Sunday, March 21, 2010
Monday, March 15, 2010
Last year, while working on Empowered Judaism, Elie Kaunfer emailed me and asked if I knew the origin of the term "independent minyan", and said that he had it in his head that I had coined it. My first reaction was complete disbelief - of course I didn't coin "independent minyan"! Whenever I started using the term, I was just using a term that was already out there. My second reaction was that I was unable to find evidence to disprove the claim that I coined it! (Isaac Asimov coined the word "robotics" based on the existing word "robot", but not on purpose -- he thought it was already a word.) I searched through my old email, and the earliest instance I could find was an email I sent on December 30, 2002 to MAIL-HAVURAH (the predecessor to the current NHC email lists), which began "I have been involved in the creation of Kol Zimrah, a new independent minyan in New York City (on the Upper West Side, so far)." (The rest of the email went on to describe and promote Kol Zimrah, and ask questions about how to find davening spaces in New York and how to get people involved in the community.) In Kol Zimrah's next announcement to its email list (sent on January 15, 2003, announcing its January 24 service), it described itself as "NYC's newest independent minyan".
In late January 2003, when Kol Zimrah set up its first website, it included a "Directory of Independent Minyanim in NYC", to keep track of all these minyanim that were sprouting up like weeds. It was an exciting time: at least 8 independent minyanim had started in NYC in 2001 and 2002 alone (4 of which still exist today). And I'll clarify here, since (whether or not I coined the term) it was my idea to start this directory (according to an email to the other KZ organizers dated January 30, 2003), so I have some idea of the original intent. "Independent minyanim", in regard to this directory, was understood in contradistinction to synagogues, or to non-independent (e.g., synagogue-affiliated) minyanim, not in contradistinction to "havurot". The directory didn't include any first-wave havurot, not because we didn't consider them to be "minyanim", but because, as far as I know, none (that qualified as "independent") existed in NYC at that time: the New York Havurah had long since gone the way of Radcliffe College (that is, I hear they still have reunions, but otherwise no longer function actively), and the West Side Minyan and its spinoff Minyan M'at had become part of Congregation Ansche Chesed (and were thus not "independent"). Likewise, the directory was not restricted to minyanim founded after a particular date, though most of the independent minyanim that existed in NYC at that time had in fact been founded after 2000 (the only exception, I believe, was KOE, which was not part of the new tidal wave of minyanim, but not generally considered part of the "havurah movement" either).
Kehilat Hadar's mission statement on its website describes itself as "an independent, egalitarian community committed to spirited traditional prayer, study and social action", so this may have gotten "independent" out there in regard to these communities, though not the exact phrase "independent minyan", since Hadar doesn't officially describe itself as a "minyan" (though its email address was egalminyan at hotmail dot com from before it was called Hadar until not so long ago, making them the last people in the world still using Hotmail). This is explained in Empowered Judaism: "We intentionally did not name the community Minyan Hadar, because we aspired to be something more than just a minyan."
Certain that I couldn't possibly have coined "independent minyan", I asked Facebook if they knew of any uses prior to December 2002, and sure enough, people with LexisNexis access came up with some earlier citations. The first was from the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 17, 1988, in an obituary for one Gerald Margulies: "Mr. Margulies also devoted time to being a leader of an independent minyan, or prayer group, that gathered at the Y.M.H.A. on City Avenue, and was a beloved uncle to his 15 grandnieces and grandnephews, family members said." (Does anyone know anything about this minyan? The Philly people I asked had never heard of it.)
The second was from an article about the Jewish community of Prague in the Jerusalem Report, August 24, 1995. Discussing people who are considered Jewish by Israel's Law of Return but do not have Jewish mothers, the article said: "These Jews are welcome in some of the Jewish cultural organizations and can even find a home in an independent minyan sponsored by the Reform movement called Beit Simcha." Of course, if it's sponsored by the Reform movement, then it's not considered "independent" the way we would generally use that term today. Based on the context, the apparent meaning is that it was independent from the official Jewish community institutions (not a concept that exists in the United States). The article goes on: "While synagogue buildings stand empty or underutilized, Beit Simcha pays rent for a basement room in an apartment building. The atmosphere is reminiscent of an American havurah-style minyan: comfortable chairs arranged in a circle, Zionist posters on the wall."
