Global, Identity, Politics, Religion

Strengths and weaknesses of indie minyans and why I don't get to go to Zoo Minyan tomorrow

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle
Zoo Minyan, an independent minyan that meets in the neighborhood around the zoo in DC, is not meeting for davening this week. Why do I care? And why is this interesting? Let me back up:
I’m on the Bolt Bus, headed down to DC for the J Street Conference. The conference proper doesn’t start until Saturday night, but I’m heading down to spend Shabbat in DC, hoping to get some good shul-hopping done for your reading pleasure.
My plan was to go to multi-denominational, non-membership, convention-defying synagogue Sixth and I tonight and to the still-extant, just had their 40th birthday, proving all the “indie minyans will never last people wrong,” first-wave chavurah Fabrangen tomorrow morning.
But then, while emailing back and forth with Mah Rabu blogger and fellow Jewschooler BZ, he suggested the I try out Zoo Minyan instead. Apropos my post from the other day about feminizing the theology of Kaddish Shalem, he thought I might like Zoo Minyan. During their service, they apparently alternate between masculine and feminine names for God. So I got a little excited to see that in practice.
Then, as I’m sitting here on this bus, I get this e-mail from BZ with this post from their blog:

Zoo Minyan – No Davvening, but some learning, Sat. Feb 26

Zoo Minyan is not meeting for davenning Sat. Feb 26.

Sorry folks! Insufficient leyning turn-out for Zoo this shabbos, wouldn’t be lichvod Torah. Apologies for the short notice / change of plans.

But feel free to stop by for some learning after davenning elsewhere (or after shaarei sheina / sleeping in, as is your custom).


So, it’s Fabrangen for more tomorrow, after all.
But it’s not a total waste because I have some thoughts to share that came out of this failure to launch. The first time I heard such an attitude from an indie minyanaire was from an organizer of the ultra-lightweight London minyan Wandering Jews. They don’t organize anything other than a place and time. They refuse to beg people to be hosts. If no one volunteers to host, there’s no davening. If not enough people bring stuff for the potluck, there’s no communal dinner. Etc.
I heard a woman speak about this approach at Limmud Colorado a couple of years ago. She said, if people value Wandering Jews, they will make it happen. And if they’re not making it happen, then it isn’t valuable and they should just let it go and slip away. This stands in about the starkest contrast possible to the synagogue continuity-obsessed folks.
And at Zoo Minyan, it seems there is a somewhat similar attitude. And now I don’t get to go. Oh well, their loss. And Fabrangen’s gain.

11 thoughts on “Strengths and weaknesses of indie minyans and why I don't get to go to Zoo Minyan tomorrow

  1. Interesting that minyan is called Wandering Jews, and that they are slackers. The “Wandering Jew” exists today because of a stereotype used for slander and disenfranchisement.

  2. Nehemiah, I’m not sure how you arrived at the notion that they are slackers. Certainly, it’s an unusual concept and quite foreign to the more structure- and membership-oriented synagogue form we’ve become more familiar with in relatively recent Jewish history.
    However, there’s a kind of refreshing institutional honesty to it. If the group that wants and uses Wandering Jews no wants and uses it, why go crazy trying to reinvent the group and hold it together with scotch tape and a core of overs-worked volunteers? Why not just let it dissipate and assume that the next groups of Jews who come along needing a group will make it themselves?
    I’m not saying I totally agree with their approach, but I think it’s worth more consideration than just pronouncing them slackers and calling it a day. That said, I don’t know that if I helped to create a new minyan or chavurah that I would be able to easily let it slide away. Nor, I imagine, do Wandering Jews participants. As far as I know, the group is still extant, so this notion is purely academic for the time being.
    And you may be right about the origin of “The Wandering Jew”–I really have no idea its origin–but I’ve never heard it used derogatorily. On the contrary, I’ve always connected it with–and, again, this may be just be me talking out of my own ass–but I’ve always connected it with the line from the seder, “My father was a wandering Aramean.”

  3. David–
    I think a good case can be made that the term “wandering Jew” has been reclaimed, but Nehemiah’s correct about the origin. Google it.

  4. yea, i was just using slackers casually, i’m sure they are all very nice and responsible yidn, but the whole “nothing but davening” seems to me to be impossible to sustain.

    1. Does Yedid DC still exist? Their website lists an upcoming service on “Friday, February 13”. The last Friday, February 13 was two years ago.

  5. David, My father was a wandering Aramean is indeed read at the seder, but it’s actually from Deuteronomy 26:5.
    As for the wandering Jew, I had always assumed it related to wandering the desert for forty years, and then wandering from place to place in golus. Wrong! The derivation in Wikipedia is repeated by many other sources;
    “The Wandering Jew is a figure from medieval Christian folklore whose legend began to spread in Europe in the 13th century. The original legend concerns a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming. The exact nature of the wanderer’s indiscretion varies in different versions of the tale, as do aspects of his character; sometimes he is said to be a shoemaker or other tradesman, sometimes he is the doorman at Pontius Pilate’s estate.”
    Despite the Christian origin, I like its application to a group that has no permanent home, but davens now here, now there, and apparently sometimes, now nowhere. And it’s also applicable to what I see as a significant problem for the Jewish community: neighborhood change, and the abandonment after thirty years of perfectly good synagogue and other Jewish-purposed buildings, because the surrounding community has dispersed.

  6. First, I think that when these things start to get to big and too technical (too many lawyers, people taking stuff way too seriously) than the whole indie flavor is lost. You can be a synagogue with annoying synagogue politics even when you’re sitting in a living room.
    Second, I liked the idea of an independant minyan, but it seems like they tend to attract a certain type of Jew. It shouldn’t feel like a meetup of Jewish lawyers, doctors and business men from ivy league schools, but a true representation (economically, educationally) of the tribe.

  7. Second, I liked the idea of an independant minyan, but it seems like they tend to attract a certain type of Jew. It shouldn’t feel like a meetup of Jewish lawyers, doctors and business men from ivy league schools, but a true representation (economically, educationally) of the tribe.
    Listen, every Jewish organization attracts a certain kind of Jew, and very few of them attract a broad representation of the tribe (to use your words).

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