Culture, Global, Identity, Religion

What IS the role of the rabbi in the independent minyan movement?

I have to admit that I’m surprised and delighted at how much conversation the JTA article has produced both on Jewschool (see “Trifecta” and “indie minyans”) and across the spectrum (rumor has it that the Shefa Network‘s email list is afire with discussion about independent minyanim). As someone interviewed in the article who is also a rabbinical student, I want to pose the question to the Jewschool community: what is the role of the person who has completed rabbinical training in all this?
I have a very good idea of my critiques of the mainstream Jewish community’s passivity and hierarchy, its funding priorities, as well as the “wine and cheese party” focus for people in their 20s and 30s (I wanted her to use my other quote in which I said, “They’re so concerned with making Jewish babies that they forget about making Jewish lives,” but I digress).
But, at the same time as I am fully engaged in building a vibrant, authentic, empowered (read: non-hierarchical) Jewish expression and community(ies), I have a little “problem”:
I am going to be a rabbi. I have actually chosen to go to many years of schooling in the Jewish tradition, and to devote my professional life to realizing change in the Jewish world and beyond. As some commentators on “indie minyans” were mentioning, a non-Orthodox rabbinical student (and many Orthodox) comes out of school today with lots of debt because of lack of funding, which makes it impossible for her or him to work for free with a little minyan or to do part-time work in community-based groups without significant other funds.
Looking at the commentators’ discussions on these two Jewschool posts, I want to summarize the multiple definitions of what these minyanim are doing and present the question. Commentators here have thrown out different constitutive definitions of these minyanim as:

being lay-led
being spirited with an empowered approach to organizing
being for a specific age demographic
providing Jewish religious experience without demanding high fees
small, tighter community that cares about each other

Kol Ra’ash Gadol said in “indie miynans”:

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.

Perhaps it isn’t having a building fund and membership sign-up — having the trappings of being “official” — that makes us run away.
I assert and believe (and hope?) there are ways that the current generation of rabbis-in-training who are on board with and are in fact co-creating these independent communities can actually join with good holy souls to *gasp* bring these visions into the batei knesset of American Judaism (and further). The above qualities that are to describe these minyanim need not exclusively apply to unfunded minyanim that don’t own meeting space and lack a sisterhood.
They are mistaken, those in the movements who, because they can’t hear the critique the minyanim are launching against the mainstream, are gleefully and ominously predicting the downfall of these independent minyanim once we grow a little older. But I challenge us: What are the next steps? What kind of shteiblach might we create — ones with all the qualities listed above, but in which we can mark life cycle events, raise kids, be cared for in our old age?
More to the stated topic of this post: What IS the role of the rabbi in the independent minyan movement? I truly hope that the rest of us who are creating these communities can think about ways that we rabbis-to-be and recently ordained rabbis can actually serve as resources for these communities. Because, just as one cannot learn quantum physics without a teacher, it is also extremely difficult to learn/create a spritual practice without teachers. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without important Jewish teachers who have changed my life (both with and without official titles). We are all teachers and learners.
It also happens to be true that some of us have spent 5+ years in school so that we can serve the rest of us as resources for building our Jewish lives. Please. Please! Use us as such. And help us all figure out a way that we rabbis don’t have to take a job in a large, impersonal, suburban temple in order to pay off our school loans.
Won’t you come to my small, spirited, lay-empowered, caring, justice-motivated, pluralistic store-front shteibl? Oh, and help me create it?

48 thoughts on “What IS the role of the rabbi in the independent minyan movement?

  1. And help us all figure out a way that we rabbis don’t have to take a job in a large, impersonal, suburban temple in order to pay off our school loans.
    I don’t know why rabbis-to-be are often so shocked to discover that some of their career prospects offer a less-than-ideal Jewish life. You made the Faustian bargain when you applied to rabbinical school, and you knew that you would eventually have to pay up.
    Those of us who are working to build independent minyanim (and aren’t Jewish professionals) are doing it in order to create active Jewish communities, not to create parnasah (employment) for rabbis (even if they’re our friends).
    As you are surely aware, there are plenty of non-congregational jobs for rabbis that are Monday-Friday 9-5. So if you’re not interested in a conventional pulpit, you can always get one of those jobs to put your professional skills to work and put food on your family, and then spend Shabbat participating actively in your local independent minyan, as a volunteer like the rest of us.
    We’re running our independent communities entirely on volunteer labor. Maybe down the road, as the communities’ operations expand and we find ourselves with less time to volunteer, we might decide to pay people to do some of the grunt work. And if the labor needed to educate our children exceeds the aggregate volunteer labor in the communities, maybe we’ll decide to pay teachers (with or without semicha). What we don’t need is “rabbis” as they exist in synagogues — figureheads who are set apart from the community as more religious, more spiritual, more Jewish. As you said, we are all teachers and learners. In empowered communities, our peers can be spiritual resources, and we don’t need professionals for that.
    Certainly, many members of institutional synagogues (the kind that you don’t want to end up in) are looking for precisely this type of elevated figurehead in their rabbi, so there is a steady demand for congregational rabbis. That demand doesn’t exist in independent havurot, and anyone who tries to create such a demand ends up in sketchy territory, because they have a vested interest in keeping the community dependent on them in order to justify their livelihood, so they end up disempowering the community. And don’t even get me started on the freelancers, whose livelihood depends directly on constant self-promotion.
    That said, even if all of us were empowered, there would still be a need for people with rabbinic education (even if not as congregational rabbis). There is a need for experts in Jewish texts, just as there is a need for experts in physics, economics, history, or any field. In secular fields, those experts can be professors in academia, where they can teach and do research and keep their field of knowledge alive, and tenure means that they have a stable income without the need for constant self-promotion. What would such a model look like in the Jewish community? (beyond Jewish studies departments at universities) And how would it be funded?

