The minyan is the message

The minyan is the message

When Rabbi David Schuck of Pelham Manor, NY, wanted to bring a more spirited Friday night service to his small Conservative synagogue, he brought in ringers. With a small grant, he hired six students from the Jewish Theological Seminary to come spend a Shabbat with his congregation. Their only responsibility: to sing and pray with the kind of enthusiasm and intensity that he hoped would catch on among his members.

Without giving them the experience of such davening, he said, “it was very hard [for members] to know what you are talking about. You have to demonstrate what it could be like.”

I heard Schuck speak at last weekend’s Third Independent Minyan Conference, and that’s exactly how I feel about the term “independent minyan”: If you haven’t been to one, you don’t quite get the picture. The term describes a group of like-minded Jews who gather in rented spaces to create what they consider their ideal prayer services. They tend to prefer a traditional service, but with full participation for women. They’re usually led by skilled lay people, seldom by rabbis or Jewish professionals. There are probably more than 60 such groups in the country, including Zamru in Princeton.

I sometimes joke that they are Conservative congregations for people who like the prayer service as much as I like the kiddush afterward. And there’s a certain truth to that: A lot of their energy and talent comes from Judaism’s “centrist” denomination, and the words they use to describe the prayer service include “meaningful,” “musical,” “spiritual,” and “empowered.”

My own synagogue shares some DNA with perhaps the best-known of the independent minyanim, Kehilat Hadar on the Upper West Side. Hadarniks and the faculty from the spinoff Yeshivat Hadar have spent time with us in the ’burbs, teaching their melodies and modeling their intense engagement with the siddur and Torah.

When the independent minyanim first began to attract attention in the past decade, many asked if they pose a “threat” to mainstream synagogues, especially Conservative.

But 10 years since the founding of Hadar there’s a shift afoot. The mainstream now wants to learn from the upstarts, and the upstarts seem happy to oblige. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, one of Hadar’s cofounders, has titled his new book Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. This past Tuesday, Kaunfer’s book inspired a panel discussion at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained. Moderating the panel was Arnold Eisen, the seminary’s chancellor, another sign that the minyanim are seen less as a threat than, well, the future.

The book recalls Hadar’s evolution from a word-of-mouth minyan that met in members’ apartments to a growing force that includes the hundreds-strong community, America’s first egalitarian full-time yeshiva, and Mechon Hadar, an institute founded by Kaunfer and Rabbis Shai Held and Ethan Tucker, designed to promote the movement’s vision for prayer, study, and social action.

Mechon Hadar hosted last weekend’s conference and the afternoon symposium, which was an opportunity for synagogues and the independents to learn from one another. Organizers say they drew people from 42 minyanim and 29 synagogues, as well as the big Jewish educational institutes and foundations.

I met rabbis from big “establishment” shuls in Long Island and Boston as well as lay leaders from Atlanta, Texas, and our own Highland Park. The usual generational dynamics seemed reversed: Young men and women with shockingly dark hair and flat bellies imparting wisdom to folks with AARP cards.

Kaunfer told me Sunday about the ways Mechon Hadar is serving as a resource to synagogues. Yeshivat Hadar sends faculty out for a different kind of “scholar-in-residence” Shabbat. They lead congregants in traditional text study using a yeshiva model. The weekends help synagogues satisfy a “thirst for direct Jewish learning beyond a lecture,” Kaunfer told me. Yeshivat Hadar is also offering a week-long “Executive Seminar” this summer. Kaunfer expects a lot of synagogue lay leaders looking for ideas and inspiration.

Kaunfer said his goal is to help synagogues ask a seemingly simple question: “What is your ideal Jewish service?” Hadar wants to help them take the next, admittedly difficult, step — namely, what’s keeping you from getting there?

What makes Hadar’s approach refreshing — and perhaps likely to succeed where other similar efforts have not — is the way it weds transcendence with the nitty-gritty. Sure, Kaunfer and his colleagues talk about “pathways to empowerment,” “cultivating mind and soul,” and “the presence of God.” But the conference, like Kaunfer’s book, sweats the details. How long should services be? How do you use e-mail and Facebook to network? Should minyan seating be in rows or a circle? He recognizes that even so lofty a vision as unlocking the power of prayer can be undermined by an uncomfortable pew and a cantor with time-management problems.

In Sunday’s closing session, Shai Held addressed a rap one hears against the independent minyanim — “that they are taking away the most talented and committed” young Jews “to create communities of elites.” But the conference suggested something else entirely — a smart group of committed young Jews who don’t want to subvert the establishment, but to empower all of us to create the kinds of communities we want and need.

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