Culture, Identity, Politics, Religion

NYT on Indie Minyanim

In non-Annapolis news, the Times this morning reports:

Without a building and budget, Tikkun Leil Shabbat is one of the independent prayer groups, or minyanim, that Jews in their 20s and 30s have organized in the last five years in at least 27 cities around the country. They are challenging traditional Jewish notions of prayer, community and identity.
In places like Atlanta; Brookline, Mass.; Chico, Calif.; and Manhattan the minyanim have shrugged off what many participants see as the passive, rabbi-led worship of their parents’ generation to join services led by their peers, with music sung by all, and where the full Hebrew liturgy and full inclusion of men and women, gay or straight, seem to be equal priorities.
Members of the minyanim are looking for “redemptive, transformative experiences that give rhythm to their days and weeks and give meaning to their lives,” said Joelle Novey, 28, a founder of Tikkun Leil Shabbat, whose name alludes to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. It is an experience they are not finding in traditional Jewish institutions, she said.

In my mind, there’s nothing in the article most of us don’t already know, but hopefully publicity on this level will help the broader Jewish institutional world wake up a bit. That being said, while the Havurah movement has had notable impact on institutional Judaism, it is still around, and still countercultural. So who knows what the future will hold.
Full story.

35 thoughts on “NYT on Indie Minyanim

  1. Yeah, the urban vs countercultural dichotomy doesn’t really make sense – the major early havurot (e.g. Havurat Shalom, New York Havurah, Fabrangen, etc.) are/were urban too – and the havurah vs minyan dichotomy has never been clear.
    But woo!!! The New York Times!

  2. Cool! Though I think they’re a bit off about Hadar…I’m not sure it counts as a part of the Havurah movement per se, and the goal of Yeshivat Hadar is certainly not to be a summer program just “to train those who want to lead or better participate in minyanim.” Awesome!

  3. As someone who feels on the inside of this phenomenon I would make more exact distinctions, however, I am thrilled that the NY times explored a little bit of my world!
    Ben, the writer’s confusion came from the variety of services mechon hadar is trying to provide. On their website the describe how they also want to create some training programs for new minyanim.
    I think the the goals of Tikkun Leil Shabbat are fairly different than DC minyan and I imagine there is some crossover due mostly to the fact that they probably do not normally meet on the same days. Religiously, they seem to have two very different approaches, not unlike the differences between Hadar and Kol Zimrah or Picoegal and Ikar (which is not an independent minyan so much as an independent “shul” that attracts the young crowd).
    My friend Michelle (what are the rules about using last names in this type of forum?) is writing her Masters thesis at Hebrew U with steve cohen on this phenomenon and is analyzing the data from the survey that many of us filled out last year. I am excited to hear what comes out of that paper.

  4. Benjamin writes:
    I’m not sure it counts as a part of the Havurah movement per se
    The “havurah movement” isn’t defined by institutional affiliation (the way the Reform or Conservative movements are) – it’s a grassroots trend of lay-led participatory Jewish communities. Hadar is a key part of this trend.

  5. BZ,
    you don’t think the “havurah movement” so to speak doesn’t have other defining characteristics beyond being a lay-led participatory community? There seems to be some significant differences between havurot and independent minyanim.

  6. I won’t speak for people running havurot, but there were enough differences that at my Hillel people felt the need to start one despite there already being an Orthodox, Open Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist minyan, all of which were “lay-led participatory.”

  7. “independent minyanim” is a poor descriptor:
    TLS for example: meets in space owned and donated in-kind by the Reform Movement, has leaders who attended conservative and orthodox day school, has a leader who is on the board of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federations, has a leader who teaches at the local Jewish Day School, has dozens of folks who met through various Jewish camps, former presidents of hillels, and countless other connections with all sorts of jewish institutions. it is silly and misleading to talk about this minyan, or most as independent from those other communities.
    it is is hurtful to the other communities and needlessly haughty on our end. the jewish community more broadly is full of problems, but we do rely on it’s services, it’s educational energy, and in some instances its money. let’s not pretend that’s not the case, let’s appreciate the help even as we do things differently.

  8. ZT- what would you use in lieu of “independent minyanim”?
    I don’t see much difference between the folks who attend TLS and those who attend DC Minyan. TLS has mixed seating and Minyan is divided without a mechitza (there’s a relatively new Rosh Pina minyan which I think adds a mechitza and has women do kabbalat shabbat but not having attended yet I can’t vouch). That may be a factor for some. I go to both and see many of the same faces at both. The leadership may have different missions, but their is huge overlap in the communities. They are also geographically close, which is certainly part of it.
    What a nice recognition for the minyans mentioned in the article!

  9. i’d prefer just minyanim or perhaps unaffiliated minyanim. i suppose there are some substantial differences between havurot and minyanim but i suppose they could be called havurot as well.