  2. No. and I’ll tell you why: because enough people today are Jewishly educated enough to run their own shul (guess what? it doesn’t take 5+ years of school to get the hang of it), and they are not rabbis. How about giving enough kids a free, rigorous, Jewish education (K-yeshiva) instead of letting them become rabbis before they know how to read Hebrew or lead Mincha?

  3. As these minyanim grow they will inevitably begin to look more like formal synagogues. A free borrowed space is not sustainable for long term growth. As attendance and frequency of davening increases permanent spaces will be needed. With a permanent space there will be a desire to make use of the building beyond Fri. night and Sat. morning. Rabbis will most likely find responsibilities teaching different classes and being a full-time voice to help organize volunteers. In addition people will still need counselling and a person to ask halakhik questions(for those people that believe in binding halakha).
    I’m not sure if this will be enough work to justify a full-time position. But between this and teaching at a day school I think a Rabbi should be able to support himself and a family.
    Of course, regardless of what some people here hope, there will always be a need for Rabbis and Cantors to work at Bar Mitzvah factory shuls to provide services for 2 day a year jews.

  4. Take these values into large suburban congregations and watch what happens.
    I am a member of a huuuuge Reform temple in Minneapolis. 2000 families.
    We have two lay led minyanim, and a musical friday night service once a month that is led by one of our rabbis who is also a musician. We have a Hebrew study that is learning biblical hebrew form Motzkin’s “First Hebrew Primer – Biblical Hebrew for the adult beginner.” What we have is a synagogue so huge, that in order to be personal, it has a lot of stuff going on that has an indie character. Our rabbis are teachers, leaders, organizers, consultants, and liaisons, as well as officiants at life-cycle events.
    Some folks might be fearful that this sort of approach might lead to fragmentation of the community; but most large shuls don’t have enough of a sense of community for this to be an issue. Fragmenting makes a large shul into a “comunity of communities” able to serve people with multiple interests under one roof.
    Oh and one advantage of lay led services in a shul that our rabbis seem to enjoy from time to time is that on Shabbos mornings when there is a lay led service, they are free to show up as worshippers and get some of their own spiritual needs met.

  5. I think Rich hit the nail on the head. What is valuable about indie minyanim is not the arrogant assumption of fake egalitarianism and false humility, it’s the DIY spirit that gives room for people to grow into thier Jewish leadership and spiritual dimensions.
    Synagogues large and small can foster this approach if they try. This is the meeting point, and it’s actually happening across the country. Rabbis will be less of an authority figure; shuls will be less impersonal; fewer members will remain ‘2 day a year Jews’; and more will assume roles performed today by rabbis and paid staff. Sounds like a good thing to me – might even result in a greater diversity of synaogue types, particularly less expensive ones….

  6. What do you students think about our shul hiring a non ordained Rabbi, and yet calling himself a Rabbi? Do you think someone who did not put in your dues/education has the right to call himself a Rabbi? When we complain to the board, we were told that “anyone can call themself a Rabbi, back in the old day, Rabbi just meant teacher”. Then recently I was at a talk and the man giving the talk, said he was the “spiritual leader” of a shul, and that, that meant he did not have Rabbinical degreee etc. How honest and refreshing.

  7. BT: I think that rabbis shouldn’t become too attached to the sense of ‘earned privilege’ that comes from ordination, or an advanced degree. In that sense, a rabbi assuming the title without paying dues serves as a good reminder that your efforts only give you the duty to give even more; not the right to expect more from others.
    A rabbi attached to his title reminds of those losers who insist on being called ‘doctor’ when they earn a Ph.D., or folks who use lots of letters after thier name even in social contexts where it doesn’t matter.

  8. Fake egalitarianism…
    This is my experience: a group espouses equality among its membership, but there is never really equality. The ‘old timers’, the founders, those willing to stay late for meetings and so on have more power than others. That’s not a bad thing; but it’s often opaque and hard to see in the absence of traditional titles and heirarchical structure.
    When someone HAS power, however it was earned, I prefer that this person be publicly recognized as wielding it. I think it better when individuals are accountable for responsibilities they have, as opposed to entities. One can appeal to an individual far more easily than to a committee.
    I guess there is a cynical streak in me that strives for clarity. Titles and defined power structures at least let me know (usually) where I stand.

  9. Some of the more mature havurot out there (remember, the havurah movement is not new) have taken the plunge, bought a building, hired a rabbi, etc. One example is Havurah Shalom, a Portland Oregon reconstructionist shul ( My understanding, based on a brief conversation with a couple members, is that the membership had very mixed feelings about changing from a roaming all-volunteer havurah to a full-fledged synagogue, but they ultimateily decided it was inevitable. Yet they found ways to stay true to their values in the process of making the change, and they’ve become stronger for it.
    At the same time, as Rich pointed out, some megashuls have spawned their own indie minyans. My grandparents’ shul in Houston (Beth Yeshurun: hosts multiple minyans every week all under the same roof and same dues structure.
    The future of liberal Jewish prayer in America is not going to come down to some decisive split between soulless B’nai Mitzvah factories and elitist havurot. Rather, the two will continue to learn from–and borrow from–each other’s playbooks to the point where we’ll have a hard time distinguishing an organic indie minyan that happens to meet in a shul’s basement from the alternative minyan offered by the shul itself.

