Culture, Religion

Independent minyanim in the Washington Post

Today’s Washington Post has a story on independent minyanim, with a focus on communities in DC. There’s no breaking news for those who are familiar with this scene; like the New York Times piece in November 2007, it primarily introduces the phenomenon to a general audience. But this may be the first mainstream (non-Jewish) media source to report on the USCJ grants for minyanim. (This grant program was pooh-poohed to some degree here on Jewschool, but anecdotal reports suggest that it seems to be taking off. Is there any data on how many minyanim are participating so far? What’s the breakdown between previously existing minyanim and new ones?)

Gathering in group homes and college dormitories, in rural woods and apartment buildings, a growing number of young Jews are spurning traditional synagogues and forming worship communities that blend ancient traditions with modern values in ways that religion scholars say could redefine American Judaism.
The young people represent some of the most devout of their generation and, worried that they are being lost, rabbis and other Jewish leaders in the Washington region and elsewhere are working hard to bring them back into the fold, including offering financial grants to independent groups who are willing to create partnerships with traditional worship communities.

This article shares many strengths and weaknesses with the NYT article. The tone is generally positive, stressing that independent minyan participants are committed to Judaism. For the most part, this article addresses independent minyanim on their own terms, and is less caught up in Jewish institutional baggage than are similar treatments in the Jewish press (though somewhat more so than the NYT article).
Then there are the serious problems. As I wrote in regard to the NYT article:
The word “traditional” is being overloaded with at least two different meanings (which is par for the course): “conventional” (as in traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA), vs. “traditional Judaism” (whatever that means). Is a “traditional synagogue” one that has a rabbi and a building and conventional institutional structures, or one that follows “traditional” Jewish practice? There isn’t really a positive or negative correlation here, and there’s no way to tell which is being referred to except from context.
One commenter argued that the NYT article consistently used “traditional” to mean “conventional”, but that’s much harder to argue here. Compare:

  • “a growing number of young Jews are spurning traditional synagogues” -> “conventional”
  • “independent groups who are willing to create partnerships with traditional worship communities” -> “conventional”
  • “the large denominations that have traditionally divided Jewish worship life” -> “conventional”
  • (in the same sentence) “Reform, the most liberal, Conservative and Orthodox, the most traditional” -> “traditional Judaism” (probably referring to “Orthodox”, but I initially read it as referring to “Conservative and Orthodox”; this is why God invented the serial comma)
  • “in a break with tradition, women lead parts of the service. ” -> “traditional Judaism”
  • “the traditional children’s parade that is part of the Jewish festival observing Purim” -> unclear

I’m not just griping about word choice. It’s intellectually sloppy to conflate these two concepts, and a misrepresentation of the significance of the independent minyan phenomenon. In terms of Jewish ideology and practice, independent minyanim are all over the map, and so are synagogues. Independent minyan participants may be “spurning traditional synagogues” in the sense of conventional institutions, but are neither moving (en masse) toward or away from “traditional” Judaism. Some may be moving toward “more traditional” practices and others toward “less traditional” practices (insofar as these comparatives are meaningful) and others neither, but that’s not the interesting story. The interesting story is that people all over the Jewish map are creating active participatory Jewish communities.
Small errors:

DC Minyan and Rosh Pina use the Orthodox liturgy, but some worshipers follow along in the Conservative prayer book. Both have separate seating for women and men, but Rosh Pina uses a partition as in Orthodox services and, in a break with tradition, women lead parts of the service.

I’m not sure the reporter realizes how small the differences between “the Orthodox liturgy” and “the Conservative prayer book” are (though the bring-your-own-siddur trend is significant even when the siddurim share basically the same Hebrew text). DC Minyan also has “women lead parts of the service”. This may be a “break with tradition” within the Orthodox world, but is not so for participants in these minyanim who come from egalitarian backgrounds; rather, the separate seating and fixed gender roles are the real “break with tradition” for those participants.
With the people interviewed for the article, the framing gets worse.
I think it’s the rule that Jonathan Sarna has to be quoted in these articles.

“It is an interesting mix between the egalitarian, pluralistic, inclusive values coming from the left and the values of learning and of observance coming from the right,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “They are making a new synthesis of these traditional and modern values that we haven’t seen before.”

GAH! Learning is a value “from the right”?! There’s nothing right-wing about learning, and there’s certainly nothing left-wing about ignorance. This makes me long for the days when, according to the stereotypes, Reform Jews had three Ph.D.’s from German universities and Orthodox Jews were illiterate huddled masses from the shtetl.
Egalitarian pluralistic inclusive left-wing Jews who embrace learning and observance (by the appropriate definition of “observance”) aren’t moving to the right or making a synthesis with right-wing values; they’re becoming serious committed left-wing Jews rather than apathetic left-wing Jews.

Still, some researchers question the future of the groups. A previous generation of independent prayer groups started by baby boomers in the 1970s is still active but has stalled in growth. Some experts wonder whether the current generation of minyanim leaders will move from the urban centers where most minyanim are based when they have children and melt into suburban synagogues, which offer extensive educational programs for Jewish children.

