The New Gen-X Judaism

NEW YORK, Aug. 7 (JTA) — Tamara Charm had a watershed experience when she chanted the Torah portion at Yom Kippur services last year at Drisha, the women’s Torah learning academy, for a congregation of both women and men. “It was incredible to daven in a way which conformed to traditional halachah but felt like the women’s section was participating as well as the men’s,” says Charm, 29. “It was very spiritual.” Wanting more, the business consultant and a few friends established the Darkhei Noam (Ways of Peace) minyan in April. Shabbat morning services, generally in a multipurpose room rented from an Upper West Side day school, are Modern Orthodox but egalitarian and now attract some 150 people. Elie Kaunfer spent a long time shul-hopping between the Upper West Side’s many offerings. The congregations serious about prayer were Orthodox and nonegalitarian. Those egalitarian did not pray the entire traditional service, and most congregants seemed to let the rabbi take responsibility for the worship. Wanting to combine the best of both worlds, Kaunfer, 28, a corporate fraud investigator, and two friends started Kehillat Hadar (Community of Glory), where worship is totally lay-led. About 160 people meet on alternate Shabbat mornings and some holidays at an ever-changing series of locations, their own prayerbooks in hand. Many have strong Jewish educations — some are in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The result is an intense, fast-moving traditional service they share leading. “There’s no talking, no schmoozing, because people are really trying to have a spiritual moment,” Kaunfer says of the minyan that began about a year ago and now has an e-mail list of more than 1,000 “members.” At the Park Slope Minyan, which began in September, participants come from the gamut of synagogues in Brownstone Brooklyn — Orthodox to Reform. Reading from their own prayerbooks or from booklets photocopied out of the Reconstructionist siddur, “men wearing tzitzit out sit next to women” in a church basement singing Kabbalat Shabbat from their hearts, says organizer Meir Feldman, a student at the Reform rabbinical seminary. These new communities — merely a few of the many springing up throughout New York and in cities like Washington and Boston — represent a new level of segmentation in the spiritual marketplace. They follow in the footsteps of a personalized approach to Judaism pioneered by the Upper West Side’s Congregation Ansche Chesed and continued by recently born, independent congregations in Lower Manhattan — the New Shul and the Downtown Synagogue — as well as the Ma’alot Minyan at Park Avenue Synagogue. Even on the Upper West Side, the neighborhood with arguably more synagogue options per square mile than any other outside of Jerusalem, “this particular niche hadn’t been filled,” Hadar’s Kaunfer says. “Apparently there’s enough of a need to keep this model thriving.” Sparked by a desire to create precisely the kind of spiritual experience they desire, the organizers are demonstrating the fulfillment of 1970s “do-it-yourself Judaism” orientation colliding with Generation Xers’ style. And it’s no surprise that the trend springs from people now in their 20s and 30s, one researcher says. Americans born after 1965 were raised on a diet of public scandals in leadership, from Watergate to Monicagate, from Enron to priestly pedophilia. As a result, Gen-Xers are “notoriously mistrustful of authority figures,” says Michael Holzman, a Reform rabbinical student examining how churches attract this age group on behalf of Synagogue 2000, the congregational transformation group. They “are very pragmatic and self-sufficient,” Holzman says. “They emphasize lay leadership, and are less interested in rabbinic authority and in creating superstructure buildings than they are in building their community. “Creating a trusted, reliable group of friends replaces the families that some members of Generation X never felt they had. The minyan community can be that” for Jews, he says. These new communities — almost all independent of the established denominations — pose a potential threat to the mainstream movements, says one observer. The movements’ future stability depends on signing up new synagogues, says Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a Synagogue 2000 co-founder. And with many of them using prayerbooks of their own creation, fewer new prayerbooks will be published by the movements, which rely on bulk sales to their member congregations for income, Hoffman says. But according to another expert, the trend doesn’t present anything really new. “We’ve been down this road before,” says Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee. “Twenty years ago, the havurah phenomenon was widely perceived as a basic threat to the religious establishment. People said it took people out of the synagogue. But instead of being a threat, it actually stimulated synagogues to ask how they could create more of a sense of community.” “Competition strengthens the marketplace, and this is a classic grass-roots challenge,” Bayme says. “The establishment is not so stodgy that it can’t respond.” One of the core values of all of these new minyans is egalitarianism. Even those created by people who usually