‘Wake-Up Call’ For The Denominations


The product of a Modern Orthodox home and a longtime resident of Boston, Yehuda Kurtzer reached an important spiritual decision while he was living in Washington, D.C., for a while three years ago. He and his wife, Stephanie Ives, had become active in the D.C. Minyan, an independent prayer group that meets in the capital’s Dupont Circle area, and wanted to start a similar minyan when he moved back to Boston with her for graduate school.

“We knew we had to have something like this in Boston,” Kurtzer says.

Today they do.

Kurtzer, a doctoral student at Harvard, is a founder of The Washington Square Minyan (www.wsminyan.org), an egalitarian prayer group that meets for Shabbat morning services twice a month in rented space in Brookline, a suburb of Boston.
At least 60 young men and women show up. And, Kurtzer says, “there are three more [independent minyanim] like us in the Boston area.”

It’s not only Boston. And it’s not only New York, which has served as a breeding ground for such cutting-edge, nondenominational, grass-roots prayer groups for a decade.

At least 80 independent minyanim and similar alternative spiritual communities, with e-mail lists of 15,000-20,000 people, exist across this country and Canada, according to a survey released here last week (www.jewishemergentsurvey.org).

The report, “Emergent Jewish Communities and their Participants,” sponsored by the S3K (Synagogue 3000) Synagogue Studies Institute (www.synagogue3000.org) and Mechon Hadar (www.mechonhadar.org), indicates a steady growth of these groups since 1999. Most, like The Washington Square Minyan and the Upper West Side’s Kehilat Hadar (www.kehilathadar.org), a pioneer independent minyan, are lay-led, and attract a crowd of people mostly in their 20s and 30s who seek a traditional, but eclectic, brand of Jewish worship and fellowship.

The findings should serve as a “wake-up call” to the major denominations of Judaism, which have seen drops in their membership levels over the last several decades, says Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a faculty member at the Reform movement’ Hebrew Union College and senior academic fellow of the Synagogue 3000 research institute.

“While initially somewhat more concentrated in New York, Los Angeles and other areas of high Jewish residential concentration than elsewhere, they have spread throughout the U.S. and Canada,” the report states. “They now appear in smaller Jewish communities, and not just those regarded as culturally ‘hip’ or avant-garde.”

These smaller cities include Denver, Kansas City, Mo., and Palo Alto, Calif.

“It can be done anywhere,” Kurtzer says. Members of the “post-Hillel generation,” who took part in an open, nonjudgmental style of Judaism in their college days, seek to replicate that experience after they leave college, he says.

“This is a spreading phenomenon,” says sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who designed the survey and took part in the press conference that announced its findings. “These are communities that are responding to the aesthetics of the [20-something and 30-something] generation. They are creating a different form of spiritual community.”

Usually it’s a community that has no building of its own and no rabbi serving as full-time spiritual leader.

Palo Alto’s Minyan HaMifratz (www.minyanhamifratz.org), formed three years ago, for example, meets monthly in members’ homes. The worshipers are largely from the Stanford University community or from Silicon Valley.
The minyan has about 150 people on its e-mail list, says Sivan Zakai, a minyan founder.

According to the study, members of independent prayer groups are more likely to be younger, female, single, heavily Jewishly identified and less affiliated with a denomination of Judaism than Jews who belong to mainstream congregations. They go to synagogue more regularly, have a more intensive Jewish background and have spent more time in Israel than most members of the Jewish community, the study also found.

And, according to the study, they contribute to local Jewish federation fundraising campaigns as often as other affiliated Jews.
These finding shatter the stereotype that people who gravitate toward independent prayer groups are marginal Jews who fail to support the larger Jewish community, a characterization from the counter-cultural havurah movement of the 1960s, said the participants in the press conference.

But, they said, the network of independent minyanim is filling spiritual and social needs that older Jewish institutions are not.
“We found we didn’t have a place to daven in Boston,” Kurtzer says. “None of [the established congregations] seemed to be on the cutting edge … where you can define your Jewish identity in complex ways.”

Many of the prayer groups operate on the “10 and 10 principle,” requiring 10 men and women, or a total of 20 people, for certain prayers.

“It’s very easy to look at [the study’s findings] as criticism” of such mainstream Jewish organizations as established synagogues and the network of Jewish federations, says J. Shawn Landres, Synagogue 3000’s director of research. “It’s not offered as criticism.”

The growth of the new prayer groups reflected in the study shows that they are “revitalizing Jewish life,” Landres says.

“People are always starting things in Judaism,” says Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co-founder of Kehilat Hadar and its national spinoff, Mechon Hadar. “This has been going on forever.

“It’s not an antagonistic relationship to the [Jewish community’s] institutional structure,” Rabbi Kaunfer says.

The independent minyanim, some of which hold their services in synagogues in their communities, do not threaten the membership rolls or viability of established congregations, he says. “The [new] minyanim are not dragging people of out synagogues. They drag people out of their bedrooms.”

In other words, they are reaching unaffiliated Jews who had not belonged to a synagogue.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, a longtime pulpit rabbi in Brooklyn and president of the New York Board of Rabbis, calls the independent minyanim “an opportunity for engagement,” a chance for established congregations to create a connection to the younger generations of Jews.

“The fact that we have minyanim is a healthy fact,” he says. “People are seeking to be part of the Jewish spiritual community.”

Some synagogues for years have sponsored a variety of prayer services “under one roof,” Rabbi Potasnik says. “Now we have several roofs.”

While at the helm of Kehilat Hadar and later at Mechon Hadar, Rabbi Kaunfer has witnessed the growth in the independent minyanim movement. This summer he ran an eight-week-long yeshiva on the Upper West Side, that he calls the first that reflects the values and style of the movement.

As networking among the minyanim increases, and as their numbers grow, he says, other such initiatives are likely. “It’s not going to stop with minyanim.”