Culture, Identity, Mishegas, Religion

28 Days, 28 Ideas #28: Beit Kneset? Beit Midrash? What about the Beit Cafe?

I recently heard a favorite rabbi of mine say that the American Jewish community may have made a mistake early on by placing all of its communal institution eggs in the beit kneset, or synagogue, basket. He suggested that the beit midrash, or house of study might have been a better choice.
What the beit midrash has going for it is the potential to do highly diverse learning that will attract Jews from many background to sit together and learn. What it doesn’t have going for it is its format. It’s formal and it brings to mind all kinds of imagery and connotations that will turn off many contemporary Jews.
But what about a third kind of beit? What about the modern institution known as the Beit Cafe, perhaps better known in America as the Coffee House? It’s place where discussions happen, planned or spontaneous, as well as cultural events like readings and musical performances. In the contemporary American mind, exciting intellectual and cultural movements are associated with coffee shops, a definite plus for this model.
I’ll start by describing the place I’m imagining and then I’ll talk about why it makes sense for the American Jewish community today.
I’m imagining a coffee house on the Upper West Side of New York City, but it could be in any part of any city with a lot of Jews. It’s not big, but it’s big enough that you could hold a lecture inside for 100 or 150 people. By day, it’s just a coffee house. It’s kosher, of course, and it may have Jewish-themed artwork inside, but other than that it would appear for most of the day as a regular neighborhood coffee house.
By night, however, it would be a center of Jewish culture and learning. I imagine a different speaker, panel, discussion, musical performance, reading or movie screening every night. If you want, the folks at the Beit Cafe can help you find a group to study with on your own too. On Friday afternoons or maybe Sunday mornings, there’s probably a weekly study group that meets to talk about the week’s Torah portion.
For the Jews who live in the neighborhood, it would become a gathering place. Though all are welcome, you would know that if you’re looking for some Jewish company, some Jewish discussion, you can always head down to the Beit Cafe and strike up a conversation.
You get the idea.
Here’s why this model of an institution makes sense. First, and most importantly, there is no barrier to entry, real or perceived. On one level it’s just a coffee house, which means a Jew who would never set foot in a Hillel or JCC or synagogue will feel free to come in and enjoy. I mention Hillels and JCCs because I know that many now have coffee shops inside, but they generally don’t feel like real coffee shops and, because they happen to be inside a larger institution, they have immediate barriers to entry. We should face facts: no matter how many programs synagogues create targeted at different demographics, there will always be some Jews who will never step foot in a synagogue, JCC or Hillel. The Beit Cafe I am imagining has no such barriers because it stands alone institutionally.
It is also a highly specific institution. It will do a few things and it will do them well. My grandparents’ model of Jewish community, giant synagogues and giant federations that are all things to all people at all times made sense when they began, but they don’t make sense now. What we are seeing pop up in America’s Jewish population centers are smaller, streamlined organizations that specialize in one thing. (My former employer Limmud NY and the entire Limmud phenomenon across the world is a perfect example.) The Beit Cafe will be one of these institutions.
It is also portable. When Jewish populations in different parts of different cities ebb and flow, it is hard for something as large as a synagogue or a JCC to pick up and move. But for something as small and organizationally lightweight as a coffee house, that kind of move would be easy. Not only is it portable, but, again like Limmud, it is easily reproduced in a new city or neighborhood with a different flavor and different programming to suit that community.
Because the Beit Cafe serves no ritual purpose, it is able to cut across denominational lines in much the way that the world’s many Limmud organizations do. (Thought I won’t preclude the idea that a specific chavurah or minyan [all of the sudden, I find myself desperately wanted something called The Coffee Shop Minyan to exist] might rent the Beit Cafe on Saturday mornings or Friday evenings, but they would not be a program of the Beit Café.) But Limmud is a major undertaking, involving hundreds of small events that come together to build a weekend of non-stop programming. The Beit Cafe can exists year round, but maintains the kind of diversity of programming and constituency that Limmud does by having only three to five programs on all kind of topics and of all kinds of structures and types every week. But when there’s no programming going on, the Beit Cafe is still there serving its informal purpose of providing an accessible (physically and conceptually) place for Jews to gather.
Synagogues don’t do it for a lot of people and I’m one of them. This is not to say that I never go to them, but I do mean that there is no one synagogue I know of—and I make a point of visiting new ones whenever I can—that is sufficient. Synagogues are a part of my Jewish life, but they are not the be all and end all of my Jewish life, which is truer and truer for more and more Jews today. I don’t propose that the Beit Cafe would ever replace or encroach upon synagogues. Rather, it would be a place in the Jewish community that provides one more point of contact for Jews looking for new ways and places to access their tradition and their community.
Sound good?

This post is part of the series 28 Days, 28 Ideas. Check out yesterday’s idea, Spiritual Birthright over at 31 Days, 31 Ideas. You can also visit for the full list of ideas now that they’re all posted. This is final post in the series, but check back for wrap-ups as each 28d28i partner looks back at a month of ideas.

29 thoughts on “28 Days, 28 Ideas #28: Beit Kneset? Beit Midrash? What about the Beit Cafe?

  1. Just FYI, this isn’t a new idea at all, but rather much older than the big synagogue-big federation and closer to what your grandparents grew up with. (Putting all the eggs in the synagogue basket was in the 50s more or less.) Here’s Irving Howe from World of Our Fathers:
    By 1905 there were several scores of these cafes, or as they were sometimes called, coffee-and-cake parlors, on the East Side. Each café had its enthusiasts claiming it was the true center of Yiddish intellect. For the early playwrights and actors, it was Schreiber’s café on Canal Street. For the serious young poets of 1907… it was Goodman and Levine’s on East Broadway. For the radicals, as the veteran socialist Louis Waldman remembered, it was the Monopole at Second Avenue and Ninrth Street, where Leon Trotsky once appeared in the flesh. But the most famous center for writers, actors, philosophers, and kibitzers who took pleasure in staring at the great, was the Café Royale on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street. For a dime (and a nickel tip) you could get a glass of tea and a piece of coffee cake while sorting out the celebrities of Yiddish culture…

  2. Thanks, Larry.
    Harold, you’re right to re-emphasize that point. Coming from a mid-size Jewish community like Austin, I’m very sensitive to the disparities in the ability of different communities to sustain projects like this. To some extent, I almost feel bad and elitist for proposing the idea. On the other hand, there’s no sense in not sharing an idea that could work even if it can’t work everywhere.

  3. I think this could work in smaller communities too-lots of non Jews would be attracted to a cool Jewish cafe with arts events and talks….

  4. You may be right, Joseph. My worry is that coffee shops function on a neighborhood basis. People go to one regularly because it is either near to where they live or near to where they work.
    In a place like NYC, there are multiple neighborhoods where lots of Jews (and interested non-Jews, as you point out) work and/or live. In Austin, where I grew up, there are certainly areas with lots of Jews, but no neighborhood I can think of that would have the density of Jews and interested non-Jews necessary to sustain the Beit Cafe.
    But I’m interested to hear more about what you’re thinking.

  5. Ruth, that’s really cool to know. I’m glad you brought it to my attention.
    In semi-defense of my own originality, I’d say that what you’re talking about sounds pretty divided in terms of people of different schools of thought be drawn to different places. What I’m proposing is more unifying and seeks diversity and pluralism.

  6. Sorry to be so Austin-centric, but I do think something like this could work here. Austinites are accustomed to driving to get to a comfortable coffee spot for an informal meeting, wi-fi and a power strip. The Jewishness might have to be more low-key to prevent a perception of a barrier to non-Jews, but the kosher designation might be a draw to lacto-ovo vegetarians. Maybe somewhere along Far West?
    Of course, there would have to be at least two so that everyone could have the one that they’d never set foot in….

  7. Dan, I’ll admit that Makor is before my time, but from what I’ve heard and read, this is markedly different. This has no agenda and is not tied to any larger organization. Its independence is important to the concept, whereas Makor was not independent at all.
    But I’m interested to hear more about similarities, if you wanna comment further.

  8. Makor started out being independent – then the idea didn’t work so well, and they became part of the 92nd St. Y. They moved downtown a few years ago. Check them out.

  9. I mention Hillels and JCCs because I know that many now have coffee shops inside, but they generally don’t feel like real coffee shops and, because they happen to be inside a larger institution, they have immediate barriers to entry.
    …and Makor (at least the now-departed one on the UWS; I haven’t been to the downtown one) was more like a Hillel or JCC in this regard; it didn’t look like a coffee shop from the street.
    Also, how much would the events at this Beit Cafe charge for admission? That could be another significant difference between this and Makor.

  10. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the Beit Cafe would charge for admission at all. I’m truly imagining this like the coffee shops I spent a considerable portion of high school in. There are things going on there all the time, people there all the time, conversation formal and informal at all hours. And they don’t charge for admission.
    Mind you that I don’t know shit about budgets and maybe this all infeasible, but I feel like the income the Beit Cafe will generate will come from the food and the drinks, donations, a board, grants etc. Maybe there would be some kind of annual membership with different pay levels that would get you some amount of free food and drink at events, but I don’t think there would be admission.
    Admission is not only un-coffee-shop-like, but it’s another barrier to entry that I wouldn’t want for the Beit Cafe.

    1. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the Beit Cafe would charge for admission at all.
      Ok, so that definitely distinguishes it from Makor.
      And let’s not forget this classic.

  11. the most impressive modern hip Jewish beit cafe-like org i’ve seen is Marom’s “alternative JCC” (Sirály) in budapest –
    as far as i can tell, all their events are pay what you can (even the coffee); they get their income from donations and from renting out office space on the 2nd floor to some small activst orgs (all non jewish). they have an egal minyan that meets regularly for kabbalat shabbat (no rabbi). also, it’s in a hip neighborhood people want to hang out in anyway (not an insitutionally over jew-i-fied area); the equivalent of soho before it got way too expensive.
    even though makor was near were many folks lived, it was a huge trek for folks downtown and in the outer boroughs; 92Y tribeca was an attempt to be located near the downtown music/bar scene; however, i feel like i’m taking my life into my own hands every time i walk there from the subway; the cars are driving so fast coming off the highway and it’s a creepy area to go to at night.

  12. Martin K, that’s actually a serious issue I thought about. This would have to be good food. Everything about it has to be legitimate. Everything about the location, the look, the food and the employees of the Beit Cafe would have to sell you on the idea that this a coffee house. A coffee house that happens to have Jewish programming.
    Shamir, I’m totally interested to know more about the one in Budapest. From the site you linked to, I couldn’t get much of a sense of it. Do you have first-hand experience with the place?
    Also, I wanted to keep this term out of it, but you brought it in so here we go: Alternative JCC. I want this place to be an alternative to JCCs, but I don’t want that to become a label for it. You wouldn’t want someone to ask what the Beit Cafe is and have someone reply that it’s an alt jcc. You would want them to say, “Oh, it’s a Jewish coffee house with good food and drinks and Jewish programming.”

  13. Makor was a fancy downstairs dairy restaurant/bar that occasionally had good bands/shows. I would never go there to just go there, which sounds like the opposite of your idea.
    Also, David, I think Martin K was pulling your leg a bit about the coffee. Israel- the place famous for NesCafe: it’s a miracle anyone thinks this is coffee. 🙂

  14. Ruby K, opposite in every way from Makor, the way you put it. The Beit Cafe is casual and un-fancy. To re-emphasize my point about legitimate cofee-shop-itiude here, random people should wander in off the street in the middle of the day because it looks like a coffee shop.
    I know all about Israel’s coffee deficiencies. Not because I drink coffee, which I don’t, but because all the Americans I was in Israel with wouldn’t shut up about it. But I turned it around into a serious point because it is.

  15. So, we do language cafes in San Diego with the Tarbuton. We have Cafe v’Ivrit, Cafe v’Spharadit, and Cafe v’Zarfatit. Each meet in a secular coffee shop – on a designated day/time weekly and the location quite honestly is dictated by what is most convenient to the initial group who expresses interest in participating.
    What makes them a Jewish Coffee gathering are the Jewish participants and their shared love of a particular language. It matters not one iota that we offer there Jewish activities. They have each found ways to socialize and meet at other Jewish activities outside the cafe together. (the Jewish Film Festival, a Shabbat at one participant’s home, Israeli Advocacy lectures, a cooking lesson on how to bake challah or make Israeli salad and hummus.)
    The Cafe – is a truly neighborhood secular cafe – like you describe from your youth…it is simply the gathering place weekly to socialize, make new friends and plan for other Jewish activities together.
    My dream is to have a Cafe Aroma in San Diego which is the one coffee house we then use for these things – and ensure we have decent coffee. But, until then, as a Cafe Aroma franchise costs a mint, its way more important that what we’re doing is building Jewish community in a new reinvigorating way.
    Jews from all over the city are meeting each other in a different way; not through a shul, the JCC or Chabad. And this is true for all ages. (We have Cafe’s for 20-30 somethings through Seniors.) There’s low cost to entry, low cost in terms of commitment and flexibility to come and go as you please.

  16. MHSS, and maybe every Moishe House out there, is doing its little part to “be” a Beit Cafe, at least in spirit. 🙂 Not the same as a for-profit business open every day (except Shabbat and chaggim, of course) selling coffee (and tea!!!) where the community can gather — after all, we live here, it’s our home — but we are being our little slice of the Beit Cafe culture described in this post.
    I can only dream of a coffee shop of my ideals opening up in my neighborhood (in Silver Spring); if anyone is ready to do it, I’ll be the first patron in the building!

  17. Hey David- love this idea.
    In Bloomington, Indiana there is a coffee shop that does a few things like this and does them really well. It’s called the Pourhouse Cafe, and it’s totally non-profit- all proceeds go to different Christian charities in the coffee belt. It’s closed Sundays, except for a morning bible study- the way I would imagine the Beit Cafe model to work. They often have Christian or Christian-ish or vaguely Christian enough to make me want to go study at Starbucks instead bands on Thursday nights.
    But other than that, it’s the same as any coffee shop- GOOD coffee, nice decor, plenty of room to sit, wifi, no one asks me about my religion when I walk in the door.
    I think (but I’m not 100% on this) that they’re affiliated with a specific church in town- so they provide volunteer labor that really helps cut costs- I’m not sure if there’s any way to incorporate that (or the awesome non-profit aspect) into the Beit Cafe model, but it could certainly be a nice little variation that might work in certain communities!

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