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Indie Minyans

I am hesitant to write anything about the recent press that indie minyans has gotten because as kol raash gadol recently wrote on Jewschool for their Picks for Best of 2007: “Blinding Flash of the Obvious Finally Reaching the Mainstream Radar Years After Everybody Else Got the Memo: Indie minyanim.”

But since the New York Times recently wrote about the subject (“Challenging Tradition, Young Jews Worship on Their Terms”) and the online journal Zeek dedicated an entire issue to indie minyans, I thought I would weigh in.

The success of independent minyans really shouldn’t be news because their success was inevitable. Indie minyans are an obvious recipe for success:

1) Gather a bunch of young, single professional Jews in a large metropolitan area (New York City, Chicago, LA, DC, or Boston).

2) Mix in some young Jewish grad students along with some young married Jewish couples.

3) Send out an e-mail about an “informal gathering” (read: spirited prayer service that won’t remind you of your grandfather’s shul) to take place in someone’s apartment on Friday before dinner or Saturday morning around 10 AM.

3.5) Allow the e-mail to go viral and with some word-of-mouth dozens of young Jewish men and women will flock to the get-together.

4) After several months of these get-togethers, select a larger location to rent and this will turn into another start-up independent Shabbat prayer group.

Rabbi Elie KaunferThis is basically how the popular Kehilat Hadar traces its roots. I realized what an independent minyan was while sitting in Rabbi Ethan Tucker and Ariela Migdal’s Manhattan apartment (a few floors above our own apartment at the time) on a Shabbat morning in April 2001. I was invited to the minyan and asked to schlepp four of my folding chairs up eight flights of stairs. Little did I know at the time that the three minyan founders, including Tucker and his Harvard buddy Elie Kaunfer (right), were on to something. With sixty young Jews packed into an Upper West Side apartment davening (praying) like they were at Camp Ramah, a new type of synagogue community was forming.

The next gathering was held in a larger apartment — the home of my JTS rabbinical school classmate Dr. Len Sharzer. Len was the oldest student in my class but was not the oldest individual at the minyan that morning. That distinction was held by the late Marcia Lieberman, mother of Senator Joe Lieberman. Joe and Hadassah Lieberman were in town for the graduation of their daughter-in-law (Ethan Tucker’s wife Ariela Migdal) and attended the minyan that morning. I was honored to have the aliyah right after the distinguished senator from Connecticut.

From there the Hadar Minyan grew and grew with almost 200 in attendance for a Tisha B’Av service in Central Park. Hadar Minyan became Kehilat Hadar, and when Elie Kaunfer was ordained as a rabbi he created Mechon Hadar which has given birth to Yeshivat Hadar and the Minyan Project. The Yeshiva is a a full-time, community open to men and women looking to engage in intensive Torah study, prayer and social action. The Minyan Project promotes education, consulting and networking for independent prayer communities.

At the 2004 UJC General Assembly held in Cleveland, I attended a session in which Elie Kaunfer was one of the panelists. His response to what Gen X’ers were looking for in a spiritual community was fresh and innovative, yet also full of unknowns for the future. The indie minyans were gaining in popularity, but still no one could speculate what would happen when the indie minyannaires needed a true spiritual leader in their lives — a rabbi. A chavurah-like environment seems fine when you’re single or newly married, but when your oldest kid is celebrating her bat mitzvah it is helpful to have a rabbi. As the indie minyannaires get older my guess is that they will join established congregations that employ salaried clergy. However, they will greatly influence the way these synagogues and temples carry out their mission. Simply stated, they won’t settle for the way things have always been done in their grandfather’s shul.

In addition to how the members of indie minyans will come to change established congregations in the near future, another question is how rabbis may come to be welcomed into the indie minyans in some form of leadership role. This issue was taken up on a Jewschool post by Yehudit Bracha in September 2006: What IS the role of the rabbi in the independent minyan movement?

Rabbi_Andy_BachmanA great example of a dynamic rabbi in an emergent congregation is Rabbi Andy Bachman (left), the founder Brooklyn Jews and once executive director of Reboot. Andy is now the rabbi of Beth Elohim in Brooklyn (a Reform congregation in Park Slope). He recently posted an especially thought-provoking blog post about creating a transparent pulpit. My classmate, Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, also became the rabbi of an emergent spiritual community when she founded Kavanah in Seattle a few years ago. And the dynamic Rabbi Sharon Brous has been wildly successful with Ikar-LA, the emergent spiritual community she created in 2004.

These rabbis are serving their congregations in new and innovative ways. They are leading their communities with much different leadership styles than rabbis who led in generations past. Because of their leadership, their congregations function differently and their congregants come to view synagogue life much differently. These emergent spiritual communities have Facebook pages, blogs, and only communicate to the membership via e-mail. These rabbis will answer a congregant’s question with SMS on their Blackberry. They even buy their Torah scrolls on eBay. These are the shuls of the future.

I must give my colleague Rabbi Elie Kaunfer a lot of credit. It would have been quite the accomplishment had he only co-created Hadar, however, he has taken it many steps further by forcing us to consider how independent minyanim will change the future of community building, communal prayer, rabbinic leadership, affiliation, and synagogue structure. Working with Synagogue 3000, he surveyed individuals about the role of “emergent spiritual communities” in the future of Judaism.

The introduction to the survey states:

Over the past few years, we have seen an important new phenomenon in Jewish life: the creation of dozens of independent minyanim, spiritual communities, alternative worship services, and emergent congregations. This rich array adds diverse opportunities for worship, learning, social justice work, community-building and spiritual expression.

We knew very little about the thousands of people associated with these new endeavors. Who are they? What are their concerns? How do they feel about the communities they’re creating, joining, and building? Why do they participate?

To answer these questions, the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute, in collaboration with Mechon Hadar, conducted a survey designed by the prominent sociologist Steven M. Cohen in partnership with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer and Shawn Landres. Our goal was to find out more about the participants, members, partners, and “acquaintances” of these new spiritual communities. The results of this work is the first ever portrait of the interests, values, and concerns of a critical innovative turn in American Judaism.

The report about the new movement of independent minyanim, “EMERGENT JEWISH COMMUNITIES and their Participants”, was published this past Fall and should be required reading for every rabbi and future rabbi, synagogue and temple board members, and anyone interested in the future of Judaism. In fact, anyone with a vested interest in organized religion should study this report.

Bottom line? Independent Minyans are necessary. They are serving a purpose for a whole generation of spiritually undernourished Jews. They are quickly changing how Jewish spiritual communities operate and serve their members. However, just as online banking and ATM’s are wonderful, they have not replaced traditional banking institutions or the humans who work there. The chavurah movement of the 1970’s did not replace rabbis and neither will the independent minyan movement at the beginning of the 21st Century. Rabbis will always be needed in Jewish life, we will just have to adapt our roles to modern times.

Links about Independent Minyans:

  • Synagogue 3000 and Hadar Report on Emergent Spiritual Communities
  • Attracting Young People to Jewish Life: Lessons Learned from Kehilat Hadar
  • Andy Bachman reacts to the NY Times article on Indie Minyans
  • The Minyan without a Binyan (Temple Bored Authority)
  • What Defines the New Minyan Movement (Jeremy Burton)
  • Judaism Without Synagogues (JewByChoice)
  • Tribeca Hebrew: The Hebrew School With the ‘Anti-Establishment Vibe’
  • What Independent Minyanim Teach Us About the Next Generation of Jewish Communities (Ethan Tucker)
  • Esther Kustanowitz looks for her perfect shul
  • (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
    Interfaith Jewish Reform Judaism Singles

    JDate Rabbis

    Like most rabbis I read a lot of sermons that other rabbis have delivered. After this past Yom Kippur someone sent me a particularly good sermon that was rather risky. Rabbi Donald Weber even prefaced his Yom Kippur sermon by admitting that it would be a gutsy sermon to give. The rabbi of Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, New Jersey told his Reform congregation that in over twenty-five years (and over 100 High Holy Day sermons) he never spoke about interfaith marriage from the pulpit as it was considered to be the “third rail of the Reform rabbinate — you touch it and you die.”

    JDateIn Rabbi Weber’s well-crafted sermon about interfaith marriage, he chooses his words carefully and explains that he does not want to hurt anyone with his remarks. The chidush (new idea) of his sermon was that he came up with a way to help curb the rising rates of intermarriage within his congregation. He announced in his sermon (MP3 version) that he and his wife, Shira Stern, would personally pay out of their own pocket for a six-month membership ($149) to JDate for any young singles in his congregation who asked. In his sermon, he told the single Jews in the pews that the survival of American Judaism in its current form depends on their decisions.