  10. re: different missions of havurot and minyanim, maybe but they both seem to be committed to building meaningful prayer communities. They both use the strategy of lay-led worship. seems more alike than different.

  11. I suppose there are affiliated/dependent(?) minyanim with which they can be contrasted. Adas Israel, for example, hosts a Ruach Minyan and the Traditional Egalitarian Minyan (are they separate? I can’t keep up). I definitely haven’t seen the shul-affiliated minyans get much press.

  12. “Independent” doesn’t imply living in a vacuum, cut off from the rest of the world. It’s fair to refer to the United States as an independent country even though its citizens come from other countries around the globe (and some even hold dual citizenship in those countries) and the US engages in trade relationships with many other countries. In contrast, Maine is not an independent state, since it’s part of the US.

  13. jladi writes:
    There seems to be some significant differences between havurot and independent minyanim.
    If you’re using “havurot” to refer to communities founded in the ’60s and ’70s, and “independent minyanim” to refer to communities founded in the 2000s, then on the whole, you’re correct that on average, one can generalize some differences (though it’s not clear that these are that much bigger than the differences you mention between, e.g., DC Minyan and Tikkun Leil Shabbat). However, I don’t think the havurah/minyan distinction is properly applied to this generational distinction. These labels are much more fluid. Tikkun Leil Shabbat (founded 2005), one of the “independent minyanim” featured in the article, refers to itself on its website as a havurah, and the Highland Park Minyan (founded 197x), which is representative of the 1970s-era havurot, refers to itself in its name as a minyan. And many of the active participants in the new “independent minyanim” are also active in the National Havurah Committee network. I don’t think there’s any meaningful distinction that corresponds to the words “minyan” and “havurah”.
    (Except that “minyan” means a prayer community, so a havurah that gets together only for activities other than prayer is clearly not a minyan. But the communities under distinction do get together for prayer, so they can be described both as minyanim and as havurot.)

  14. I find it fascinating and somewhat amusing that one of the key discussion points to emerge out of this NY Times article is a semantics debate about the names and micro-details of various davening communities. I have no doubt that those debates have great relevance for those involved directly with those communities. But as someone a bit more peripheral to the topic (I’m not currently a member of a minyan OR a havurah), I thank ZT for bringing us back to the macro issue: In ways large and small, direct and indirect, “independent” minyanim and havurot rely on and are nurtured by “mainstream” Jewish institutions. The NY Times article might have benefited from exploring this element a bit more (it did get a bit of play in Steven Cohen’s comments about the role of day schools in expanding Jewish literacy). For those who care about the fine-point distinctions between a minyan and a havurah, mazel tov. But for me, I’m fascinated by the ways in which we use terms like “independent” and “mainstream” to convey subtle signals about what we’re looking for in our community. The subtext of “independent” can be any or all of these: young, hip, egalitarian, outsider, creative, new, fun, grassroots, heimish, etc. Just fill in the opposites on all of those for possible signifiers for “mainstream.” But how successful would the “independent” communities be if the “mainstream” seminaries, national movement bodies, summer camps, day schools, JCCs, etc. weren’t out there training a next generation of leaders and providing resources? I manage Torah Queeries (, an online Torah commentary project that is fundamentally grassroots, diverse and egalitarian (please – write an essay for us if you’re interested!!!). But we’ve had lots of great contributions from ordained rabbis (Steve Greenberg, Jill Hammer, Lisa Edwards, David Lazar, etc.). I’m on the board of a new Limmud organization. Is that independent or mainstream (the bulk of our funding is from a “mainstream” Jewish foundation)? Part of what brought me to my involvement with Limmud and to was studying for a couple of summers at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. Does Pardes count as independent? And if so, would I have had a less meaningful experience if I had studied at the Conservative Yeshiva instead? One of my favorite places to daven when I visit New York is B’nai Jeshurun – a full-on member of the USCJ, but 10 times more participatory than nearly any other shul I’ve ever been to (and very reminiscent of IKAR – a technically “independent” congregation). I think the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t care so much about “minyan” vs. “havurah,” or even “independent” vs. “mainstream.” I want to be involved with Jewish institutions that are creative, fun, vibrant, egalitarian, energizing, open, welcoming, participatory, and diverse. If that happens in a synagogue, a JCC, or dare I say it, even a Federation, then great. Let’s figure out how to make ALL our communal institutions strive toward such a model. And in the meantime, rock on to all the minyanim and havurot that sustain us with their energy and passion.

  15. i think the most interesting question, which, incidentally, connect to the semantic one raised earlier is what the connection is between these minyanim and other jewish forms, how the mainstream is changing, and which the core vital organizations will be for the next generation of jews.
    if this phenomenon is separate from Federation but connected to AJWS, separate from denominations but connected to pluralistic schools and hillels, at some point those latter institutions will be the mainstream, no?
    what are the implications of that shift?

