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indie minyans

Okay, so not that this is really news to anyone here, but apparently others in the Jewish world are starting to take notice that younger Jews are not so interested in denuded singles services and wine and cheese parties. I note the recent flurry of articles like this one appearing today on JTA in which the author was appraently made recently aware of a phenomenon that has been going on for quite some time now: indie minyans. This week Tikkun Leil Shabbat in DC gets notice – a couple of years back it was shtibl minyan and IKAR in Los Angeles.
Every year we get a few more articles noticing this “brand new” phenomenon. Recently the gaze seems to be upon the fact that many of the attendees are Conservative Jews, rabbinical students and rabbis. Why this seem to be so shocking is a bit bemusing to me: the fact that young Conservative Jews aren’t getting what they want from synagogues is not news.
Why Rabbi Epstein, quoted in the article, “Right now they don’t need religious schools or life-cycle events, but at a particular point they will turn to a religious institution to provide these things,” predicts Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “If we face the challenge appropriately and retool some of what we do, I believe many of these people may join Conservative synagogues, or these minyanim may become Conservative institutions,” believes that these groups are going to affiliate with an institution later is also not clear to me – simply because they want life cycle events? Well, these minyans are full of rabbis – and more to come.
I don’t believe that they will have any trouble finding rabbis to marry them – and since no other life cycle event is really monitored by the state in just that way, nor do most life cycle events require a rabbi, I don’t see why they’ll need to join an institution later – especially if they send their kids to day school.
If they need halachic opinions, there are tons of rabbis whom they can consult. Here’s the interesting rub – if more and more of us who are looking for genuine community in a flexible setting, if we have a commitment to study and tefila (prayer) in a serious way, and where we get it are independant minyanim, then a conundrum comes: we will still need rabbis, but we don’t want to pay them – that’s what this seems to come down to. If we have no rabbis, and no instutions with mikvaot to sustain, prayerbooks to borrow, torah scrolls to use, buildings to borrow rooms in, then these minyans can’t survive long term either. On the other side, I also think that the development of these minyans belies the seemingly widespread moaning about the Conservative movement. Instead of all this navel gazing, Conservative Jews are going out and being Jewish – and I note that many of these minyans, even while they don’t claim to be either Conservative or halachic, have in my opinion a far greater percentage of people who take shabbat, kashrut and social justce laws much more seriously, and who study and take study seriously as well.
I am interested to see what will happen: will these indie minyanim figure out ways to support the community, and not just their own individual davenning needs? When rabbis go out to jobs like teaching and organizations (which I think would be a real and positive benefit – if they can actually pay back loans on those salaries, or else have the loans for seminary become more manageable) and join minyanim like these as members, rather than authority figures, what will Judaism start looking like. I think that these are exciting questions, and await further developments.

34 thoughts on “indie minyans

  1. in the original model of a rabbi, the rabbi has a dayjob, and doesn’t accept money for torah.
    the conventional wisdom is that if we tried this today, there would be no rabbis.
    but it seems to me that there is an emerging need for rabbis with day jobs.
    I wonder if this model could be revived.
    do any rabbis/ rabbinical students have any suggestions as to how this would play out, and what aspects of, say, rabbinical schools would have to change?

  2. I am interested to see what will happen: will these indie minyanim figure out ways to support the community, and not just their own individual davenning needs?
    Most people who are active in independent minyanim are also active in other Jewish causes, so they are still supporting the community as individuals even if not under the banner of the minyanim. I think it’s ok for each organization to specialize in what it’s best at. Independent minyanim do a better job at davening; AJWS does a better job at addressing the situation in Darfur, etc., and people can participate in all of the above. This a-la-carte model is an alternative to the prix-fixe model found in synagogues.

  3. Members of these minyanim may not need synagogues to satisfy them…. but others do. A good reason to join a synagogue is to participate in a community that is broader than say, a smallish group of good hebrew speakers who are Jewishly knowledgeable.
    Such a group might not have many children of different ages, with which to form peer group. They might not be able to sustain community activities, which many synagogues do. They might not be able to serve as a touchstone for the community – a particularly important need for many seniors and those living without family.
    The independent minyanim (which I am not opposed to) can be compared to private schools in a deteriorating neighborhood. They take the strongest population out of the only system able to serve the needs of ‘jewishly poor’ groups, and segregate them in high performing, elitist groups. This leaves synagogues even less able to recruit the kind of people needed to help change synagogue life.
    Synagogues help bridge the gap between Jewish haves and Jewish have-nots. If the best Jewish ‘haves’ simply withdraw, they will have created a small enclave of amazing Judaism, but will help to impoverish Jewish life in the synagogues they end up not joining.