pray in Orthodox synagogues and are mitzvah observant give equal religious leadership roles to men and women. Used to Orthodox congregations where the women, shunted behind impenetrable room dividers, socialize more than pray, the intensity of the Drisha experience was what persuaded Charm and her friends that another option could exist. “We consider ourselves halachic and open to inclusion of women in both the involvement in the synagogue and in ritual,” Charm says. Relying on a responsum from Rabbi Mendel Shapiro that was published last year on the Web site of Edah, a Modern Orthodox organization, and model communities at Drisha and at a new Jerusalem congregation, Shira Chadasha (New Song), Darkhei Noam allows women to do things that no mainstream traditional synagogue would — lead the Torah service, be honored with trips to the dais, and do the actual Torah reading, among others. On the other hand, many of the new communities, like Hadar, represent a desire for a more traditional service than what is found in most liberal Jewish communities. At the classically Reform Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, a small spinoff minyan has cobbled together a Hebrew-focused, tradition-oriented Jewish service that meets Saturday mornings. “I can’t stand the piano, I can’t stand the organ and I wanted to start my own thing,” says its founder, 39-year-old Rabbi Andrew Bachman, of the instruments that often accompany traditionally Reform services. Bachman worked as an educator at Beth Elohim and lives in the area, but now heads New York University’s Hillel. And even though he founded the minyan — which has no name — it is lay-led. “I knew there were a number of like-minded Reform Jews who appreciate an all-Hebrew full service without a rabbi being in traditional suburban mode,” he says. The Carlebach-style Park Slope minyan, which has been meeting in a church basement, will soon start gathering on Friday nights at Beth Elohim, a stately synagogue in the heart of the neighborhood that recently renovated its meeting space. The other key element threaded through all of the new minyans is ruach, a spirited worship experience, which was the key for creators of Congregation Tehillah, a new minyan in the Bronx. It was started in February 2001 by former members of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun after they migrated from Manhattan to the more suburban environs of the Bronx and Westchester. Like B’nai Jeshurun, Tehillah is focused on vibrant prayer with lots of singing, adult education and social action, says founder and executive director, Patty Goldstick. About 100 people come on Friday nights during the twice-monthly Shabbat services Tehillah holds at the Yonkers-Riverdale Ethical Culture Society, and 30 on Saturday mornings to services held in the round led by Reform-trained Rabbi Eric Solomon. Services are closest to the Conservative model, but Goldstick describes the congregation as transdenominational or multidenominational. “Riverdale has a huge Jewish community, but I couldn’t find anything like B.J. when I moved here,” she says, referring to B’nai Jeshurun. The Orthodox “Hebrew Institute of Riverdale is similar in their spirit and fire and social justice emphasis, but not egalitarian. There are a Conservative synagogue and Reform one here, but the congregants are much older. I just couldn’t see my family there,” says the mother of three. “I wanted something where my kids would look forward to going, would be singing and having fun. We make it very joyful.” The flowering of these new communities is a sign of the times, says Rabbi Hoffman, whose Synagogue 2000 training encourages established synagogues to employ a “multiplex” approach, with different worship offerings for different segments of their community. Today “people are finding small sub-communities like they find favored Web sites,” he says. Leaders of most of the new minyans are concerned that they’ll be perceived as competition by the more established congregations. The Park Slope minyan, for example, tries to meet only in the weeks that a longtime neighborhood havurah does not. Kehillat Hadar’s founders also worry, especially since they depend on Upper West Side synagogues for space. Ansche Chesed is New York’s quintessential “multiplex” synagogue, with four different regular minyans, each with a distinctive orientation. The synagogue’s rabbi, Jeremy Kalmanofsky, says he doesn’t view the new congregations as competition. “I’m in favor of everybody finding meaningful Jewish community, so the more, the better. I give them a yasher koach,” or congratulations, “for exciting people about Jewish living,” he says. At the same time, says Kalmanofsky, “it’s important for a minyan not to be exclusivist, not to be just for ‘us and our friends who are just like us.’ ” “At Ansche Chesed you have baby namings and you have deaths, and that’s real life. I hope these minyanim find their way into larger institutions which permit that roundedness in life.” This burgeoning of new minyans is likely to have a positive impact on the number of religiously engaged Jews overall, Hoffman says. “The more alternatives we have that are strong and attract people,” he said, “the better.”

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