Still, I haven't found any instances of "independent minyan" in reference to the 21st-century phenomenon earlier than December 2002. The early articles on this wave of minyanim used other terms to describe them. For example, both the August 10, 2001 article in the Forward and the August 2, 2002 article in the Jewish Week referred simply to "new minyans". The former also called the phenomenon a "new havurah movement" (italics in original), and called the minyan that would later be named Hadar a "nondenominational minyan" and a "fortnightly minyan". The first 21st-century use of "independent minyan" in the media might be Jay Michaelson's article in the November 14, 2003 Forward, "A Prayer Group of Their Own: Kol Zimrah and Other Do-It-Yourself Minyans Unite the Independent-Minded", which uses this term repeatedly. As the title suggests, Kol Zimrah is featured prominently in this article.
So the evidence seems to indicate that Kol Zimrah was instrumental (as it were) in establishing the term "independent minyanim", completely by accident. But it's possible that there's still more evidence to be gathered. Do you remember when you started using the term "independent minyan", and where you first heard it? Do you have email correspondence using this term earlier than December 30, 2002?
Tuesday, March 09, 2010
I’ve had the opportunity to lead rocking musical services in a number of great communities (such as Kol Zimrah, NHC, Limmud NY), and been asked “Can you come to my community and lead a service like that?”. And the answer, of course, is no, I can’t. What made that service awesome wasn’t anything that I did; it was the participation of the whole community, which isn’t something that one individual can just parachute into an existing community and create. Then there are other people who get that one person can’t do it alone, and instead suggest “If a bunch of you come to my community and sing loud, then maybe services will be better.” Sometimes this works to one degree or another, but sometimes this, too, fails miserably, because even bringing in a group of enthusiastic people to an existing structure can’t always overcome other entrenched factors.
Both in the specific case of prayer and in the more general case of building meaningful Jewish community, it’s not enough to have a leader, and not enough to have a group of committed participants. The answer is both more difficult (since it’s not as simple as hiring a new rabbi or “bringing in more young people” or whoever the target group is) and more accessible (since it’s about what the community does, not about who does it, so it’s available to any community that is truly committed to it). If a Jewish community is interested in beginning the process of self-examination and transformation to become fully empowered (both in prayer and in other aspects of Jewish life), I recommend starting by reading Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s new book, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010).
Empowered Judaism is a book about the newest wave of independent minyanim, as well as about a larger vision for Judaism and Jewish community. It offers something to many different constituencies: independent minyan organizers seeking to read about best practices from other minyanim, people in other Jewish communities who want to learn what these minyanim are all about and how to incorporate successful elements into their own communities, and future historians of this period in American Jewish history who want something more in-depth about the early 21st-century independent minyan phenomenon than the many superficial articles that have appeared in the press.
Rabbi Kaunfer is a founder of Kehilat Hadar, Mechon Hadar, and Yeshivat Hadar, and shares his personal story in the introduction. This story adds valuable insight to the book: though Kaunfer went to Jewish day school, Hillel, etc. (scoring 100 on the Cohen scale), he also had a period of being entirely disconnected from Jewish community. Saul Alinsky said that there are no permanent enemies and no permanent allies, and likewise, the organized Jewish community would do well to remember that there are no permanent uninvolved Jews and no permanent involved Jews. They seem to be already aware that uninvolved Jews can become involved, and attempt (with varying success) to make this happen, but often assume incorrectly that involved Jews are here to stay under all conditions (and therefore aren’t an effective use of resources), when the truth is that even an Elie Kaunfer can slip away from Jewish communal life when failing to find a meaningful community (and I know this could have happened to me too if I hadn’t found and founded the right communities at the right time), and can’t be taken for granted. Another significant recurring character in the story is God, who is credited in the acknowledgements as “the source of all real empowerment, inspiration, and vision”. God rarely shows up in the big conversations about the independent minyan phenomenon, which tend to focus on communities and institutions and demographics and the mechanics of prayer (all of which are important topics), so it’s also important to have this reminder of that which is le’eila min kol birchata ve-shirata [above all blessings and songs].
The book also includes a firsthand history of the founding and early years of Kehilat Hadar, the Manhattan community that may be the most high-profile of the new independent minyanim. I was a regular participant in Hadar for 6 of the almost 9 years it has been in existence, and was present at a number of specific services and events mentioned in the book, but still learned a lot about the behind-the-scenes details that I wasn’t aware of at the time.