  4. “Right now they don’t need religious schools or life-cycle events, but at a particular point they will turn to a religious institution to provide these things,” predicts Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
    Forget it. The Conservative and Reform movements think they can triage us at this point in our lives because they don’t know how or aren’t willing to create a space for us in their congregations, and then they figure we’ll just come crawling back in a few years. Guess what? Just as necessity forced us to find a way to pray and have a community without a synagogue, we’ll find a way to educate our children without a synagogue.
    You say you want to “face the challenge appropriately and retool some of what we do”, but I don’t believe for a second that the congregations are really willing to do what it takes.

  5. I actually think the model of the rabbi who has a day job is a better one in a lot of ways – for one, it means that rabbis are no longer employees of the shul, with all of the attitudes that that provokes. For another, it means that a wider part of the community could potentially be served, and third, I hope that long term wht this will mean is a smaller focus on buildings with peoples’ names on them towards a more shtibly (is that a word) orientation – you use a garage or a storefront, or a basement, until you outgrow it, or the community moves, and then you break into smaller groups, or move to another spot – and everyone continues to walk to shul and spend time with one another on days other than shabbat, etc. And also, I’d really love to see the center of the community be a community center – that is a day school, or something else like that, with a mikveh, and space to rent for community events – anf then davenning takes place in a smaller arena.
    I too, don’t see the future of these minyanim to come back to large institutional Judaism – and I don’t think it would be good if they did. What I do think though is that it will be important for us in these minyanim to figure out ways to create community in places where the pickings are slimmer, or there isn’t much money to go around (and these minyans do rely in alarge way, on a healthy,moneyed community with resources that they are wiling to share with peope who don’t put money into them. Giving money or time to organizatinos which support only social justice, but not Jewish life, doesn’t count – Jewish life is also important). I would also, I have to say, love to see day schools become ubiquitous, cheap, and full of rabbis teaching in them. Of course, that would mean that salaries would have to be higher, and seminary tuition lower.
    More thoughts on how to accomplish a healthy Jewish community without making it so expensive would be welcome.

  6. I would encourage everyone to look at Germantown Jewish Centre in Philly as a model of how to preserve the dynamism of minyanim in a synagogue setting.
    GJC has successfully integrated, not one, but two havurot into its congregation. On Saturday mornings (and the high holidays), there are three services, a mainstream Conservative service in the sanctuary, Minyan Masorti (traditional-egalitarian) and Dorshei Derekh (reconstructionist with a lot of faculty of RRC in attendance). On Friday nights, the service is lay led (generally by a member of one of the havurot), with Rabbi Gordon sitting in with the congregation, and offerring short, pithy d’vrei torah.
    Back in my former life as a Jewish professional, I was a youth director for a suburban Philly Conservative shul that could have been the poster child for everything that’s gone wrong with the movement. At one point that year I bumped into my childhood rabbi, who had become head of the Philadelphia region for the Conservative movement. I began raving about the wonders of GJC. He was nonplussed. “We’ve had some problems with them” referring to their double-affiliation as Conservative-Reconstructionist. Any movement whose most dynamic synagogue in the area is deemed a “problem child” is severely otu of touch.
    So let’s give Rabbi Epstein the benefit fo the doubt. Maybe his comments indicate not just defensiveness, but also a growing awareness that the Conservative movement has to put accomodating traditional egal minyanim at the top of its agenda.
    (After all, I have to assume to he’s been listening to someone close to him who’s willing to trek an hour in the cold to the UWS every other Shabbat to enjoy the joys of Hadar rather than experience a mediocre synagogue service closer to home).