  10. yehudit bracha, thank you for so fully and openly offering your struggle as a model for discussion. I think many struggle with this issue; so many rabbis and rabbinical students have signed up for a vocation because they love intense jewish community and then are forced into the tough position of being in differently intense communities with fewer “peers”.
    i tend to feel similarly to BZ on many issues.
    being a rabbi is a wonderful expression of a commitment to be a servant to the jewish people and vessle. many jews appreciate the conventional model and its a real show of commitment to meet folks where they are. most havurah jews don’t seem to want rabbis in the conventional sense. we are happy to have peers who daven toghether with us.
    some shuls, like GJC which was mentioned in the earlier comments to the indie minyan post, have minyanim and rabbis which have some integration and very serious yiddishkite. that may be a fit, otherwise, promising fields are hillel work, chaplaincy work, education, university work, federation work, jewish ngo work, etc. that would give you weekends to be a chavurah jew. alternatively you could open a shul like KolHalev in Cleveland which uses chavurah langauge and some sensibilities but is a synagogue with a professional staff.

  11. Abu Esther’s description of Fake Egalitarianism puts me in mind of a couple of things. I am not a fan of this srot of idea because an “egalitarian” context does not diminish the flows of power, it only makes the discussion of power taboo. The easiest way to identify the leader of an egalitarian group is to raise power as an issue ans see who is first to remind you that the group is egalitarian.
    This raises a second issue – people rarely join comittees out of pure altruism. There is stuff they want to make happen. Maybe it’s more prayer in Hebrew, maybe its an educational program they want from their congregation, maybe it’s a public service project. These are all good things, for on them the world stands, but bearing this in mind, having a Rabbi on a comittee or even running it can be a good thing. Because the rabbi has one indisputable advantage – he (and I use the masculine pronoun here in a collective sense, which is normative for languages that possess gender) is likely the only person in the room whose chief motivation is that he is paid to be there. This means, ideally, that he can run a meeting objectively, without necessarily steering it in a direction.

  12. “Take these values into large suburban congregations and watch what happens….”
    I have seen a number of large shuls like this and they should be encouraged, not lumped in with the stereotype of the “big suburban bar-mitzvah factory” (sneer sneer). They seem to me the best of both worlds, for one thing wouldn’t indie minyans rather meet in rooms in a synagogue than a church basement, if you have a choice?
    “fake egalitarianism” – oh yeah. Big time. All the indie minyans I know are like junior high school cliques, and they are all in denial about it. And they all say they encourage diversity, when they have one of the narrowest demographics I’ve ever seen.

  13. I am a founder and gabbai of picoegal, an independent minyan in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of LA. We recently asked a member of our community, and a Rabbi, to be our advisor on halachik issues mostly pertaining to the davening. We have asked him to research the halachik literature on whater issue we have questions about and then to present the sources to the leadership of the minyan. He has no say in the creative agenda for the minyan but we realized at this stage in our minyan we needed a halachik go to guy. I like that we have no Rabbi. I think it empowers the members to take chances with their spiritual lives and to feel comfortable in shul. When and if miinyanim of this kind grow to provide services such as religious school, shiurim, life cycle events etc the need for an overseer of sorts becomes more important. However this person need not be a Rabbi. They must however have the necessary management skills and dedication to the ideals of the community to be an honest representative of the wills of the membership.

  14. They seem to me the best of both worlds, for one thing wouldn’t indie minyans rather meet in rooms in a synagogue than a church basement, if you have a choice?
    Yes and no. Mostly yes. Of course we’d rather be paying rent to a synagogue than a church, and there are opportunities for symbiotic relationships between the communities. The synagogues that allow independent (or even non-independent) minyanim to meet in their buildings are to be commended for enabling the development of strong Jewish communities, in contrast to the shortsighted views of those synagogues that seek to cut off potential competition because they think that one size fits all.
    On the flip side, I’ve heard stories from various independent minyanim that met in synagogues where the synagogue tried to impose its own minhagim (customs) on the minyan. In those situations, I can see how a church might seem attractive — churches don’t get involved at all in the content of what the minyanim do.

  15. We recently asked a member of our community, and a Rabbi, to be our advisor on halachik issues mostly pertaining to the davening. We have asked him to research the halachik literature on whater issue we have questions about and then to present the sources to the leadership of the minyan.
    If lots of communities are in this boat, why not have this reference-librarian function provided by a nationwide email list? (The National Havurah Committee has several.)

  16. I am skeptical about the labor economics presented on both sides of the argument. The rabbinate, for a number of reasons, has a lot of job stability. Rabbinic contracts tend to be for extended periods of time, and it takes a lot to fire a rabbi. This means that rabbis face little competition for their specific job. Not only is this a disincentive to perform their best, but it also means that people have little choice in finding rabbinic leadership that works. It is, if you will, the France of the job market. The independent minyan argument presented here wants high job turn over in order to get the most desired product. Anyone can teach a class, and the best will be invited to teach again. Halakhist are consulted, and do not ultimately decide for the community, but those with the most knowledge and most thoughtful opinions will surely be consulted again.
    I think the independent minyan critique of the role of the rabbi is very much related to the training the rabbi has had. Many are looking for someone knowledgeable, but find the rabbi’s extensive training in community issues a rut to pull the rabbi out of rather than useful skills. How does the standard rabbinical school graduate compete on the market of jewish community leaders of all backgrounds? I would say the answer is not very well. I have seen few rabbis who regularly teach at the independent minyanim I am familiar with, and I see plenty of people with masters degrees, dedication to personal study and experience in institutes such as pardes who are the more desirable candidates. If your rabbinic degree does not mean that you are more knowledgeable, a more creative thinker, and a better community organizer I see no reason to give preference to someone with a rabbinic degree.
    But I think a critique of the independent minyan approach is also needed. Feminists have been tackling the idea of unpaid labor for a while now. Certain jobs in our society are not considered worth compensating, and are framed in a context of something people (usually women) should do to show commitment and affection to others. We love the proverbial mother for cleaning the house and baking, but thats different than the necessary work dad does to bring home the paycheck. Do we really want to create a model in which people giving to our communities is out of love, and therefore less worthy of compensation? We need to have some system of valuing the time that people devote to our communities. It doesnt have to be in the form of an outside hierarchical rabbinic figure brought in to officiate at our funerals and say Words of Wisdom about the high holidays. It does mean that someone who devoted 15 hours a week to making a minyan tick should reasonably expect to get paid for the work they put in. Id like to explore the idea of funding this through the model of a think tank, where people are awarded stipends on a competitive basis to serve as part of an active community organizer think tank. There are, after all, profitable careers in the non profit world. Id love to see this hashed out more.

  17. Yehudit: your argument that minyanim are junior high school cliques is demeaning (purposefully?) and rediculously sweeping. Its not clear to me that the average minyan is any cliquier than most synagogues. Just about every organization and community has a network of social connections, some are more balanced, others not. Almost by definition organizations started by groups of friends have some prior connections within them, but junior high school…some minyanim are cliquey other not so much. ditto synagogues.
    Re: churches,
    rich once explained that a big problem is the Jewish communities eddifice complex. we build buildings all the time. big buildings, little buildings, every community, every event, every organization we all need our own building, or so the thinking goes. one of the big reasons the cost of participation is so high in mainstream jewish organizations is that they are constantly building buildings. so in a magical world where we have everything we want and don’t need to pay for it, i’d like to meet in a big beautiful building with intimate spaces for several progressive jewish groups that would give us our own sense of space and connection to a broader community. given that we need to pay for what we get, generally speaking, the couple thousand dollars a year necessary to support a building (and parking lot) in the burbs holds little appeal for me.
    MS: loved the labor economics. i don’t think anyone will quibble with your well stated issue that many rabbis aren’t as good at teaching, community organizing, or davening facilitating as many non-rabbis. to be sure, on average rabbis are better at all these things, but the increasingly broad availability of jewish education has pushed to the forefront many talented yidden who make there livings away from pulpits.

  18. Well. . . .I’m a rabbi at the kind of shul that many of the participants in this discussion would probably run away from, so take my words with as much suspicion as you like.
    A couple of things:
    1) It’s incredibly easy to fire a rabbi- ask any of my colleagues who have had their lives turned upside down and careers left in shambles precisely because somebody decided they wanted something new and better, without considering the moral cost of asking somebody to live, work, pray and become rooted in a particular community, and then asking them to leave. It’s not just about labor economics- it’s also about moral committments on both sides.
    2) As a general rule, in my experience (YMMV) anybody who is smart enough to be a decent rabbi is smart enough to make more money doing something else, so discussion of incentives and disincentives is a bit besides the point- rabbis are in it, for the most part, because they love to teach Torah and help people. Of course there are cynical, pompous, self-promoting, arrogant rabbis out there- just as there are in any profession and in the leadership of all partsof the Jewish world (including certain leaders of indie minyanim who are possessed of an unbelievable sense of moral superiority to the amcha who populate suburban and small-town shuls.)
    3) If mainstream shuls are so bad, why do so many Jews join them? I mean this seriously; granted, lots of Jews don’t join mainstream, rabbi-and-cantor type shuls, but lots of people do, presumably because they want to. Nobody is forcing them, no rabbi has any power to make somebody join their shul or pay dues- so given all their failings, the shuls must be doing something right at least some of the time. Lots of Jews form alternative minyanim, and lots of Jews join shuls, and lots of Jews do neither but still get involved in Jewish things.
    I don’t mean to sound defensive- nobody knows more about the organizational and institutional shortcomings of a mainstream shul than somebody who gives 60- 70 hours a week to one- but gosh, I know lots of Jews who find friendship, fellowship, Torah study, and social action opportunities within the context of Temple Beth Mainstream and its ilk. I also know lots of Jews who don’t, so let a thousand flowers bloom and let’s all learn from each other without being snarky.
    As a Reconstructionist leader used to tell his rab students: “never look down on people because they just want to be congregants.”

  19. Neal-
    yes, Rabbis do get fired, but I think you comment about it being “heartwrenching” etc is exactly what I am talking about. In a place with high job security, it means that it is very difficult for the unemployed to find work since so few jobs are opening up. Low job security means more job opportunities for all in some ways. You loose one job, there are many others out there. Companies also suffer less because they dont need to hold onto every employee just because they seemed promising at one point. So too with Rabbis- once a rabbi looses his job its hard for him or her to find another one. There are few openings in the area and it is therefore likely that they will need to pick themselves up and move. In a low job security rabbinic market, they could find a different job in the same area more easily.
    of course, many will argue that it is the nature of the rabbi to build long and lasting ties to the community members so that the community members will come to the synagogue partly out of their connection to the rabbi. There is sentimentality in the life cycle events she has officiated at for the entire family. For some people this is true, for others they are bored of the same rabbi. Some rabbis know how to serve the community better and better over time, but many just get stale. If the suburbs are happy with the permanent rabbi, let them keep him, but I think the Indi minyan scene is asking for something else.