  16. Absolutely, ZT. As was discussed briefly in the article, some “mainstream” spiritual institutions attempt to mimic elements of the “independent” communities, often with limited success, just as some “mainstream” Jewish cultural organizations make efforts to ride the hipster bandwagon, modeling themselves on Heeb, Jdub, etc. Sometimes, though, these efforts by Hillel chapters, day schools, synagogues, etc. are successful and authentic. Those success stories are worth celebrating.
    What will our communities look like in 5, 10, or 20 years as more and more “mainstream” institutions become more vibrant, diverse and energetic? Are we witnessing a transformative process through which some of the institutions of our parents’ generation can be reborn and revitalized? Or are minyanim and havurot instead about replacing those institutions so well that the older models simply cease to function?

  17. But how successful would the “independent” communities be if the “mainstream” seminaries, national movement bodies, summer camps, day schools, JCCs, etc. weren’t out there training a next generation of leaders and providing resources?
    The flip side of this is that these institutions, when they’re at their best, are training a generation of Jews that doesn’t fit into the institutions, necessitating the creation of other Jewish communities. As I have written before, the institutional Jewish community fails to be a place for educated Jewish adults. But no one is claiming that we would have gotten where we are just fine even if those institutions had never existed.

  18. it’s kind of like how the geonim, way back in the 9th and 10th centuries, sent out so many awesome responsa to outlying communities around the mediterranean that by the time the 11th century and the collapse of the abbasid caliphate rolled around, people stopped sending them donations and questions because they could do stuff themselves.
    it seems ungrateful, but it was also sort of the whole point of what the geonim were trying to do. except when they forgot that and assumed that they should just have natural leadership of all the jews forever.

  19. My friend Michelle (what are the rules about using last names in this type of forum?) is writing her Masters thesis at Hebrew U with steve cohen on this phenomenon and is analyzing the data from the survey that many of us filled out last year. I am excited to hear what comes out of that paper.
    Actually the first report from that survey data is coming out on Friday, as I indicated above. The paper is jointly authored by Steven M. Cohen, me, Elie Kaunfer, and Michelle Shain. (Again, go to to sign up to receive it when it’s released.) I’m pretty confident that it will address many of the distinctions discussed here, as we’ve found both unifying characteristics for the whole “emergent” world as well as some interesting distinctions among indie minyanim (Hadar, Darkhei Noam, Mission Minyan, etc.), rabbi-led emergents (IKAR, Kavana, Kol Tzedek, etc.), and alternative communities (Moishe/Kavod House, JITW, Riverway, etc.) Next up, the paper will be discussed at a panel at the Association for Jewish Studies, with responses from Caryn Aviv, Tobin Belzer, Ari Kelman, and Shaul Kelner.
    There are a number of different ways to slice the emergent pie, so we’re planning some additional in-depth reports: one on independent minyanim, and another looking at the rabbi-led emergents as well as any community (indie minyan, rabbi-led, or alternative) that defines itself as primary or comprehensive, that is, covering all of the bases of a sacred community – religious school, life-cycle stuff, counseling, etc. – such that one need not be a member anywhere else.
    This is a continuing conversation, and the data is quite rich, so if anyone has particular questions or issues for us to analyze, please let us know!

  20. I know this is off the topic but I don’t know how else to contact those who write for Jewschool. Are any of your writers going to the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism convention this week in Florida? It would be great to get some in depth coverage of the discussions/arguments that will take place there that actually matter. Yeah I can read the forward next week at get a few paragraphs about what happened. And forget about seeing any real info about the convention on the Conservative websites like and Those websites give as much noninformation and are as untimely as most of the Conservative Rabbinate and support staff. So any information and real reporting about anything resembling a pulse coming out of that convention would be a welcome addition. Thanks.

  21. btw… on the bottom of the NY TImes page at the end of the article was alink to another article titled something like “Buddhism joins the mainstream in the US.”
    I appreciate Greggs desire for involvement with institutions that are “creative, fun, vibrant, egalitarian, energizing, open, welcoming, participatory, and diverse”
    …I think it is a general question to always ask ourselves- am I cutting myself off from some potentially real experience because it’s hosted at a place that is out of my identity bracket…
    labels to the trash and more bridgecrossing!!!

  22. I wanted to focus on the articles contention that this has much to do with day schools. I’ve gotta say, I don’t think this is about day schools. It seems to me that most of the folks in these minyanim/havurot/communities did not go to day schools. Steven Cohen is pushing day schools because of his own agenda around ‘continuity’. I think that they are drawing folks with some Jewish knowledge, but that is attained in a variety of settings (camp, childhood congregations, and yes, sometimes day schools).

  23. I don’t know from day schools, but I sure do notice a lot of familiar names from Harvard Hillel at the turn of the century. I suspect that depending on one’s frame of reference when approaching “emergent Judaism” (I think I like that term), you might notice lots of overlapping circles. Anyone want to draw a Venn diagram?

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