  7. Abu-Esther:
    I don’t think the analogy to private and public schools is apt. Private schools are exclusive because they are limited to those with the ability to pay, while public schools are free. In contrast, it is the synagogues that charge exorbitant dues, while most of the new independent minyanim are free (with a voluntary suggested donation). Not only do we not have dues, we don’t even have membership. Even putting money aside, most independent minyanim are friendlier atmospheres for someone to walk into for the first time than most synagogues are.
    Independent minyanim are not elitist — anyone who wants can participate. They’re small because they’re not the types of communities that everyone wants to join. So if someone would rather be in a synagogue than in an independent minyan, then I’m happy for them, that’s their choice.
    I disagree with your claim that independent minyanim are made up only of Jewish “haves”. While it is true that Jewishly educated laypeople are running away from synagogues as fast as possible (for reasons I have written about), lots of people with less prior Jewish education are also participating in independent communities. It may be hard to see this from the outside, because these people quickly pick up lots of Jewish knowledge by participating in vibrant Jewish communities (much faster than in synagogues, where remaining ignorant is the norm), so an outside observer might see them and assume that they’ve been “haves” all along.
    Abu-Esther writes:
    If the best Jewish ‘haves’ simply withdraw, they will have created a small enclave of amazing Judaism, but will help to impoverish Jewish life in the synagogues they end up not joining.
    I firmly believe that I am having more positive impact on synagogues by building the independent Jewish scene than I would by joining a synagogue. If I were to join a synagogue and try to change it, I would be overruled by the majority of synagogue members who are happy with things the way they are. If we create successful Jewish communities outside synagogues, the synagogues can look at these models and say “Hey, that’s pretty cool, we should try X too.” Before synagogues can change, they have to want to change.

  8. Kol Ra’ash Gadol writes:
    What I do think though is that it will be important for us in these minyanim to figure out ways to create community in places where the pickings are slimmer, or there isn’t much money to go around (and these minyans do rely in alarge way, on a healthy,moneyed community with resources that they are wiling to share with peope who don’t put money into them.
    The independent minyanim don’t depend that much on Jewish organizations. Yes, some of the minyanim borrow space from synagogues, but that’s less necessary outside of large cities, since people have larger homes than the typical tiny Manhattan apartment, so they can host minyanim in their homes.
    Torah scrolls are a stickier thing. I agree that we should move toward the community center model, where the Jewish community (including independent minyanim) can pool its resources.
    I would also, I have to say, love to see day schools become ubiquitous, cheap, and full of rabbis teaching in them.
    I would love to see day schools disappear, and a new model for high-quality after-school Jewish education for public school students (since Hebrew schools suck), but that’s another conversation.

  9. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the independent minyans (which I occasionally attend and mostly like) exist largely so that members of a specific demographic group — youngish sinlges and childless young couples — can pray/socialize with people of their same age group. Decades ago, this demographic didn’t really exist in the way it does now. And I’d hope/imagine that independent minyan-goers will — when they grow older, have families, earn higher incomes and maybe even (gasp!) move to the suburbs — join mixed-age synagogues and thus contribute to maintaining synagogue buildings, paying congregational rabbis’ salaries, and supporting Hebrew schools.
    The sad thing for me though is that these independent minyans are relatively few, and the total numbers or participants they draw are fairly small. This is the best the Jewish world has to offer, and in large part it succeeds only in drawing Jewish communal workers and the most committed Jews of this age group. A congregation of rabbis and day-school teachers is not an entirely positive phenomenon: It’s nice that the proverbial Cohens and the Levites have someplace they enjoy going to, but what about the rank-and-file Israelites? That these independent minyans are liberal Judaism’s brightest beacons (as I think they are) is also testament to the failure of liberal Judaism in this generation.

  10. I am not liberal, and go to new/small Chabad minyans. I am not that young like the people in the article, but am introducing my kids to the joys of small groups. The big box shuls, even the small ones, where politics and board member and Rabbi egos rule, have turned me away. The country club dues have turned others away too. I know I put more in the pushke at Chabad than I ever did under my country club shuls. The only reason we are “stuck” at the local shul is kids enjoy NFTY and youth groups. In 3 years when they are out, we will be out of the shul for good.

