. Word of mouth (or word of Facebook, or whatever) is at work here in a big way.
- DEMOGRAPHICS: There are about 20 people there. 18 are actually from the area, if we exclude my mother and I–I live in NJ and she in TX. By the middle of Kabbalat Shabbat, everyone who is going to arrive has arrived. The last couple to arrive look like the oldest people in the room. The group defies, to some extent, the hype about the limited young age of indie minyanim. There are at least two Reform rabbinical students present, one Reform cantorial student, one Reform synagogue youth worker and at least one other Reform summer camp alum present. Esther Smigel, operations manager at Nehirim, is also present. In addition to KFJ and I, Jewschooler Ruby K is there.
- MUSIC: The music and nusach is mostly what I’ve come to think of as indie minyan-standard nusach. It’s a combination of Carlebach, Ashkenazi nusach and a other melodies that go well with Carlebach and Ashkenazi nusach. There are no instruments, but my guess is that it’s not a crowd that would mind instruments philosophically, though I think it would be too much for the room itself. Given our volume, I’m also wondering what the rest of this apartment building thinks is going on in here.
- CHAOS: Thank God for a little chaos while davening. I’ve written before about how a service that’s too well-choreographed is disconcerting to me. The Brian starts Psalm 98 to the tune of Psalm 96. There’s some glancing about. Every agrees tacitly that we’re doing the wrong thing and starts over. It’s forgivable because they have similar opening lines, but a little funny because both include the minyan’s name, Shir Chadash, in the opening line!
- MORE CHAOS: Brian is spinning about as we rise for the first time, trying to locate East. Different people settle on five or six different directions for a moment before Brian points decisively in one direction, having settled on (an) East. Everyone follows suit and turns to face that way. I’m grinning like an idiot.
- MUSIC, CHAOS and a QUAKER MEETING: Brian pauses before Lecha Dodi to welcome everyone. He then announces that he’s really bad at picking melodies for LD and asks if anyone wants to throw one out. The older guy introduces himself and hums a bit of a slow LD and Brian says, “Great, we’ll start with that one. Who wants to suggest a faster second melody?” Ruby K volunteers to come up with one when the time comes. Before he starts, the guy with the first melody asks if it’s alright if he shares some thoughts. Group: “….?” Guy with the first melody: “I was just thinking about this mezuzah that’s been painted over many times on this door frame…” He goes into a thing about how it’s symbolic of the Jews and etc. It’s nice. It reminds me of this piece from the New York Times a couple months ago. Glancing around at each other, Brian, Mr. First Melody and Ruby K quickly agree in the middle of LD on which verse to switch melodies at.
- LIRTUGRICAL CHOICES: Brian chooses to include imahot and most–if not all present–follow suit. Most say meitim in Gevurot, but I can’t tell what Brian is saying. After Kabbalat Shabbat, Brian says Chatzi Kaddish, rather than Kaddish Yatom. The choice itself doesn’t bother me one way or the other, but it seems like a confusing choice, given that all but one siddur in use at SC include Yatom at that point. In Magein Avot, he’s adding imahot on the fly and misses some. I’m probably the only person who notices, my brain being diseased in that particular way.
- SIDDURIM: Siddurim present are a combination of what Brian has on hand and what a few others brought with them. I count 13 different editions of 11 different siddurim in use. (Full list–and it’s an interesting list, if you’re into that kind of thing–here.) Only one siddur, Mishkan T’filah–of which we have two copies–has any transliteration in it. Even then, MT is missing some prayers that I understand most indie minyanim to include. This gives at least one person significant trouble. It’s hard to find a siddur with as much of the Hebrew text as indie minyanim want that also has the transliteration indie minyanim need for their broad potential audience. I know of only two: Siddur Chaveirim Kol Yisrael and Siddur Eit Ratzon. CKY is Friday night-only and is used at Kol Zimrah by those who don’t bring their own siddur. SER was once a Shabbat morning-only companion to CKY, but it’s newer edition has Friday night as well. (We use SER at Chavurat Lamdeinu here in Madison, NJ). The lack of siddurim with transliteration strikes me as a serious problem that may turn off first-timers and prevent them from becoming regular attendees. This goes to heart of criticism that indie minaynim are unwelcoming, demographically un-diverse and/or are exclusive too-cool-for-you clubs.
- STAGE DIRECTIONS: Throughout, Brian–again, a Reform rabbinical student–gives lots of stage directions, something I usually assume a leader at an indie minyan will forgo. They sound word-for-word like what a lot of Reform rabbis say, so I’m guessing that’s just where his head is.
- PLURALISM: If Shir Chadash codifies anything, I’d guess it ends up as an example of BZ‘s stage 3 plurlalism. There’s a veggie potluck–significantly better-stocked than the last few Kol Zimrahs I’ve been too, despite there being less than half as many people–and we’re using the two-table system, though there’s some confusion as to what that means. After someone reminds us all the about details of the two-table system, it ends up being a two-halves-of-the-same-table system anyway. And there are people piously nigguning through hand-washing while a few others carry on loud conversation. I do a little of both. Some the nigguning hand-washers appear a little miffed.
- SINGING: After dinner, there’s a lot of singing. All but two or three people stick around for the singing. It’s loud, spirited and at least a few people knew most of the words to most of the songs, so that was good. We benched and sang from L’chu N’ran’nah.
I’m curious to see how it continues, given that there didn’t seem to be any discussion of a structure for moving forward. In all, I give the first meeting of Shir Chadash five ballpoint pens, the highest rating I can give.