Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Indie Minyans Revisited

I last took up the subject of independent minyanim (or "Indie Minyans") on this blog in January 2008. What prompted me to blog about these minyanim (prayer services) for the 20- and 30-something crowd was the coverage in the mainstream press. The New York Times article (November 28, 2007) opened with the following line: "There are no pews at Tikkun Leil Shabbat, no rabbis, no one with children or gray hair."

At the 2004 UJC General Assembly in Cleveland, I attended a session in which my colleague Elie Kaunfer (founder of Kehilat Hadar) was one of the panelists. He was challenged about what happens in the future when these young, progressive members of the indie minyans need a nursery school for their toddler or a rabbi for their son's bar mitzvah. He theorized that many of these young adults would move out to the suburbs and join established synagogues as they got married and had children. His caveat was that they would shake up the establishment at these congregations. Time would tell.

Well, it's now been about a decade since the founding of indie minyans like Hadar and those original members are now in their mid-thirties with spouses and children not too far off from the bar and bat mitzvah track. But many of them are doing what they did ten years ago. They're founding new minyans and recognizing that DIYJ (do it yourself Judaism) can extend to their families too (Who says you need a rabbi to officiate at a bat mitzvah?).

This doesn't bode well for the Conservative Movement where most of the indie minyan adherents were brought up and educated. Rabbi Jerry Epstein (right), the outgoing head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was banking on the idea that these "best and brightest" young people could be lured back to Conservative synagogues. As any study of the American Jewish population will tell you there are far fewer Conservative synagogues than there were when these indie minyan alumni were teenagers in USY and their synagogues are much thinner now membership-wise (at least the ones that haven't merged with other synagogues).

Rabbi Epstein writes that these young Conservative Jews "live precisely as we told them to [at Camp Ramah and in USY], but paradoxically they practice their Judaism outside our movement. 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."

This is no surprise to me. The Conservative Movement in general, and its affiliated synagogues in particular, got fat and lazy during the movement's heyday (1950-1990). They took their market share for granted and didn't progress or modernize. They also neglected to look behind them as the Reform, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Chabad movements were gaining ground. Many of my contemporaries who were active in the movement's youth program (USY) and at the movement's various Ramah camps had a choice to make: become a Conservative rabbi or affiliate with Modern Orthodoxy. The Jewish Theological Seminary, the theory went, was the only place in the Conservative Movement where one could actually live out the ideals of Conservative Judaism. The young person who became more observant within the framework of the Conservative Jewish ideal was made to feel unwelcome in the Conservative synagogue. Is there any doubt why they packed up and moved to Orthodoxy or helped create a new non-denominational minyan community?

So what is the Conservative Movement's strategy for drawing in former members who have left for the indie minyan movement? Bribery!

Rabbi Epstein has some $2,500 checks to give out to entice some of these minyans to forge relationships with the Conservative Movement. The amount is relatively insignificant when you consider that Kehilat Hadar's annual operating budget is $160,000 and they have received six-figure grants recently from the Covenant Foundation and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (where selling out isn't a prerequisite to getting the funding). I can't imagine a couple thousand dollars forcing any indie minyan to lose its independence and hook up with the establishment that was the impetus for its initial creation.

Ben Harris, in a JTA article (Figuring out why promising Conservative alumni set up 'indy minyans'), explains what has happened in the aftermath of these grants from USCJ: "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. "

The discussion about indie minyans and the Conservative Movement's desire to reconnect its best and brightest young people to the established Conservative synagogues they fled has been taken up at the Jewschool blog under the title "Same story in two movements". Several young Reform Jews have remarked that the pattern is similar in the Reform Movement as well.

David Wilensky writes on his Reform Shuckle blog that this is "the same challenge that I and many of my friends face with our own Reform movement. The Reform world has educated some of us so well and so effectively taught us how to be engaged in some sort of active personal reformation and now we're so into it that all the 'normal' Reform Jews think we're nuts."

Justin, a commentor on the Jewschool site, wrote "I also think that what Epstein et al fail to understand, coming from a future Conservative ordained rabbi who was the gabbai of an indy minyan, is that it is PRECISELY being engaged with the movement that is the problem. If we can pursue egalitarian, halakhically inspired and influenced communities without paying dues, and manage to have successful prayer communities, why do we need the movement at all? In my opinion, and this is overtly crass, movement folk want to keep their movement jobs and they view us as a threat. Hence the USCJ donating grants to indy minyanim willing to have relations with Conservative shuls. I think they believe that when people need religious school and day-care they will join a shul. For now this may be true, but I am sure eventually indy minyanim will be able to figure out how to provide that for their own communities similar to what the havura movement was able to do in some instances in the 70s."

I agree with Justin. I think that as these emerging communities and indie minyanim came on the scene, the thinking from the establishment was that these were transient communities for Jewish young people in the post-college (Hillel) and pre-family (religious school and bar mitzvah) part of life. Well, that does not appear to be the case.

It looks like the indie minyan that starts with a dozen grad students turns into a havurah and and then eventually the type of ideal synagogue community these "best and brightest" Conservative Movement dropouts have been dreaming about but the established Conservative Movement, with its status quo thinking, cannot provide for them.

9 comments:

BZ said...

Good post. But I would note that Hadar's budget is an outlier; many independent minyanim operate on a budget of a few thousand a year, or no budget at all (some aren't incorporated, and just meet in participants' homes). There are many minyanim out there for whom $2500 would be a significant amount (and yet they still choose not to pursue it).

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

You are correct BZ. Most indie minyans would love to have half of Hadar's annual budget.