  11. What a fascinating conversation, thanks to everyone who has weighed in thus far.
    I was pleasantly surprised to see someone pitch the Germantown Jewish Center model for integration. I grew up in one of the GJC minyanim and continue to think of it as a wonderful community that succesfully balances a diversity of Jewish needs and aesthetics. it takes a special sort of humility to be a rabbi in a setting like that one but Rabbi Gordon is perfect fit as he is a talented darshan, a havurah veteran, and sees the plethora of excited, knowledgable, well-known members of the congregation as partners rather than competition.
    Another model is found at the SAJ in NYC where the congregation has built a relationship with Kol Zimrah where the KZ members are generally not members of the synagogue. Perhaps BZ will tell us more.
    A third model, used at Tikkun Leil Shabbat, our DC minyan, is borrowing space from a gracious Jewish organization that sees offering services as a nice bonus but not a core area of competance. In out case, the Religious Action Center (of Reofrm Judaism) gives us space and we prepare and clean it. They are happy to support vibrant services with an activist bent, and we are happy to partner with an organization that does good, holy work and of course, appreciate the free, centrally located space.

  12. Look at the Israeli model: shuls don’t hire rabbis, at most they will find one of the members who is a teacher, or a state-funded rabbi, to be the shul rabbi. Most Orthodox synagogues in Israel function fine with no rabbi.
    What will happen, though, is that Jewish education will become more important to more people, and we will have more and more people finding the time to educate themselves Jewishly. Then they won’t need rabbis.

  13. It’s better to help out struggling elderly minyanim, like the Charles St. shul in the West Village. No politics, just warm, wise and funny elders. And they love to see young people, especially cute girls.

  14. Daniel writes:
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the independent minyans (which I occasionally attend and mostly like) exist largely so that members of a specific demographic group — youngish sinlges and childless young couples — can pray/socialize with people of their same age group.
    You’re wrong. If socializing with people of our age were our sole objective, we’d just go to the wine-and-cheese events that Julia Appel disparages in the article. It would be a lot less work.
    See this JTA article from last week: independent minyanim/havurot have been around for almost 4 decades, and (in the aggregate) involve people of all ages.
    I’ll quote myself:

    Many see that Kol Zimrah participants are relatively homogeneous in age and conclude that we choose these independent communities over “multigenerational” synagogues because we are interested in socializing with our own age group. This is not the reason. We are attracted to the independent minyanim because we want to be active participants in our Jewish life rather than passive consumers. Why, then, have these minyanim particularly attracted single adults in their 20s and 30s? First of all, we are particularly alienated from synagogues because they are structured around the family (my family lives 800 miles away); the independent minyanim are structured such that unattached individuals can feel like full members of the community. Second, we are a transient group, living somewhere for a few years and moving on. Synagogues tend to have a more settled membership and an attachment to the way things have always been. People ask me “If you know what kind of Jewish community you want, why don’t you join a synagogue and change it instead of starting your own thing?” I respond “That will take at least 20 years, and I can’t wait that long.”

    And I’d hope/imagine that independent minyan-goers will — when they grow older, have families, earn higher incomes and maybe even (gasp!) move to the suburbs — join mixed-age synagogues and thus contribute to maintaining synagogue buildings, paying congregational rabbis’ salaries, and supporting Hebrew schools.
    No thanks. Not without major changes to synagogues, anyway. If we don’t want to participate in mindless and soulless Jewish communities in our 20s and 30s, we won’t want to in our 40s and 50s either. A few years ago, we might have simply drifted away from Jewish life when faced with the available options, but this generation is empowered enough that we’ll create something wherever we’re living in our 40s just as we created something in big cities in our 20s.
    You also seem to be implying that it’s a bad thing when people don’t join synagogues, because they’re not contributing to synagogue buildings and congregational rabbis’ salaries. This begs the question. Synagogue buildings and congregational rabbis are only needed if people belong to synagogues. In the extreme case where no one belongs to a synagogue, no buildings or rabbis are needed at all — problem solved!
    This is the best the Jewish world has to offer, and in large part it succeeds only in drawing Jewish communal workers and the most committed Jews of this age group. A congregation of rabbis and day-school teachers is not an entirely positive phenomenon: It’s nice that the proverbial Cohens and the Levites have someplace they enjoy going to, but what about the rank-and-file Israelites?
    This is inaccurate. While there are indeed some Jewish professionals who participate in these minyanim (as civilians), they are not the majority. Most participants are “rank-and-file Israelites” with day jobs who are interested in being part of a serious Jewish community.

  15. Elaine wrote:
    The big box shuls, even the small ones, where politics and board member and Rabbi egos rule, have turned me away. The country club dues have turned others away too. I know I put more in the pushke at Chabad than I ever did under my country club shuls.
    Anyone who cares about liberal Judaism should read Elaine’s comment carefully. People are looking for a warmth and intensity that isn’t to be found in most institutional non-Orthodox synagogues. Either we can create independent minyanim where they can find this in a form consistent with progressive Jewish values, or they’ll find it at Chabad.
    Anyone who wants to increase Chabad recruitment should keep non-Orthodox synagogues exactly the way they are.

  16. And another thing:
    Abu-Esther wrote:
    they will have created a small enclave of amazing Judaism, but will help to impoverish Jewish life in the synagogues they end up not joining.
    How are we the ones impoverishing Jewish life in the synagogues by not joining them? As the article said, we’re no more than a few thousand people. What about the millions of Jews who not only don’t belong to a synagogue, but aren’t building vibrant Jewish life elsewhere either?
    It’s nothing new that Jews in their 20s aren’t joining synagogues. The difference is that this used to mean that they weren’t involved in Jewish life at all. For years, the synagogues didn’t notice or care that we weren’t there (except in an abstract “Where are all the young people?” sense). Now that we’re actually doing something proactive, they wake up and accuse us of impoverishing Jewish life.

  17. to clarify, though i also think my specific minyan is a great community i was refering to the Germantown Jewish Center as a whole when i spoke of it “as a wonderful community that succesfully balances a diversity of Jewish needs and aesthetics.”

  18. When I lived in Austin, after we built our huge new Michael-Dell-funded JCC, it became a home to a Reformish postdenominational congregation, an occasional minyan split off the from the local Conservative shul, a new Reform congregation, and a small black hat congregation. Each used one of several rooms on different weeks. All havurot in their way.
    The Conservative synagoue built a new building at one end of the JCC, and I remember one Shabbat when the cantor officiated at a bar mitsvah at the Conservative shul, then walked down several halls and stairs to officiate at a bar mitzvah at the postdenominational shul (the child was the son of a friend who had asked him to be there).
    The JCC campus also hosts the day school.
    The Conservative shul also has a few occasional independent minyanim now.
    Things may be stuffy in the NYC suburbs, but may be more flexible elsewhere.

  19. Amit, the Israeli model won’t work for exactly the reason you state/imply: “state-funded.” The government foots the bill for a tremendous amount of Orthodox religious expenses, such as buying/repairing sifrei Torah, paying rabbis (even part-time), helping with building expenses, and so forth. The costs that non-Orthodox communities in Israel and any communities in the US are significantly higher, and the challanges they face higher as a result. Further, acquiring a religious (Orthodox, again) education for men in Israel is a piece of cake financially. Not so in the non-Orthodox world. Certainly, one of the questions might be about how we can give more people more access to more serious learning, but even so, that doesn’t eliminate the need for rabbis altogether–certainly not in any sort of a tachlis way in the real world, imho.

  20. When I lived in Austin, after we built our huge new Michael-Dell-funded JCC, it became a home to a Reformish postdenominational congregation, an occasional minyan split off the from the local Conservative shul, a new Reform congregation, and a small black hat congregation. Each used one of several rooms on different weeks. All havurot in their way.
    Meanwhile, the JCC in Manhattan doesn’t allow any prayer services on its premises. How can we bring the Austin model elsewhere?

  21. Dewey writes:
    And they love to see young people, especially cute girls.
    And this is precisely one reason why we’re not going to synagogues — we don’t want to be objectified. In the case of “cute girls”, the objectification is more obvious. But even for those of us who are neither cute nor girls, the “Isn’t it great to see young people?” attitude objectifies us as well. I want to be in a community where I can be respected as an individual.

  22. Meanwhile, the JCC in Manhattan doesn’t allow any prayer services on its premises. How can we bring the Austin model elsewhere?
    The key difference between Austin and NYC is who the funders are. In Austin the Dells appear to have done the funding almost single-handedly in NYC the JCCs have much larger funding bases. It was hard to raise the money and the JCCs relied on help from the synagogues and rabbis among other resources. This led to the current non-agression pact where the JCC doesn’t allow services so as not to compete with its synagogue allies. Amazing how moneybehavior everywhere you turn.

  23. One problem is that rabbinical students (at least in liberal Judaism) must take out a tremendous amount in student loans to cover at least five years of study. And this doesn’t count student loans from undergrad and any prior graduate degrees.
    So, when they graduate, they must get a high-paying job — like earning close to six figures at a large Reform temple — simply to pay the bills and have a decent standard of living.
    If rabbinical school were free, part-time rabbis might be an option.

  24. I am a rabbi with a day job (I teach in Jewish contexts, do consulting work, and write books). I find this allows me to pursue the areas of the rabbinate I am really good at (as opposed to running a synagogue and doing the work of a CEO, which I was not trained to do), and I am able to keep my intellectual honesty since a board is not voting on what I should say and do. As an independent person who is a rabbi, I find many ways to serve the Jewish community as a speaker, teacher, life-event facilitator, etc. And I am able to have a less hierarchical relationship with the people I serve than if I were a pulpit rabbi.
    However, other writers on this thread are right: my student loans are a big problem. While in general the Jewish community receives my work with great enthusiasm, I am not paid at a level that allows me to comfortably pay my bills.
    I also find that folks who are not familiar with the independent model sometimes assume that because I do not have a congregation I am not a ‘real” rabbi. (“Oh, you’re not a practicing rabbi?” is a frequent comment.) I have to admit that hurts, even though I am very happy with the way I practice my rabbinate.
    I’d love to see the independent model succeed, for those who want it, because I think it encourages healthy spiritual communities. I hope the community shifts its economic and social dynamics so that independent communtiies and rabbis get more support.

  25. At my shul we have a URJ/UAHC, whatever it is now, sanctioned Rabbi who was not ordained, or ever a Rabbi anywhere, but calls himself a Rabbi. So I guess you can be a Rabbi but have no creds.

  26. This is an excellent discussion. I’m grateful for Fishkoff’s attention, but I do need to take issue with a couple of her points:
    “These are not beginners’ services: The davening is fast and proficient, led by people with strong Jewish backgrounds who went to day schools or Jewish summer camps, were active in their college Hillels and may have spent time in Israel. ”
    There are those of us who are quite active in these minyanim who do not fit into any of those categories. As BZ said a while back, there are plenty of us rank and filers who want meaning in their Jewish experience, and these grassroots havurot offer opportunities to take in active role in creating Jewish community.
    I’ve also got to take issue with one of Sarna’s quote in the piece as well:
    “The very fact that they use different words is significant,” Sarna says. “The minyanim don’t put the same emphasis on fellowship. Davening and study are higher on their list of priorities.”
    I can’t speak to minyanim that I’m not an active participant in, but for Kol Zimrah, community and fellowship are just as important as davening, and I’m pretty sure that it’s the same for Tikkun Leil Shabbat, who encorporate community events and social justice action into their world. Perhaps my brother zt could speak to this point.

    The one piece about these communities that has been a concern to me is educating people to our existance. I’m not so concerned with drafting people to get them in the door as much as educating people to let them know they do have a choice. If people feel their experiences are “impoverished” in other places (which again, as BZ noted, doesn’t fall on my shoulders), they do have the choice to visit a havurah and see if it fits them or, if one doesn’t exist near them, reach out to others and start their own.

  27. BT writes:
    At my shul we have a URJ/UAHC, whatever it is now, sanctioned Rabbi who was not ordained, or ever a Rabbi anywhere, but calls himself a Rabbi.
    The URJ doesn’t sanction rabbis – do you mean the CCAR? And the CCAR doesn’t admit members who weren’t ordained somewhere.

  28. The minyanim are cute, but they are not outreaching to Jews who are old, poor, or lonely. Emphasis on old. Maybe young Jews don’t want to be objectified, as another commentator said, but neither, it appears, do they want to be around the elderly.

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