‘Conservadox’ minyan attracts a diverse crowd

‘Conservadox’ minyan attracts a diverse crowd

Tzippy Russ-Fishbane, who grew up in a strictly Orthodox home, was not comfortable in a Conservative synagogue yet strongly believes in egalitarianism. She and her husband, Elisha, also belong to Orthodox Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park, where they “love” the community and rabbi, but missed the opportunity for women to read from the Torah and lead prayer services.

While still living in Boston, the couple attended the Cambridge Minyan, which describes itself as a “traditional egalitarian Jewish prayer service.” After they moved to Highland Park — Elisha is a Tikvah Postdoctoral Fellow in the Jewish studies department at Princeton University — they decided to help bring the spirit of that minyan to their new New Jersey home.

Begun in March 2010, Minyan Tiferet features traditional all-Hebrew services laced with spirited singing and a staunch commitment to equal roles for men and women.

The minyan meets one Friday night and one Saturday morning each month at the Reformed Church of Highland Park. It alternates weekends with the long-running Highland Park Minyan, which also uses the church’s facilities.

It also offers monthly study sessions on religious topics as well as events around holidays.

“Minyan Tiferet is something of a personal calling for both of us,” said Elisha Russ-Fishbane. “It’s more than just a prayer community. It is a vision for the Jewish present and future with the highest demand for humanity, justice, and compassion.”

A typical lay-led service draws 30 to 40 people from Highland Park and Metuchen. Many are also members of Orthodox and Conservative synagogues but are looking for something else, said founding member Gary Rendsburg of Highland Park.

“For families who might typically identify as Orthodox but want women to have some participation, this fills a need for them,” said Rendsburg, a professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University. “We promote egalitarianism as an uncompromising ideological point.”

The nearby Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth offers egalitarian and nonegalitarian services on Shabbat, but is “not fully egalitarian,” said Rendsburg.

“I very much want to be part of Jewish rituals,” said Tzippy. “I don’t want to be told I can’t do anything. I want to be in an environment where, coming from the Orthodox world, I feel comfortable, yet at the same time, there is justice for women…. We believe this is a fight for Halacha,” Jewish law.

Elisha characterized the couple’s advocacy of egalitarianism as neither a compromise nor a feminist issue, but rather “a harmony of values.”

“We feel we are engaging in the cause of Torah, not undermining it,” he said.

‘Spiritual experience’

Michele Rosenfeld of Metuchen is typical of those who attend both the minyan and their own synagogue. Rosenfeld said she and her husband, Mark, are extremely happy at Conservative Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen — which is fully egalitarian — but that Minyan Tiferet offers a different experience.

“We find it a more spiritual experience to daven with a small minyan rather than with a large congregation,” said Rosenfeld, a member of the minyan’s new board.

She has participated in social service projects with the minyan, which often supports causes of the host church and its minister, the Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, particularly immigration issues.

“The church has been a wonderful host, and the Highland Park Minyan has been a wonderful partner,” said Rendsburg. Minyan Tiferet uses the Highland Park Minyan’s Torah scrolls, but has its own prayer books.

Tiferet board member Michael Weingart of Highland Park said the minyan might accurately be called a “Conservadox” prayer service, and strives to accommodate the needs of both denominations.

“To my knowledge it is the first time a cross-section of the Highland Park Jewish community has come together,” said Weingart. “It was quite striking to me when we had our first Shabbat that some who attended self-identified as Orthodox, some who self-identified as Conservative, and some defied denominational characterization.”

Some participants said they would not come if there was mixed seating, Weingart added, while others refused to attend if there were a mehitza, or barrier between men and women. To solve the problem, the minyan came up with its “tri-hitza” to create a seating section for men, another for women, and one that is mixed.

Weingart, a member of the Highland Park Conservative Temple and a Rutgers math professor, said the minyan’s hallmark is its “engaged, lively davening.”

“As a whole we are a community of thoughtful, engaged, intentional daveners,” said Weingart.

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