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 | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

    Hayim Herring and Kosher Vending Machines

    Last night Rabbi Hayim Herring, the Executive Director of the STAR Foundation delivered a fascinating speech at my synagogue. The title of his “Visions of the Jewish Future” speech was “Anything, Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere: Synagogue Renewal in an Age of Extreme Choice.” He explained how the role of the synagogue as a house of prayer/gathering/learning has changed drastically in this era of instant gratification, technology, and individual choice.

    Well, Starbucks might be the “Third Place” where you can get your latte however you want it, but now even keeping Kosher while traveling will soon get easier. You may soon see Kosher vending machines in airports in New York.

    Kosher Vending Industries, LLC, makers of Hot Nosh 24/6, the first certified Kosher on-demand hot food available through vending machines, has announced that Ruby Azrak, hip hop mogul Russell Simmons’s former partner at Phat Farm, has invested in the company to help fuel a nationwide expansion. Azrak keeps strictly Kosher himself.

    KVI was established when co-founders Alan Cohnen and Doron Fetman were discussing the challenges Kosher travelers have when visiting locations that have no available Kosher hot food. Together they researched various options and the KVI concept was born.

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

    Glenn Plummer in Shul and Zev Chafets on "The Colbert Report"

    Pastor Glenn Plummer and Rabbi Jason MillerThis past Friday evening my synagogue hosted Pastor Glenn Plummer (in photo at left) as the keynote speaker for part of our Synaplex Shabbat. Glenn Plummer, a Black Evangelical minister from Detroit, founded the Fellowship of Israel and Black America (FIBA) in February 2006. FIBA is a partnership with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.

    It is unfortunate that only 75 people were in attendance because Pastor Plummer was such a charismatic, energetic, and passionate speaker. I found him to be genuine in his love for Israel both in his public lecture as well as in our private conversations. Everyone was truly moved by his message and they haven’t stopped talking about how impressed they were with his presentation. He seriously loves Israel and he loves the Jewish people. Pastor Plummer explains that his commitment to Israel stems from the Torah’s message in Genesis 12:3, specifically that God will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel.

    In what was the most intensely emotional moment of Pastor Plummer’s speech, he thanked all of the Jewish people on behalf of the Black community for the strong support provided by Jews during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. He explained that Black leaders should in turn bless Jewish people today, and supporting Israel is one way to do this.

    The evangelical support for Israel is strong and yet we in the Jewish community remain skeptical of it. After listening to Pastor Plummer’s words and conversing with him privately, I have come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be skeptical of this support any longer. Jews certainly do not have to agree with everything Evangelical Christians believe – and we shouldn’t agree with everything they believe – but their support of Israel is genuine.

    Zev Chafetz (in photo at right), a family friend whom I’ve known since I was a little baby, recently published a book about the Christian Evangelical support of Israel called A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man’s Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance. Zev is originally from Pontiac, Michigan and was at one time married to my mother’s best friend. He made aliyah to Israel in the late 1960’s and headed the Israeli Government Press Office under Menachem Begin, but he currently lives and writes in New York.

    Last year, I invited Zev to speak at Adat Shalom Synagogue following Shabbat dinner for a Synaplex (“SYNergy”) Shabbat. Close to finishing his book at the time, Zev spoke about his adventures while researching the Evangelical Christian community. I was excited to see Zev on “The Colbert Report” Monday night (video below). It was one of the best interviews I’ve seen Stephen Colbert do, and Zev was both funny and cynical — true to form.


    We’re going to be hearing a lot more about the Christian Evangelical support of Israel in the near future. I plan to attend Pastor Plummer’s session on the subject at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington in a couple weeks.

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

    Arnie Eisen’s Listening Tour Makes News

    I was surprised to see one article in the Wall Street Journal incorporate three organizations I’ve been involved with: The Jewish Theological Seminary, Hillel, and the STAR Foundation’s Synaplex.

    This is a great article about how Jewish organizations are finally going out and learning what the people want. If I wrote this article (and I’m not sure why I didn’t), I would have included the same institutions that this author does. I commend Prof. Arnie Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary for following through on what he promised (in meetings I had with him in both Detroit and Columbus) by conducting a listening tour throughout the Conservative movement to determine what matters most to Conservative Jews. I’m glad to see his devotion to the cause is getting this type of exposure.

    I was also happy to see Rabbi Hayim Herring interviewed for this article. Rabbi Herring is the executive director of the STAR Foundation, which runs two programs that I am very much involved with — Synaplex and PEER. Like the author of this article recognizes in her subtitle, “consultant speak” has definitely found its way into organized religion (or at least Judaism).

    Reviving Judaism
    BY NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY
    WALL STREET JOURNAL

    A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton got started on a new “listening tour.” Her first one, during the 2000 Senate campaign, was aimed at soliciting the ideas of New York voters on what legislative issues were important to them. This one is aimed at hearing the thoughts of Democratic strategists on the subject of her presidential run. But the idea behind the tours remained the same: Find out what the people want–and, if possible, give it to them.Arnie-Eisen
    In politics, such an approach has an irrefutable democratic logic. But is it well suited to religion? Arnold Eisen, the chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has spent the past few months on a “listening tour” of his own, holding town-hall meetings around the country to figure out how to reinvigorate Conservative Judaism. Mr. Eisen is looking to find out what Jews want–and, if possible, give it to them.

    Trying to make Judaism more popular is not a new idea. Jewish leaders have worried for decades that high rates of intermarriage and assimilation are causing the Jewish population to diminish dramatically. And they are right. Between 1990 and 2000, the American Jewish population declined to 5.2 million from 5.5 million. With Jewish women getting married later in life and having fewer children, this trend is likely only to accelerate.

    But the most recent response to this crisis has been less than inspiring. The Jewish Week recently published “17 Seriously Cool Ideas to Remake New York’s Jewish Community.” These included creating a Jewish culinary institute, building a kibbutz in the Big Apple, providing high-quality Jewish toddler care, hosting a hipper Israeli Independence Day parade, and baking better kosher pizza.

    Perhaps these ideas were meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek, but other ideas are not–and probably should be. Take a new project called Synaplex. Sponsored by the Star Foundation, Synaplex is, according to its Web site, “designed to provide people with new reasons to make the synagogue the place to be on Shabbat.” About 125 synagogues are already “enabling people to celebrate Shabbat the way they want to.”

    What does that mean? Instead of attending a traditional service, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Star’s executive director, tells me, some people would do “Medi-Torah” or “Torah and Yoga.” Others might attend a lecture or go to a musical service followed by a “latte cart.” And still others might prefer to attend a Friday night wine-and-cheese reception. [Continue Reading]

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller