Culture, Religion

Decade In Review: Independent Minyanim

Jewschool’s decade-in-review series began with the best JewFilms of the 2000s, and continues with this roundup of the independent minyan phenomenon.
Though the independent minyan wasn’t invented in the last 10 years, this decade has seen the tipping point in the growth of grassroots Jewish prayer communities, both in numbers and in impact on the overall Jewish scene. These communities differ from one another in their approaches to Judaism and Jewish practice, but they share a volunteer-led structure and a participatory ethic, and they operate outside the denominational institutions. They range in size from 10 people gathering in a small apartment on a Friday night to 500 people crowding into a church basement for Kehilat Hadar’s Yom Kippur services.
It’s nothing new that many Jews feel alienated from establishment Jewish institutions, but the independent minyan surge has happened in the past decade because, now more than ever before, the means, motive, and opportunity to act constructively on that alienation are all in alignment. The means: More people are Jewishly educated, and come out of college with experience organizing Jewish communities through venues such as Hillel. In addition, the children of the first-wave havurah founders are now adults, and are well-versed in grassroots Jewish community. Furthermore, as this surge continues unabated, involvement in the newer wave of minyanim gives more people the skills and experience to start still newer minyanim when they move to new places. The motive: In the liberal Jewish world, educated laypeople don’t see a place for themselves in top-down synagogues where the rabbi is seen as the repository of all Jewish knowledge, and want other options besides becoming rabbis, becoming Orthodox, and dropping out of Jewish life. In a separate but concurrent development in the Orthodox world, many people want to see increased ritual participation for women in ways that have been deemed acceptable by halachic decisors, but not by longstanding customs of existing synagogues, leading to the creation of free-standing “partnership minyanim”. The opportunity: The Internet removes many of the barriers to starting new communities, making it possible to gather a large number of people with little effort, and freeing minyan organizers to focus on content rather than on getting the word out. The Internet also enables people to hear about like-minded communities in other places and be inspired to start their own, and enables communities to share best practices.
Each of these communities attracts people with a wide range of Jewish identities, and many of them have avoided making normative statements about which approach to Judaism is the correct one, and have instead developed various pluralistic practices to accommodate multiple identities within a single community. Many independent minyanim cannot be placed neatly into denominational boxes, and some have novel liturgical styles that defy easy categorization: Kol Zimrah uses musical instruments for an all-Hebrew service, DC Minyan has separate seating for men and women and egalitarian ritual participation, and Havurat Shalom and Zoo Minyan have been adapting the Hebrew text of the prayers to make them grammatically gender-balanced.
As the decade has gone on, a trend that began outside of formal organizations has spawned new organizations and transformed existing ones. At the turn of the century, the National Havurah Committee was an aging organization with a relatively static constituency; now, thanks to a culture of openness and the financial support of the Everett Fellows Program, the largest demographic at the NHC’s annual Summer Institute is people in their 20s, and the NHC network has been instrumental in linking and catalyzing many new grassroots communities. Kehilat Hadar began in 2001 as an apartment minyan, and it has since inspired Mechon Hadar, which organized a national conference for leaders of independent minyanim, and Yeshivat Hadar, the only full-time egalitarian yeshiva in North America. But these organizations are not new denominational movements, since there are no formally affiliated congregations; they simply offer resources and networks to any communities that are interested.
Over the course of the decade, there has also been a sea change in the stance of the establishment institutions toward (new and old) independent minyanim. Independent minyanim have gone from ignored (simply not on the radar) to reviled (and blamed for keeping young adults away from synagogues) to embraced (to the point that everyone wants a piece of the magic, and the Conservative movement is offering grants to minyanim that will partner with their synagogues).
What do the 2010s have in store for the independent minyan phenomenon? Contrary to some predictions, one thing that won’t happen is that this will all turn out to be ephemeral, that all the independent minyan participants will come back from their rumspringa and return uncritically to become passive members of the synagogues they once eschewed. (Some may join synagogues, but primarily synagogues that are open to change, and these synagogues will look very different a few years down the line.) The question of “What will happen when they have children?” is not a question for the future: not only have older grassroots communities been answering this question in various ways for decades, but the newer wave of minyanim are already answering it too. The 25-year-olds of the turn of the century are now 35; many of them have children, and many of them are still involved in independent minyanim. As time goes on, some independent minyanim will continue and evolve with their existing participants as they get older (just as older minyanim have done for 30 or 40 years), some will become more multigenerational, some will have a continuously cycling set of transient participants, and some will cease operation (as some already have) and make way for other initiatives. And new minyanim will be founded in new cities and new neighborhoods, with new populations and with new Jewish approaches. As this phenomenon becomes more multigenerational, it will become harder to dismiss it as simply a “young adult” thing, and it will have a more profound impact on the Jewish community as a whole. Tune back in in 2020 and we’ll see how this all played out.

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