  20. Let me make sure I’m understanding correctly.
    Yehudit Brachah said “Rabbis need jobs, so you should employ rabbis, and here are some ways that this can benefit your community.”
    Then Neal took this a step further to say “Rabbis need jobs, so you should employ rabbis, even when (the community has decided) this doesn’t benefit your community”???
    Should we have a “rubber room” for rabbis?
    Neal writes:
    Of course there are cynical, pompous, self-promoting, arrogant rabbis out there- just as there are in any profession and in the leadership of all partsof the Jewish world (including certain leaders of indie minyanim who are possessed of an unbelievable sense of moral superiority to the amcha who populate suburban and small-town shuls.)
    Leaders of indie minyanim may be a lot of things, but we’re not self-promoting. Sure, we promote our minyanim, but we don’t promote ourselves. Most people don’t even know our names unless they know us personally. It’s not about us as individuals.

  21. The quick answer to your question, what is the role of the rabbi, is to ask the people who are in fact rabbis of independent minyanim. Hadar has a rabbi in residence, my friend Shai Held, and KOE has a Rosh Kehilla, who is not a rabbi, but that is a technicality of orthodoxy because she is a woman.

  22. Interesting discussion. In the interest of full discolsure, I, too, am a congregational rabbi in a suburban shul (small and struggling, demographically and financially). When I was in rabbinical school, I davened at an indie minyan. I was excited to go to a ‘mainstream’ shul afterwards and bring that spirit and closeness to those people who lacked it. Unfortunately, over my 20+ years in the pulpit rabbinate, I have found that there are quite a few Jews who don’t want to be spirited, intimate or participatory. They want a Jewish place that’s there when THEY think they need it and the rest of the time does good things but doesn’t require too much involvement.
    That is from both small and big shuls. (I’ve worked at 6 over the past 20 years). They’re not all the same, not by a long stretch. But in each of them has been a good number of Jews who don’t want to get involved too much or too often, who want their social circle to be in their business or neighborhood (or country club…) but not with the people they daven with.
    And, BTW, at least in the Conservative movement, the number of rabbis looking for pulpits each year has gone up – there is MUCH more turnover than there used to be, even for rabbis who have proven track records.
    Anyway, I have spent many years davening in both indie minyanim and suburban shuls. I find (and maybe it’s just me) that if I do it correctly, I can get as much from the davening in either place! It’s the rest of it, the lack of a close knit community, that really makes me prefer my old library minyan days.
    When I win the powerball (I know, I know:I don’t even play it), I’d like to daven in a minyan community like that and teach all over the place, without worrying about money!

  23. Shai Held’s title at Hadar is “scholar in residence”, and he is not the “rabbi of” Hadar. This isn’t just a technicality (the way it might be at KOE; I’m not sure) – his position is nothing like a congregational rabbi position. He teaches classes and teaches occasionally during services, and so do lots of other people in the community; he just does it more often.

  24. Independent minyanim have a core of folks willing to put the volunteer time and energy needed to create Jewish community. Is everyone who davens with the minyan a co-creator? Probably not.
    Suburban drive-through shuls also have many folks dedicated to donating their time and energy to the community – which is why there are umpteen lay-committees, some of whom (ritual practice) are making the same sorts of decisions made by governing bodies of indie minyans.
    The reality is one of size and age. When there are folks who have been members of a shul for 50 years, they want comfort in their Jewish home, and who are we to deny them that? The larger the institution, the slower change is able to happen.
    When we form our own minyans, we’re saying “We’re too impatient to wait for your beurocracy to come around.” Why? Because we have a desire to be on what Zalman calls “the growing edge” of Judaism. We want room to innovate and adapt, and many of us are at a point in our lives where synagogue membership is simple economically unrealistic, and even if we were to sit on a ritual committee, the kind of change we’re looking for is going to take time. Often more time than we’re planning to be in town.
    There are rabbis, even in institutional settings, who are working to change that which is broken about drive-through Judaism – empowering congregants to take responsibility for their own Jewish learning and living. As has been mentioned, places have many lay-led minyanim, tight-knit communities, etc.
    I only wish everyone had the tools to create their own Jewish communities and lives, but due in large part to historical realities, we have assimilated so successfully that many Jews know barely enough to keep up in Reform davening, and would feel lost and uncomfortable at a minyan like KZ.
    We need rabbis to work toward bridging the gap between those who can, and those who are not yet able. Before that can happen, we need to show people why creating Jewish lives is a valuable use of their time – we need to show them that G!d-wrestling, and all of its various forms, will enrich their lives in ways almost unimaginable. Independent minyanim are a wonderful model for that wrestling.
    As an educator, the easiest situation in which to teach is one where you don’t have to work for buy-in. When the students are already invested in the community and in the learning, it becomes less about marketing, and more about meaning. Bayom hahu, every yid will have the desire and skills to create their own small, tight-knit communities with whom to learn, pray and celebrate (immediately prior to the coming of Moshiach). Until they have those tools, we need Rabbis to work to bridge the gap.
    Independent minyanim are a tiny segment of the population compared to institutional Judaism, even with its many flaws. If we create these communities out of ahavat yisrael, then we should also take it upon ourselves to spread the wealth – it will take a whole movement (small “m”) of rabbis to make congregations places where folks like us can find a home.
    I would also argue that to a certain extent, Temple Israel in Boston’s Riverway Project fits the definition Yehudit laid out originally. There are not enough folks able to lead davvening, so we’ve been training a crew to do just that. Change is coming, just slowly. And those who choose the Rabbinit take upon themselves the responsibility of making that change – not just starting from scratch because they don’t like the available options. And not simply making that change for themselves and those of like mind, but for the rest of the yidden.
    Are we going to have indie minyanim with Rabbis? Maybe not. But I think it’s much more likely that rabbis can take the values and strengths of the indie minyan scene and light a fire under institutional Judaism – as I’ve said, it’s already begun. Savlanut, chevre, savlanut.

  25. As people probably realize, “independent” minyans are not all the same…. the older and more established ones actually may take on some of the qualities of shuls, for better or worse. I personally hadn’t even thought of Hadar and KOE as indie minyans, given that they are both super organized, and I believe “incorporated” as non profits, and very large. The larger, the more centralized the structure I have found, which can make that structure more explicit, or not. The one thing I can say of “indep” (ie without employees or permanent bldgs) minyans is that they seem to require an unbelieve and admirable amount of volunteer labor.

  26. Many independent minyanim are incorporated, including some that are much smaller than Hadar and KOE. It’s a prerequisite for (among other things) opening a bank account, and thus being able to collect and spend money as an organization.

  27. thanks for the information, BZ. I didn’t realize that. I guess I’m just saying that most organizations are on a continuum from “decentralized” to “centralized” and that can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending, in my opinion, on just how explicit, clear and transparent groups make their structures, plus whether one happens to agree with those strucutures and styles. Sheer size is a factor too, in keeping that intangible “indep” feeling.
    While I think that people in indep minyans vote with their feet, pro and con, I don’t think most religious decisions are made by vote (for better or worse). I guess they all draw constituences that agree, to some extent, on what kind of davenning they feel most comfortable with.

  28. Dear BZ, et al:
    I am at a loss to understand how you think what I said is that people should employ rabbis even when it doesn’t benefit the community. What I said is that there is a moral element in both hiring and firing a rabbi, which doesn’t mean it should never happen. Believe me, I know some rabbis who deserved to get fired, and who would be doing themselves and the Jewish people a favor if they found another line of work other than pulpit service. The earlier poster who compared rabbinic job security to other kinds of professions misses the factor which introduces the moral component of hiring and firing: if somebody gets fired at IBM or the local hardware store, they have their faith community and family to turn to for support. When a rabbi gets fired, he or she loses not only a job, but his or her shul, AND the entire family loses their shul and community. Again- this is not an argument for keeping rabbis if the match isn’t working, but rather an argument (which should have been made more explicit) for better evaluation procedures such that a few unhappy people can’t overturn the satisfaction of many others, esp. when it involves such turmoil for all involved. To put it another way: if you’re going to hire moral leadership, you have to hire and fire in a moral way.
    As for your statement that leaders of indie minyans don’t promote themselves, well, yes, of course, most don’t. I’ve davenned in indie minyanim in DC, LA, Philly, Toronto, and Boston, and most of the people associated with these minyanim are wonderful, selfless, enthusiastic people who desire only to create beautiful Jewish experiences. There are a few arrogant self-promoters out there, who do, in fact, have a sense of spiritual superiority to the average suburban Jew in the pew; I’d say the proportion of arrogant lay leaders is roughly equivalent to the proportion of arrogant rabbis out there, and in neither case is it a majority.
    Most people involved in Jewish life, in any Jewish institution, are wonderful and well meaning people, who have something to teach, something to give, and something to learn, just like everybody who posts on Jewschool 🙂

  29. Hey Everybody,
    As a rabbi of one of these emerging communities–Mitziut, in Chicago–I am very interested in this discussion, but the timing…
    Is it at all possible to repost this discussion after the high holy days?
    May your t’shuva be deep, non-perfunctory and full of emmes and ahava.
    shalom v’ahava,

  30. BZ or others, What is “incorporation” exactly? When it comes to indep minyans, I’m interested, b/c I wonder how much of a mission is defined in such a charter, or document…. Are the religious parameters of a minyan defined in incorporation, or is it a procedural document, which lays out terms for a board, and members? I recall KOE needing to have certain decisions ratified by the membership, for example. I think issues like these – and how they play out in reality – are quite central to the “members” experience of the centralization of the minyan, and what is up for debate. I think all of this is relevant to defining the term “independent”…. and comparing it to an institutionalized synagogue/temple/shul whatever you call it. Both may have boards, committees, memberships, etc. Obviously, there are many differences – I think many of us experience the felt difference – but I’m interested in what the exact differences may be.

  31. I spent 15 years in the classic pulpit rabbinate and want to affirm Neal’s point that firing a pulpit rabbi is quite easy. It’s simply not true that rabbis tend to have long-term contracts; and even where such exist, it’s simple for a synagogue board to arrange a way for the rabbi to leave. Rabbis and their families do suffer from the insecurity others have discussed, of not knowing when they may have to leave a community where they have put down roots. It’s another reason many (self included) leave that kind of work: simply to choose where to live and where to daven.

  32. Rebecca Stern-
    (This just applies to NY state; I don’t know how other states do it.) Incorporation as a “religious corporation” (in New York’s language), aka a “church” (in the IRS’s language), makes it possible to open a bank account and to receive tax-deductible donations. The process does indeed require submitting a set of bylaws to the state. However, I know of a number of minyanim that incorporated when the community wasn’t yet at the stage where it made sense to establish fixed structures. (After almost 4 years, Kol Zimrah is still hammering some of these things out.) Therefore, these minyanim submitted a set of boilerplate bylaws that fulfilled the legal requirement but didn’t actually reflect solid decisions by the minyan on either religious or structural issues (which were still in limbo), and the minyanim have continued to develop their structures at a more natural pace, responding to the needs of the community. KOE has been around much longer than the other NYC independent minyanim, so it makes sense that it has a more established structure.
    Shanah tovah everyone!

  33. bz, thanks for your response! I am eternally grateful to those who create these spaces to daven. So, my line of questioning is not meant to be negative. But I guess I I do have a somewhat more “pointed” point, which is that sometimes I find, as a participant who gives in some degree, but not to a huge degree, that I can sometimes feel at some indep minyans, that I am disempowered from decisions but at a loss to see exactly where the power structures are so that I might engage with them, AND I don’t always know what the limits of change are. For instance, my personal impression at KOE was that there were certain halachic limits that would not be crossed, no matter what, and I’m not sure how that squares with their being a non profit with voting membership…. My personal impression (and I hope this is of interest to more than just NYCers, as this is just a case example) is that Hadar has made a point of making many of its decision making structures clear, which I find incredibly refreshing. Nonetheless, if I didn’t agree with a particular decision, I wouldn’t exactly feel like I had the power to make a change. I could certainly send an email, but I’m not sure that I know where the decisions are made. Now, should I have a say, given the fact that I haven’t really been there putting in the work and time, and probably am not willing to at the moment? Probably not. But there are some who might put in more work and time if they knew for sure where they could or couldn’t make impactful changes in the minyan. Just my two cents from my many years of experiencing various minyans in NYC. Shanah Tovah to all, and again, I’m so grateful for the experiences these minyans have provided and will provide for myself and others.

  34. BZ Says: Yehudit Brachah said “Rabbis need jobs, so you should employ rabbis, and here are some ways that this can benefit your community.”
    That is not at all the point of my entire post. It’s not even a point I intended to be there.
    I thought that the title was pretty clear. It was a question.
    What is the role of the person who has completed rabbinical training in all this?
    I’m glad that so many people have weighed in.
    If BZ could have misheard my point so much, I’ll assume good intentions and that I probably wasn’t clear enough in my main points (and maybe was experiencing some personal anxiety about my chosen career path that came through with more emphasis than I intended). Maybe my main points were too embedded in the personal-question format of my post, so I’ll summarize the thoughts that motivated me to post the question as I did (and I’ll say at the outset that I second Lasttrumpet’s comments heartily) :
    1) I am not satisfied with stopping at creating insular, elite minyanim that serve only a select demographic, no matter how wonderful they are and how much good they are doing in their own corner of the universe. I believe in them. I love them. I have devoted countless hours on two different continents to them.
    BUT, in the quest to break down certain hierarchies of the Jewish community, we are at risk of creating our own without acknowledging it.
    2) I challenge us to think about how to carry our insights, critiques, soul sparks out to the rest of the North American Jewish community (and potentially Jews around the world, although I am quite sensitive to how different Jewish life is outside of North America).
    3) I am working at training myself to be a resource in this project. I’m really excited to think about it and work on it with other people. I want to do it all day long. I want to commit my life to it.
    4) It seems like many of us have a knee-jerk reaction to people in positions of authority, even if the specific person in that position (in this case, that of a person officially ordained “rabbi”) actually has no intention of “wielding” that authority in the ways many of us have been critiquing.
    I totally understand that some people do not have a goal of spreading our ideas and innovations. Please don’t misunderstand: I am not proposing that some independent minyan somewhere pay someone with the title rabbi a bunch of money to do what they are doing fine without paying someone! And may these minyanim be blessed with success however they would like to measure it and with meaningful engaged community!
    But it is a small subset of Jewish communities that has the education (both Jewish and in organizing and leadership), desire to lead or organize, and wherewithal (including time outside of work and family, even marginal expendable income to invest) to create a minyan like the ones we are discussing.
    And I think that one of the keys to empowering more Jews across the spectrum to build their own Jewish lives could be to create a new kind of rabbi and a new vision of Jewish community in which that person is a resource for Jews creating their own Jewish lives, providing information, texts, ideas, support, and so much more. I am not willing to give up on the idea of Jewish teachers/leaders with extensive training serving communities. I know some people have.
    It feels not very popular among this circle to assert as such, but I think we have brushed aside people who happen to be called rabbis (and trained Jewish educators, cantors, others) too much in our desire to breakdown old hierarchies that seem to have stifled Jewish empowerment and creativity. Which is why I posted to start the discussion over here.
    May we all be sealed in the book of life, and shabbat shalom! I look forward to continuing to think about this with you all in the new year.

  35. eloquently stated, yehudit. One of the implications of what you have written, at least from my perspective, is that rabbinical students should perhaps be trained as much in organizing and leadership as in text study. This specialized knowledge is perhaps a rarer resource, and one that speaks more to dissemination of knowledge than superior knowledge. I think I’ll get flamed on this, seeing how I just suggested that we should all know less… but I think what I’m saying is that we should all know the basics, ideally.

  36. Yehudit Brachah-
    gotta disagree with the your words of minyanim being “insular” and “elite” You’re painting an awful lot of communities with a wide brush. While I cannot speak for all particular communities, I will say that I’m proud to be part of one community that does all it can in terms of openness, educational opportunities (classes on service structure and how to lead), and opportunities for anyone and everyone to take on meaningful roles.
    Most havurot/minyanim do not have a building of their own, so you can’t just “go to the minyan”. I think the key to this is letting folks know (beyond these pages) that these communities are here so people have the opportunity to make a choice. But insular and elite smacks of exclusion to me. As someone who didn’t grow up in day school, go to camp, and wasn’t active in Hillel in college (apparently, the trifecta of requirements some think you have to satisfy to be a part of these communities) I found this particular community to be open, supportive and inspiring. And happy to have me get involved and have my opinions heard.
    Now I personally have no particular beef with havurot/minyanim versus shuls. There are some shuls I enjoy being in, and some minyanim I do not find as engaging. I am glad there are folks like Yehidit Brachah going to Rabbinical school with these questions in mind.
    May we, and all those we care about, be sealed for a sweet new year!

  37. I don’t think anyone is claiming that these minyanim are purposefully exclusive. However, the level of knowledge required for competence in many of these worship settings is most certainly a barrier to many. Especially those without substantial Jewish education and with little time outside of family and work to grow their knowledge bass. Even if one grew up Reform and involved, it would still take much practice, study and effort to gain competency and comfort with the liturgy as presented at, say, KZ. And until we have some kind of social/minyan networking resource (soon, b’ezrat HaShem), it’s sometimes difficult to find minyanim or pertinent info without already knowing someone in this world. Ruby, you and I have pondered many times how we get more folks to find out about some of the excellent work being done in this area. These sorts of communities aren’t even on many people’s radar, which is another barrier to their entry. Outside of a handful of urban centers, it’s all the more difficult. I don’t think anyone is attempting to be elitist or insular, but in our substantial efforts to create and sustain these communities, we also need to be conscious of opening every possible door to invite folks in and share our insights with the rest of the yidden.

  38. [A non-content comment: Yehudit Brachah and Yehudit are two separate people. I’m thinking of changing it to YehuditBrachah to clarify…]

  39. Yehudit Brachah writes:
    If BZ could have misheard my point so much, I’ll assume good intentions and that I probably wasn’t clear enough in my main points (and maybe was experiencing some personal anxiety about my chosen career path that came through with more emphasis than I intended).
    Sorry about that — I reacted most strongly to the line “And help us all figure out a way that we rabbis don’t have to take a job in a large, impersonal, suburban temple in order to pay off our school loans.”, and I may have read too much emphasis into this part, at the expense of the rest of the post.
    1) I am not satisfied with stopping at creating insular, elite minyanim
    I’m with Ruby K. For these minyanim to be “insular” and “elite”, they would have to be selective about who participates. This may be a good description of Havurat Shalom or the New York Havurah in the 1970s (where there was a selective application process for membership), but not of any of the present-day independent minyanim I’m familiar with, which are always open to new participants.
    Yes, there are still a lot fewer people involved in independent minyanim than in synagogues, which may create the perception that the minyanim are elitist. But as Neal said upthread, it may be simply that more people are interested in what synagogues have to offer than in what minyanim have to offer. The intense empowered community found in many independent minyanim isn’t for everyone — many Jews are content to write a check, show up occasionally, and let the paid professionals be and do Jewish on their behalf. And if they’re happy with this arrangement, who are we bloggers to tell them otherwise?
    2) I challenge us to think about how to carry our insights, critiques, soul sparks out to the rest of the North American Jewish community
    The best way this can happen is by strengthening the communities that can serve as models, so that other communities have paradigms to shift to when they’re ready for a paradigm shift, rather than by spitting into the wind to attempt incremental change. As I’ve written elsewhere, Chabad’s far-flung outreach wouldn’t work without Crown Heights, so we need to build a liberal Jewish Crown Heights (or many).
    4) It seems like many of us have a knee-jerk reaction to people in positions of authority, even if the specific person in that position (in this case, that of a person officially ordained “rabbi”) actually has no intention of “wielding” that authority in the ways many of us have been critiquing.
    It feels not very popular among this circle to assert as such, but I think we have brushed aside people who happen to be called rabbis (and trained Jewish educators, cantors, others) too much in our desire to breakdown old hierarchies that seem to have stifled Jewish empowerment and creativity.
    I feel like this is the Bizarro version of the gay rights debate. That is, opponents of marriage equality say “Gay people shouldn’t have special rights”, and we respond “It’s not about special rights, it’s about having the same rights as anyone else!”. Likewise, you seem to be suggesting that people with rabbinic ordination are being “brushed aside” by independent Jewish communities, and I would respond that people with rabbinic ordination are just as welcome to participate actively in these communities as anyone else (in fact, many do); they just shouldn’t expect any special status in the communities on account of their title.
    Shanah tovah, and see you this weekend! 🙂

  40. “The intense empowered community found in many independent minyanim isn’t for everyone — many Jews are content to write a check, show up occasionally, and let the paid professionals be and do Jewish on their behalf.” – bz
    I belong to a synagogue and bz, I’m insulted enough to post and let you know that. Three things:
    1- The rabbi at my syangogue is sick. He is so sick that he is dying- maybe not today or tomorrow but soon and before his time unless he gets a bone marrow transplant and a miracle. I can’t say enough good things about his amazing leadership, how much he’s given to the community, and also how upset the congregants are. I love having a rabbi, and I’m deeply attatched to him and think if you don’t appreciate the rabbis so you haven’t had a really good one yet.
    2- A different perspective and a tangent. Why do people go to synagogues? Mosques? Churches? Why do they look for and find communities of faith? A lot of Jews see their heritage and their religious community as two different things. In their perspective going to church doesn’t make you a good Italian and going to syangogue doesn’t make you a good Jew. I think people seek out communal prayer because they are either the type of person or at the time in their life to want or need it. How much do the details matter (like rabbi or no rabbi)? A lot, to some. But I started going to my syangogue regularly because of the cholent. I bet every person who comes has a different set of reasons. So my point may be that the we’re better/they’re worse mentality is silly and useless. If you have that attitude, people will look somewhere else for their community of faith.
    3- How many people in Hadar or KZ need visitations when they’re sick? Counseling during a life threatening illness? Funerals? What are you going to do without a rabbi in forty years?

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