    Rabbi Webber’s JDate generosity made national news. Six weeks after he delivered his Yom Kippur sermon at Temple Rodeph Torah, USA Today published an article about his idea to promote marrying within the Jewish faith through

    In the January 21, 2008 issue of Newsweek magazine it was reported that Rabbi Weber and his wife have paid for 24 six-month subscriptions from their own personal funds. Two other rabbis, Rabbi Kenneth Emert of New Jersey and Rabbi Michael Cahana of Oregon, have begun funding the six-month JDate subscriptions for their single congregants from their rabbinic discretionary funds. The Newsweek article states that two rabbis have also negotiated a bulk rate discount for rabbis who want to buy membership accounts for their congregants (this was also covered in the JTA blog).

    The rabbis say they felt compelled to act because of the gradual dilution of the faith through marriage. Almost half of American Jews marry non-Jews, a rate of exodus that has more than tripled since 1970. “This is about creating an opportunity,” says Cahana. Sometimes even Cupid needs a nudge.

    JDate certainly works. Almost half of the weddings I have officiated have been for couples who met on JDate (including one eHarmony wedding). If a Jewish couple didn’t meet in high school or college, I have come to assume they met each other on JDate. It will be interesting to see how many weddings Rabbi Donald Weber performs from the individuals who received a free JDate subscription from him. If every rabbi provides free subscriptions I am certain the intermarriage statistics will change positively.

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
    Celebrities Israel

    Celebrity Birthright

    I realized the importance of having young adult Jews visit Israel when I led a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip in December 2004. By and large, the students from the University of Michigan and Harvard who traveled with me to Israel became more engaged in Jewish communal life and several became more observant of Jewish traditions. With close to 150,000 participants between 18 and 26 having traveled to Israel with Birthright, it is an impressive program that has proven successful of its stated mission.

    Jamie-Lynn Sigler (Sopranos) and Rabbi Jason MillerSeveral Jewish celebrities have been birthright israel participants as well. A week ago I read about a NASCAR driver who traveled to Israel with Birthright. The JTA recently interviewed Soprano star Jamie-Lynn Sigler (left), who is currently in Israel on a birthright israel trip.

    “Everyone assumes I’m Italian,” says Jamie Lynn Sigler, 26, with a sigh, pausing over her hummus lunch at the open-air market in Jaffa, one of the stops on her birthright israel tour. “Even kids on the trip keep asking, ‘Are you Jewish?’ “

    Sigler, who played the daughter [Medow Soprano] of Mafia kingpin Tony Soprano on the acclaimed HBO show “The Sopranos,” grew up in a Jewish home in Jericho, N.Y., going to Hebrew school and having a bat mitzvah.

    Her father’s family immigrated to America from Greece and Poland. Her mother, who is Puerto Rican, converted to Judaism. But it was only touring in Israel, during her recent visit to the country, that she said she felt a true spiritual and emotional connection to her roots.

    “It’s one of the most beautiful, inspiring places I’ve ever been to,” Sigler said. “I now have a greater understanding and motivation about preserving my Jewishness.”

    Among the highlights she noted were riding camels in the desert, dining on roast lamb in a Bedouin tent and exploring the back alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City. Sigler said she was especially moved during her visits to the Western Wall, where she was surprised by her tears, and to Yad Vashem, where the Holocaust and its history suddenly felt deeply personal.

    “I started to think, ‘What if I was there, what if I had been ripped away from my family?’ ” she told JTA.

    Sigler said Israel had been a fairly abstract concept before the trip, with her images limited to the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict portrayed in the media. [Her] group was accompanied part of the time by a small group of Israeli soldiers. Through them, Sigler said she heard about a much different life than the one she and her friends lead in America. She was taken by their sacrifices and the pride they have in their country and history.

    “It’s so different but so inspiring to be part of that,” said Sigler, her face dominated by a pair of large designer sunglasses. “I would want to move here and join the army” too.

    Jamie-Lynn Sigler (Sopranos)I met Jamie-Lynn Sigler in the summer of 2003 when she was filming scenes at the Soprano house in North Caldwell, New Jersey — only a couple miles from my home at the time. She was very sweet and personable, even offering to wish my wife congratulations on the upcoming birth of our first baby (right).

    I think it would be a fun idea to promote birthright israel trips that included Jewish celebrities on the trip. There would be a long waiting list to go on “Superbad Birthright” with Jonah Hill (real name: Jonah Hill Feldstein) or “Birthright Musical” with Ashley Tisdale. Of course, the celebrities would get to participate for free, but none of the other participants could complain about that being unfair since everyone goes on birthright israel for free!

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
    Conservative Judaism Israel Jewish Orthodox Judaism Rabbi Reform Judaism

    Hartman Institute

    Many new rabbinical schools have opened in the past decade. The American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies ordained its first class of rabbis in 1999, the modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) has been ordaining progressive Orthodox rabbis for a few years in New York, and the pluralistic Hebrew College will ordain its first rabbis this Spring.