Hadar has always been many things to many people. When I first got to Hadar in 2002, I found a number of people there with whom I had gone to college; we had davened at 3 separate minyanim during college, and now we were all davening at Hadar. Contrary to media accounts that paint independent minyanim as homogeneous communities of “like-minded” people, my experience of Hadar was always that it was a Jewishly diverse group, with no universal common thread linking all of our Jewish ideologies and practices except the fact that we all liked Hadar. And we weren’t even all there for the same reason; like the midrash about the manna, we all saw in Hadar what we wanted to see, even seeing seemingly contradictory things. So you have people who appreciate that Hadar doesn’t identify itself with any denominational labels, people who identify as “observant Conservative” and see Hadar as a manifestation of that outlook, people who want an egalitarian service that feels “Orthodox”, people who appreciate that Hadar spends time on the prayers rather than zipping through, people who appreciate that Hadar keeps the service moving rather than plodding along, people who want full liturgy whether or not there’s good singing, people who want good singing whether or not there’s full liturgy, people who refer to going to Hadar as “going to shul”, people who appreciate that Hadar isn’t a shul, people who want a community with other people their age, people who want a community with a wider age range than they usually socialize with (what percentage of American 22-year-olds have friends in their 30s, or vice versa?), people who are there to meet other single people, people who appreciate that Hadar isn’t a singles scene, people who plan to stay in New York City forever, people who plan to move to the New York suburbs when they have children, people who plan to move out of the New York area entirely, people who appreciate that Hadar gives extensive detailed instructions to its prayer leaders, people who appreciate that Hadar gives no instructions to its participants, people who appreciate that Hadar services are led by volunteer participants rather than professional clergy, people who appreciate that Hadar services are led by skilled leaders rather than just anyone, people who (when Hadar was every other week) wished Hadar met more often, people who liked that Hadar was only every other week, people who like the church basement better than a synagogue sanctuary, people who are at Hadar despite the church basement location, people who want to hear a d’var torah, people who appreciate that the d’var torah is only 5 minutes, and so on.
Yet somehow it works for all of those people (while other communities might, instead, succeed in alienating all of those people). And this history of Hadar provides a window into how this success came to be. It’s also interesting to learn which of the traits associated with Hadar were intended from the beginning, and which came about by circumstance. For example, I already knew that Hadar had never explicitly identified itself with a particular age group (nor do any of the new independent minyanim as far as I am aware, despite how they are painted in the media and the organized Jewish community), but I learned from the book that Hadar “actually tried in the very early days to actively combat this ‘twenties only’ feel”, reaching out to people from other age groups.
The chapter on Kehilat Hadar, along with a later chapter on prayer, provides many concrete lessons for independent minyanim or for any other congregations. Topics include attracting volunteers, fighting Jewish Standard Time (”When everyone has an incentive to be the last person to show up, the people who show up on time are punished for their punctuality by having to wait around.”), “friendliness” (”Think about an inspiring experience that was also empowering — say, your first rock concert with fifty thousand people. Even though there are no greeters, and no one really talked to you, you would never claim, ‘Wow, that U2 concert was really unfriendly.’”), acoustics for davening (”why davening in an apartment or a low-ceilinged basement, while perhaps not visually pleasing, allows for the possibility of ‘good davening’”), and selecting appropriate melodies. Most important, these ideas are not presented as magic incantations to follow because Elie Kaunfer said so (”1. Don’t announce page numbers. 2. ??? 3. Profit!”), but rather, the reasons for and against each one is laid out (though there is no ambiguity where Kaunfer stands in each case), so as to begin a conversation rather than end it. So as the Torah reading coordinator for another minyan, I can come to a different conclusion about whether Torah readers should be required to read multiple aliyot, but I can do so with an understanding of why Hadar does things the way it does, and why other communities might do things a different way. And I had been totally agnostic on the question of whether the Torah reading should be from the front of the room facing the congregation or from the middle of the room (like the prayer leader), but now I understand why the latter might be advantageous.
Jumping off from Hadar, Empowered Judaism goes on to discuss the independent minyan phenomenon as a whole. Unfortunately, the book’s definition of “independent minyanim” includes “founded in the past ten years”. We’ve called them out on this before, and we’ll do it again. The independent minyanim chapter includes a version of the same bar graph we saw in the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study, showing the explosive growth of independent minyanim (increasing from, by definition, 0 in the starting year to over 60 today). But the starting year is no longer 1996: you see, “the past ten years” is defined dynamically, so the graph now begins in 2000. The small number of communities founded between 1996 and 1999 (inclusive) used to be “independent minyanim”, but aren’t anymore. Mark your calendars for April 2011, when Kehilat Hadar will cease to be an “independent minyan”!
The stated reason for the 10-year cutoff is “distinguishing them from the havurah movement”, so that “the havurah movement” is also defined in a time-limited way. Later in the chapter, Kaunfer lays out some differences between “independent minyanim” (i.e. lay-led communities founded after 2000) and “havurot” (i.e. lay-led communities founded before 2000, especially those founded before 1980). And as a National Havurah Committee board member, I am keenly aware that there are generational differences between older and newer communities, when taking the ensemble average of each subgroup. But even if you think that worship styles are enough to define prayer groups of 10 or more Jews with no denomination/movement affiliation as something other than “independent minyanim”, creating a sharp cutoff in a single (moving) year is using a chainsaw when a scalpel is called for. Kaunfer cites “truncated services versus full services” and “circular arrangements versus rows” as examples of differences between “havurot” and “minyanim”. But equating these differences with the binary of being founded before or after 2000 ignores communities like the Newton Centre Minyan (founded in 1973) where they sit in rows and daven the full liturgy, or Tikkun Leil Shabbat (founded in 2005) where they alternate between row seating and circle seating (leading someone to quip that they alternate between being a minyan and being a havurah).
To be sure, Kehilat Hadar has distinguished itself from preceding lay-led communities in a number of ways, and Empowered Judaism, in detailing these ways, makes a solid case for Hadarican exceptionalism. But it would be more convincing to claim that Hadar is different from every community, founded before or since, than to claim that Hadar and all communities founded later are different from all communities founded earlier. Not every “independent minyanim” founded after 2000 does all the things that Hadar does; there are even communities with lineal descent from Hadar where they don’t start on time, or don’t think carefully about ensuring quality davening, or aren’t egalitarian. The 10-year cutoff may have been useful for a sociological study documenting a specific historical phenomenon, but now it’s time for all empowered participatory Jewish communities to learn from one another.
Despite this arbitrary chronological cutoff, Kaunfer’s stance toward the first-wave havurot is overwhelmingly positive: “The real surprise is not that havurot and minyanim share similarities, but that modern synagogues and other institutions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jewish life persist. Judaism has always been a religion of grassroots community organizing, and the rabbinic model of the twentieth-century synagogue is perhaps the most foreign to the traditional Jewish heritage. … The real question is not how are independent minyanim new, but how are suburban synagogues — a product of the early to mid-twentieth-century — a depature from a Jewish organizing heritage shared by minyanim, havurot, and dozens of Jewish communal structures of years past?”
In addition to Kaunfer’s own reflections from Hadar, Empowered Judaism also collects a set of short pieces from organizers of other minyanim, highlighting various lessons their communities have learned. So we hear about Tikkun Leil Shabbat’s approach to dishwashing and pluralistic potlucks, Altshul’s experience meeting in a synagogue, Shira Hadasha’s structure for supporting people in bereavement and illness, and more.
The last part of the book looks beyond independent minyanim and prayer, to a vision of the future. There is a chapter on Yeshivat Hadar and its model of educating empowered Jews, and a chapter on rethinking Jewish institutions. The final chapter is entitled “Pathways Forward: The Real Crisis in American Judaism”, likely intended to evoke the first chapter of Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, “The Present Crisis in Judaism”. And like Kaplan, who wrote about this crisis as a “spiritual cataclysm”, Kaunfer writes that the crisis isn’t about “Jewish continuity” or intermarriage, but rather that “two Jews can marry each other and have Jewish children without any connection to Jewish heritage, wisdom, or tradition.” He concludes with a call to “recognize that a new Jewish world is possible.”
While Hadar and the other minyanim discussed in the book each have their own Jewish approaches, this larger vision for Jewish life is laid out in a way that is independent of specific Jewish ideologies: “the Jewish community would be better served by connecting to the original ‘big ideas’ of our heritage: Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasadim, for instance.” This vision is thus accessible and applicable to Jews of any denomination or non-denomination. For its practical wisdom and its big-picture perspective, I recommend Empowered Judaism to anyone thinking about their own Jewish community or about “the” Jewish community.