Also, USCJ's idea to give grants to the independents that affiliate in some regard with the Conservative Movement is not necessarily a bad idea (maybe a little shortsighted), but making the grants only $2,500 is insulting.

A large congregation affiliated with the Conservative Movement will pay somewhere around $40,000 annually to the USCJ in dues. If Rabbi Epstein took that one congregation's contribution and divided it in half, he could offer two $20,000 grants to the two indie minyans that demonstrated the most interest in partnering with the movement in some regard. The next year, two more grants and so on.

What Rabbi Epstein and others at USCJ might not realize (or choose not to recognize publicly) is that these indie minyans are not totally made up of Conservative Jews. For many, the attraction is that these minyans/communities are non-denominational, post-denominational, trans-denominational, pluralistic, Conservadox, progressive/traditional, etc. So for them to even lean toward one movement because of a grant that will buy them a few nice kiddush lunches or one scholar-in-residence wouldn't be worth the long term effects on their communal identity.

BZ said...

Also, USCJ's idea to give grants to the independents that affiliate in some regard with the Conservative Movement is not necessarily a bad idea (maybe a little shortsighted), but making the grants only $2,500 is insulting.

It's not just $2500 -- minyanim that end up meeting in a C shul as a result of this partnership might get a free davening space, use of a sefer torah, etc., so the budgetary impact would go beyond the $2500. I still wouldn't do it, though. Experience has shown that nothing is really free, and Jewish institutions that provide "free" space to independent minyanim end up exerting pressure in other ways.

What Rabbi Epstein and others at USCJ might not realize (or choose not to recognize publicly) is that these indie minyans are not totally made up of Conservative Jews. For many, the attraction is that these minyans/communities are non-denominational, post-denominational, trans-denominational, pluralistic, Conservadox, progressive/traditional, etc. So for them to even lean toward one movement because of a grant that will buy them a few nice kiddush lunches or one scholar-in-residence wouldn't be worth the long term effects on their communal identity.

YES. Maybe the C movement people think that everyone who goes to independent minyanim are C movement alumni (or even "ideologically Conservative") because all the people THEY know who go to independent minyanim fit the bill, but there's a massive sample bias here.

BZ said...

Also, "no one with children or gray hair" may be true at Tikkun Leil Shabbat, but isn't true of all independent minyanim.

davidsaysthings said...

The budget is usually unimportant. Hadar is entirely unique in the field of Jewish emergence. They have multiple employees, including a Rabbi and an Executive Director. Not to mention the fact that their summer-only yeshiva is about to go full-time next year. Hadar is somewhere in the gray space between a synagogue and a minyan.

But for the rest of us, I can't imagine what we'd use the budget for. Once you've bought sidurim, the only other thing you ever need is kidush or maybe dinner. Do it potluck-style and you've got a recipe for a budget-less organization.

BZ said...

The budget is usually unimportant. Hadar is entirely unique in the field of Jewish emergence. They have multiple employees, including a Rabbi and an Executive Director. Not to mention the fact that their summer-only yeshiva is about to go full-time next year. Hadar is somewhere in the gray space between a synagogue and a minyan.

Kehilat Hadar (the independent minyan) and Mechon Hadar (the organization that runs, among other things, Yeshivat Hadar) are separate organizations, though they have close ties and were founded by some of the same people. (The founders of the two organizations who are now running Mechon Hadar are no longer involved in the leadership of Kehilat Hadar.) Mechon Hadar has multiple employees, including an executive director (who is an ordained rabbi, though no one holds the job title "Rabbi"). Kehilat Hadar is a volunteer-led community and has no employees. The budget number that was quoted was for Kehilat Hadar. (Mechon Hadar's budget is presumably much larger, especially since the year-round yeshiva is going to provide living stipends for its students.)

Kehilat Hadar runs an annual Shavuot retreat, which this year costs $230 per person. If 200 people go on the retreat, that's $46,000. So that's a big chunk of the budget (both income and expenses) right there. (Running a big annual retreat may have more in common with organizations like NHC and Limmud than with many independent minyanim.)

According to Kehilat Hadar's website, renting space in the church basement costs approximately $960 per service. Kehilat Hadar is now meeting almost every Shabbat, so $960 x 50 weeks/year = another $48,000.

But for the rest of us, I can't imagine what we'd use the budget for.

Space rental. If you can fit in someone's home, great. In places like NYC (where apartments are small and people are numerous), that's not always possible. This is one big part of why many independent communities only meet once a month or so. (So once you get a free davening space, the extra cash is just a bonus.)

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

I've never started an indie minyan or any synagogue start-up, but if I did, here's a list of things I would imagine funding would be used for:

1) Website
2) Advertising (word of mouth is great, but so are paid ads)
3) Siddurim (prayer books) & chumashim (bibles)
4) Rent for facility
5) Supplies for food (even if it's potluck, cups, napkins, and plates are essential
6) Honoraria for Guest speakers and special programs
7) Administrative costs (copying, credit card fees, etc.)

*Torah scrolls can be loaned or donated

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Washington Post article, "Synthesis Outside the Synagogue"

Evan J. Krame said...

The alternative can be found at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County Maryland, where three alternate lay lead minyanim operate - an early minyan every shabbat, a minyan that focuses on study that meets the first shabbat of every month and a traditional egalitarian minyan of twenty and thirty somethings that meets every third shabbat. By opening up to alternative minyanim, the synagogue has become stronger than ever. This may be the model for the conservative movement - invite the alternative minyanim inside, give them space and torah, and they will join! Evan K., VP, Beth El.