Ah, “some-say” journalism at its finest. Who are these anonymous “some researchers” and “some experts”, what is their agenda, and why aren’t they willing to be quoted by name? (Are they the same ones who appeared in the NYT article? “The minyanim are noticing that some of their worshipers are getting older, and it is unclear how they might evolve as participants have children and move to the suburbs, said members and experts on the movement.”) Let’s examine their claims. What do they mean by “stalled in growth”? Individual groups growing in number of participants, or overall growth in the number of groups? If the former, then the groups that have lasted since the 1970s aren’t necessarily aiming for growth; they may be happy at their current sizes. If the latter, then obviously the number of “independent prayer groups started by baby boomers in the 1970s” isn’t ever going to grow; that number was locked in as soon as the ’70s ended. But if the “started in the 1970s” constraint is removed, then the number of groups continues to grow, and the newest generation of independent minyanim is part of that growth. One longtime NHC veteran posted on NHC-DISCUSS, in response to this line, “These new communities are exactly the growth we hoped for.”
As for the wonderings of “some experts”, why are independent minyan leaders any more likely to “melt into suburban synagogues” than they were to melt into urban synagogues? If anything, “the urban centers where most minyanim are based” offer a much wider range of synagogue options than the suburbs do, and the minyan founders still opted for None Of The Above and started something new instead, and can do the same if (if!) they move to the suburbs. Yes, many suburban synagogues “offer extensive educational programs for Jewish children” (as do many urban synagogues), but these programs wouldn’t necessarily be any more appealing to this crowd than anything else that the synagogues offer. I’m excited about the prospect of exploring new options for Jewish education for my future children beyond what has already been done. These “experts” are hiding their heads in the sand if they think this is a passing fancy.
The article ends on a happy note:

Gil Steinlauf, Adas Israel’s new senior rabbi, said the synagogue has shifted from merely “tolerating these smaller groups to welcoming them. . . . It’s a radical shift, particularly in this congregation.”

Readers, what (if anything) have you noticed on the ground in the way of recent changes in the relations between grassroots communities and established institutions?

11 thoughts on “Independent minyanim in the Washington Post

  1. I’ve been reading JS for three months now, and I still don’t get this independent minyan thing. I go to a Chabad shul with maybe 30 regular male attendees (regular as in they usually come for Shabbos), and every minyan during the week is just people showing up randomly. What’s the alternative?
    The independent minyan is being portrayed like some sort of movement, when it’s really just a bunch of Jews who want to daven with a minyan and do so. I don’t understand what’s unique about this.
    If people don’t come, then there isn’t a minyan and you daven without a minyan. And if we are all together at a baseball game and it’s time for mincha, we’ll daven together at the stadium. Is that an independent minyan? Or if someone has a yahrzeit, they call people up and try to make sure there’s a minyan together that day. Is that an independent minyan? Of if we’re studying together at someone’s private home and there’s a chance to daven in a minyan and we take it, is that an independent minyan? How else would someone do things?
    Maybe it’s that I don’t understand the established synagogue thing with paid memberships and thousands of members.
    I realize there are many Jews devoted to professional community service who read this blog. I am not such a person, and you should view my remarks in that context. To me, a simple Jew, whenever the official Jewish community starts throwing money around, it is a sign of control, manipulation and politics.
    Why would a bunch of Jews who daven together need “community resources”, except as a way of structuring their behavior in a “community-approved” fashion. I can’t even imagine what the point would be? You want them to daven at the synagogue to boost attendance numbers for donation appeals?
    Of course, by “Jewish community”, I am referring to that self-elected cabal, riding private donations, and so removed from the actual community that they have to hire highly paid researchers to find out what the simple Jew on the street wants.

  2. Firouz, the article is approaching the subject from the perspective that Jews belong to a Synagogue, pay dues, and pray there. Outside of the Orthodox world, most Jews that do pray, only pray at Synagogue. The article is also only really concerned with Shabbat and Yom Tov since that is when most Jewish prayer occurs(even at Orthodox institutions).
    The resources referred to are the items necessary to hold services. It’s relatively easy/cheap to have a 15-20 person Friday night service in a home/apartment. When you start talking about 100+ people on Shabbat morning you now need to find space outside of a home, a sefer torah, and possibly provide siddurim and chumashim

  3. the reason current urban dwelling indie minyan goers might end up blending into suburban synagogues but not urban ones has nothing to do w the differences between the synagogues- it has to do with the fact that many of these people will move to the suburbs for financial and comfort reasons.
    I cant say Im a fan- I would like to see our government remove the tax incentives to buy instead of rent- low density suburbs exacerbate so many of our environmental problems. But as it stands now it is a really appealing option for many people to live in a place with a backyard and put their housing money into an investment.
    but once these people do buy in the suburbs they will be in a lower population density area and end up settling for one of the few options around.

  4. I think they visited more minyanim than they discussed, as I met the author at zoo minyan a few months back. im curious how they decided which ones to talk about.
    Also, kinda big issue how DC minyan came out looking non-egal while rosh pina was portrayed as inclusive of woman, while in reality DC minyan is fully egal and rosh pina has limited participation for women.

  5. Actually, I’ve heard a number of people impugn the DC Minyan’s egal cred because they have separate seating and a “10+10” minyan-counting scheme.
    And I have to point out that Rosh Pina has limited participation for men, as well — which is the whole idea of a “partnership minyan”.
    Anyway, it’s not an “Egaller than Thou” competition. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

  6. So are you going to distill this into a letter to the Post?
    As the parent of a toddler I’ve started thinking about options (other than day school) for Jewish education. Indeed, what’s available at most suburban congregations has no more appeal for me than anything else they offer. I’d like to hear what members of the new independent minyanim are doing.

  7. Out of curiosity, how many of you have written letters to the editors of the Washington Post? It doesn’t make a difference in their reporting unless they get feedback.

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