Kol Zimrah's 3rd anniversary, and why it matters

Hi everyone, this is BZ from Mah Rabu. I’m new to the Jew*School team and excited to be here. My first post may appear to be shameless self-promotion, but I will attempt to argue that it is much more than that.
This month marks the 3rd anniversary of Kol Zimrah, an independent minyan in New York City with a spinoff of the same name in Jerusalem. Kol Zimrah meets one Friday night a month for services followed by a vegetarian potluck Shabbat dinner. The services include the full kabbalat shabbat and maariv liturgy, and are accompanied by acoustic guitar and percussion. In three years, Kol Zimrah has grown by word-of-mouth and email from a small group of founders (full disclosure: I was one of the founders, along with Jew*School correspondents Shir-Yaakov and shamirpower, among others) to over 500 people on its email list (and no official membership). Each service typically attracts 60-100 people. Kol Zimrah Jerusalem, inspired by the New York minyan, started a year ago and meets in various homes around Jerusalem.
Kol Zimrah is meeting for services and dinner this Friday, November 4, in both New York and Jerusalem. Everyone out there in both of these cities is invited! We’re meeting at 6:30 PM in the penthouse at 730 Columbus Ave (between 95th and 96th), New York NY, and at 4:30 PM at Harlap 26-aleph, Jerusalem. See www.kolzimrah.info for more information about both, including details about the potluck. (Contrary to what the web site says, it turns out there will be a potluck at KZ Jerusalem. Email them for details.) Bring your favorite siddur and your voice. Mention Jew*School (or don’t) and get in free.
Kol Zimrah’s 3rd anniversary is significant beyond these two independent communities in New York and Jerusalem, because it represents the enduring power of a number of recent trends in the Jewish world. Kol Zimrah did not create these trends, but encapsulates many of them in one package. Here are twelve reasons why Kol Zimrah’s milestone matters:
1) Over the last few years, there has been a massive proliferation of grassroots independent minyanim. These communities are participatory and egalitarian (even the ones that aren’t gender-egalitarian are egalitarian in other ways), and run entirely by volunteers. The concept is not new – the havurah movement has been around since the 1960s. But a new generation (both the children of the original havurahniks, and people who grew up in mainstream synagogues and had never heard of havurot) is embracing this model, and putting a unique stamp on it. These independent Jewish communities, old and new, have spread across the continent.
2) This generation is empowered to be Jewish entrepreneurs. By the time people graduate from college, they often have years of experience organizing Jewish communities, through Hillel, youth groups, and elsewhere. Therefore, if they want something that doesn’t yet exist, then instead of resigning themselves to its absence, they can just create it. Much of this empowerment is in the mind, believing that something is possible. This started gradually and has now reached a tipping point. Once there are enough successful models of Jewish entrepreneurial projects, more and more people come to believe that their own dream is possible, and they start it wherever they are. These projects include not only independent minyanim, but publications, social justice initiatives, educational programs, artistic expression, and more.
3) Vibrant religious communities are springing up more and more outside the major Jewish denominations. Kol Zimrah would be outside the mainstream in both the American Reform movement (services are entirely in Hebrew) and Conservative movement (musical instruments are used on Shabbat), but it has carved out its own niche outside of institutional movements. Similarly, many of the new independent minyanim don’t fit neatly into boxes. And this is not limited to independent minyanim; a number of huge synagogues are unaffiliated with any movement. People are increasingly coming to see that the denominational labels are not prescriptive but descriptive, and to the extent that they fail to describe, people are empowered to find their own Jewish identities.
4) Kol Zimrah has no membership and no dues. It is funded entirely by voluntary contributions, large and small, from our participants. This is typical of the new generation of grassroots communities. This leads to communities whose doors are always open to newcomers, where there is no defined wall between insiders and outsiders. This is particularly suited to the transient generation, who are frequently moving from city to city.
5) Kol Zimrah’s tagline is “meaningful prayer through music”. The experience of Jewish communal prayer has become more participatory and engaging over the last 40 years, thanks in large part to the role of music. This includes the “American nusach” genre that originated in the Reform youth movement (written by Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper, Craig Taubman, and their successors), the melodies of Shlomo Carlebach who is so influential that his name has become an adverb (“We’re davening Carlebach tonight”), and the “chant” style by Shefa Gold and others.
6) Unlike many synagogues where the service is the same thing week after week, Kol Zimrah and its brethren encourage innovation and experimentation in prayer. (In Kol Zimrah’s case, the innovation is musical, while the text of the prayers maintains the traditional structure.) At least 9 different service leaders at KZ have included melodies that they have composed. The culture now supports this musical innovation, and prayer melodies are disseminated through means such as Kol Zimrah’s under-construction MP3 collection, Kehilat Hadar‘s CD Pri Eitz Hadar, and Jews In The Woods’ Song Swap.
7) Jewish pluralism is evolving. Yes, there are non-pluralistic Jewish communities that represent a particular ideology (and those are important), and there are the standard pluralistic Jewish communities that seek to include everyone (and those are important too). Kol Zimrah represents a new type of Jewish pluralism. It’s clearly not for everyone. If you want a mechitza, or you want English responsive readings, then it’s not for you. But within the constraints set by the style of the service, KZ is home to a remarkably wide range of participants. There are people who take the subway on Shabbat and people who don’t, and no one thinks twice about it. Some people are there to say every word of the traditional liturgy, while others groove to the music and meditate to themselves. People in suits sit next to people in jeans. There is no official siddur; people bring their own. KZ never says “Please rise”, but encourages participants to sit, stand, and dance according to their own minhagim and whims. KZ’s two-table kashrut policy makes it possible for everyone to eat and for everyone to contribute food, without recognizing anyone’s practice as more or less valid. This embrace of diversity can happen when a community is confident enough to welcome everyone’s Jewish practices without feeling threatened.
8) It has long been a problem that there are few options for educated liberal Jews who are not Jewish professionals. The institutional liberal Jewish world just isn’t set up to handle people who don’t fit into the categories of educated professionals and uneducated laity. As a result, many educated liberal Jews turn to Orthodoxy, not because they embrace its principles (at least at first), but because that is the only way that they can find the vibrant community that they are seeking. But now, new grassroots initiatives are creating more options, so that “liberal” need not imply “for beginners”.
9) As most readers of this blog know, people in their 20s and 30s are forgotten by the established Jewish community. To the extent that the institutions think about us, they are running vacuous “singles events”, but no opportunities for a meaningful connection with Judaism. So we are now creating those meaningful opportunities ourselves.
10) This would all be a lot harder without the Internet. The Internet builds not only cyberspace communities but “meatspace” communities. Instantaneous communication makes it possible to have an idea and inform the world about it instantly without spending a cent, whereas 20 years ago this would have required phone calls and flyers and mailings. None of the independent minyanim bother with snail mail; email is the primary medium for announcements. Blogs and email discussion lists help communities stay in touch in between physical meetings.
11) As Thomas Friedman likes to say, “the world is flat.” It was no more difficult for a spinoff of Kol Zimrah NYC to start in Jerusalem than it would have been to start in, say, Boston. Communication is now instantaneous and people are always moving around the country and the world, so successful models can spread quickly.
12) Liberal religious Judaism remains a minority in Israel, and continues to fight legal battles on various church-state issues. However, the way it will gain a firmer footing in Israeli society is not in the courtroom (though the legal issues are important) but in the home, through the growth of engaging liberal Jewish communities. Kol Zimrah Jerusalem represents this growth. It’s small, but that’s exactly the point; liberal religious Judaism will spread on a personal level.
If these twelve trends continue, then predictions of doom are unfounded. We can look forward to a bright future.

10 thoughts on “Kol Zimrah's 3rd anniversary, and why it matters

  1. Hitting the nail on the head quite square was quoting the credible and Israel lover Thomas Friedman. The final blow was saying that Israelis will buy this version of ‘Judaism’. In this generation, you’ll have very little success. Too many of the non-orthodox affiliated are still not as removed from their more traditional parents or grandparents to want to try something artifical like this. But wait another generation or two, and maybe you’ll be able to sell it, nice and packaged to the totally unattached. Then again, we already know that in a generation or two, Israel will be becoming much more orthodox and ultra-orthodox. The demographics show us that the non-religious are simply not making kids anymore.

  2. white on black and looooong. Bli neder, I’ll get around to reading it soon.
    I haven’t been to OA in the longest time, thank for the invite.

  3. I’ll just comment here on one thing: last year, out of the 40 000 odd grade 1 kids enrolled in school in Israel, for the first time, half were ultra-orthodox/orthodox . That is a statistic that will continue to increase and non-religious schools continue to consolidate or close entirely.

  4. If these twelve trends continue, then predictions of doom are unfounded. We can look forward to a bright future.
    Viva! KZ sounds terrific, and I admire your optimism tremendously. Too often Jewish community leaders get bogged down in grousing about what’s going wrong in the Jewish world; I like to see people celebrating where we’re headed and what we’re doing right.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.