    Rabbi David HartmanNow, the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem has announced that it will open its own rabbinical school at its German Colony location. In a Jerusalem Post article titled “Hartman Institute to ordain women rabbis”, Matthew Wagner writes:

    In a step that marks a major change in gender roles within modern Orthodoxy, women will be ordained as Orthodox rabbis. Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by Rabbi David Hartman (right), himself a modern Orthodox rabbi, will open a four-year program next year to prepare women and men of all denominations – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and also Orthodox – for rabbinic ordination.

    The decision to ordain women Orthodox rabbis will certainly be met with much criticism in the Orthodox community, especially since the rabbinical school will be in Jerusalem. Rabbi David Hartman’s son Rabbi Donniel Hartman is the co-director of the Hartman Institute. He said, “For too long now we have been robbing ourselves of 50 percent of our potential leaders; people who can shape and inspire others. The classic distinctions between men and women are no longer relevant.”

    Each of these emerging rabbinical schools have had, and will continue to have, a major impact on the modern Jewish community. It will be interesting to see what role the first women rabbis to be ordained by the Hartman Institute will have in Israel and beyond. Best of luck to the Hartman Institute in this new endeavor.

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
    Israel Politics

    Lights Out for Bush in Jerusalem

    In a move that Al Gore would approve of for its energy-saving environmental impact, Jerusalem has agreed to turn off the lights in the Old City before dawn this week so visiting President George W. Bush can enjoy a better view of sunrise from his King David Hotel suite, reported AFP.

    Bush arrived in Jerusalem today giving most Jerusalemites a tough time getting to and from work because of his entourage’s security needs. Turning the lights out on the Old City is in response to a request Bush made to watch the sun rise without the destraction of natural lights on the limestone walls of the ancient city.

    Personally, I had to suffer through the unfortunate glare of lights when I tried to take in the Jerusalem sunrise from the balcony of my King Solomon Hotel suite this summer. It never occured to me that I could have requested an alternate ambience for my viewing pleasure. Ah, the perks of being the leader of the free world.

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
    Biography Jewish Philosophy

    Louis Jacobs

    In preparing to write my admission essays for rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the mid-1990s I read several books on Jewish theology. One book that helped me greatly in organizing my personal theology was “We Have Reason to Believe” by Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs. I worked through this book rather slowly, re-reading entire chapters and writing what would be the outline for one of my essays in the margins of the book.

    Rabbi Louis JacobsIt has been fifty years since Rabbi Jacobs (left) wrote this monumental book and Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s article in the Jerusalem Post explains why “We Have Reason to Believe” is such a revolutionary publication, as well as an important contribution to modern Jewish thought.

    Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a Conservative rabbi from Chicago, has been working on a doctoral dissertation about the life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs who died on July 1, 2006 (Shabbat). Rabbi Cosgrove delivered a beautiful memorial tribute on the occasion of Rabbi Jacobs’s first yahrzeit and it is available on the New London Synagogue website.

    Rabbi Jeremy GordonMy friend and classmate, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon (right), was a student of Rabbi Louis Jacobs having grown up at the New London Synagogue. The synagogue website currently announces that “It is with considerable pleasure that the New London Synagogue announces the appointment of Rabbi Jeremy Gordon to the pulpit of the synagogue.”

    Best of luck to Rabbi Jeremy and may you go from strength to strength… you have mighty big shoes to fill!
    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
    Holocaust Jewish Politics

    Tom Lantos

    Tom Lantos and Hillary Clinton AIPACI met California Rep. Tom Lantos at the AIPAC Policy Conference this year. Rep. Lantos introduced Sen. Hillary Clinton before she spoke at her candidate’s reception at the policy conference, where I took the photo at right.

    Tom Lantos announced today that he will retire from office and not seek re-election following his being diagnosed with cancer. The JTA article states that in “his 27 years in the U.S. Congress, Rep. Tom Lantos had two constituencies — California’s 12th District, encompassing parts of San Francisco and its suburbs, and the ghosts of the Jews who perished in his native Europe.”

    The 80-year-old Lantos was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. He is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House and is known as “the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress.” Tom Lantos has been a strong advocate for humanitarian rights during his long career in politics. He has been a strong supporter of Israel and a voice of conscience on the situation in Darfur.

    I pray for a refuah shleyma (speedy recovery) for Tom Lantos. His career as a U.S. Representative has been an honorable one.
    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |