Figuring out why promising Conservative alumni set up ‘indy minyans’

Revelers celebrate Purim at a party organized by Valley Ruach, an independent minyan that meets in a Conservative synagogue outside Los Angeles. (Ben Z. Vorspan)

Revelers celebrate Purim at a party organized by Valley Ruach, an independent minyan that meets in a Conservative synagogue outside Los Angeles. (Ben Z. Vorspan)

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NEW YORK (JTA) — It’s been a tough few weeks for the leadership of the United Synagogue, the Conservative movement’s synagogue association. The recent announcement that Rabbi Steven Wernick would become its new executive vice president was overshadowed by a group of movement leaders who publicly complained they had been shut out of the selection process. That was followed the next week by a group of synagogue presidents threatening secession unless the United Synagogue agreed to make a number of largely administrative changes.

A peculiar disconnect exists between the urgency of the rhetoric — nothing less than the future of Conservative Judaism is at stake, the suddenly rebellious insiders say — and the substance of the complaints, which are in danger of drowning in bureaucratese. The problem with the United Synagogue is its lack of transparency and inclusivity, the critics say, and the solution lies in engagement and coordination. Some pointed to the results of a mostly shelved organizational study from 2004 undertaken by a management consultant. The United Synagogue stands accused of trying to run a top-down 20th century organization at the dawn of the 21st.

Particularly in the era of Barack Obama, it’s hard to argue with calls for greater transparency and openness. But for a movement that has been hemorrhaging members, and losing both ground and confidence in the wake of the Reform movement’s surge, the solution doesn’t seem commensurate with the challenge. And while the United Synagogue leadership accepts many of the criticisms — Wernick told The Jewish Week that he plans to "re-energize and re-engage" the movement’s synagogues — perhaps a more important measure of the movement’s health lies elsewhere.

Earlier this month, the outgoing chief executive of the United Synagogue, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, released an op-ed urging Conservative synagogues to welcome so-called independent minyanim under their roofs. With their blend of egalitarianism and spirited worship, and an enviable ability to attract the cohort of Jewish young adults who largely have eluded efforts to attract them to their synagogues, the minyanim have become a target of increased attention and philanthropic dollars in recent years. And to the chagrin of the movement leadership, they also are started frequently by individuals with roots in Conservative Judaism.

“They live precisely as we told them to, but paradoxically they practice their Judaism outside our movement,” Epstein wrote. “They perceive that there is no place for them and their Judaism in the Conservative synagogue. If we want to grow in numbers and strength, if we want to inspire passion and commitment, we have to welcome those Jews who live our values and ideology outside of our synagogues to do it inside our synagogues instead.”

Over the summer, Epstein offered $2,500 grants to the minyanim in an effort to draw them into some sort of relationship with the Conservative movement. More than six months later, the organization has handed out six grants. At least two went to minyanim that already had relationships with a local Conservative synagogue. One minyan founder in New York said his group’s connection to the movement had changed little since it received the grant. 

One grant recipient in Los Angeles, after deciding to hold services at a nearby Conservative synagogue, posted a frequently asked questions list on its Web site. The first question asked if the move signified the minyan would begin affiliating with the movement. The answer? “No, it does not!”

The reasons aren’t hard to figure out. Minyanim defy the sort of easy categorization one associates with the established denominations. Virtually all are egalitarian, but their services hew closer to what one finds in Orthodoxy. Many of their founders are alums of Conservative institutions, but the membership comes from a variety of backgrounds. And their emphasis on serious Torah study and social action draws from both Reform and Orthodox.

“I think the answer of acting as though someone who starts Hadar has left Conservative Judaism and how do we grab them is too proprietary,” said Yehuda Kurtzer, a professor at Brandeis University and a member of the Washington Square Minyan in suburban Boston. “It doesn’t speak to the complexities of identity. I think that is everything that’s going on with these minyanim is good for the ideals of Conservative Judaism.”

Perhaps most significant, becoming part of a larger congregation would compromise the very thing that, in an era when not only young Jews but legions of American 20- and 30-somethings have grown skeptical of established institutions, is their calling card: their independence.

“Here’s a place where you can just be who you want to be, and live out a Jewish life you are engaged with, without slapping a label on yourself,” said one minyan leader. “People simply can’t be boxed into broad denominational labels.”

The movers behind the most successful minyanim invariably see the effort to reclaim them as somewhat bizarre, as a reflection of an outdated mode of affiliating with the Jewish community. But equally, it’s not hard to understand why the leadership of the Conservative movement is distressed to see its most promising young alumni migrating elsewhere.

No matter how well run the United Synagogue becomes, regardless of how cutting edge its management structure, it’s hard to envision its long-term health if that trend continues, let alone accelerates. Jerome Epstein understands this. It remains to be seen whether his successor will make any greater headway in trying to do something about it.

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