My Foray into Independent Minyan Land

Having been reading on JTA and in the Jewish blogosphere about the independent minyan phenomenon, I decided it was time to see for myself what it was all about, so I played hooky from my usual Shabbat community, the Kahal at Beth Emet, and ventured into this brave new world. For the benefit of late-comers, an independent minyan is a self-created worship group that operates outside the framework of the institutional synagogue.

Much of what I experienced was what I expected – but this is at least in part because what we get out of a worship experience is so closely tied to what we bring into it. Short summary: the keva (liturgical content) differed in detail from that of my Kahal but not substance; the kavana (intention) and the vibe seemed the same.

Although I wear a kipa and tallit at Shabbat morning services, I usually don’t carry my own, because they are provided at Kahal, as are copies of Mishkan T’filah and one’s choice between the revised Plaut Torah Commentary and the Women’s Torah Commentary. I had brought my own worship attire with me, foreseeing that they would not be supplied; and while I doubt that I would I have been thrown out had I wanted to worship with bare head and bare shoulders, I would certainly have been the only man in the room underdressed in that fashion. (I was otherwise on the verge of over-dressed in slacks, sport shirt and blazer. As at my own Kahal, jeans and sneakers would have been fine – but I don’t wear them there, either.) I didn’t need the Mishkan T’filah I brought with me, since the minyan has its own siddur, which it supplements with a song sheet and with Sim Shalom, the Conservative siddur. And there were books on hand from which I could follow the Torah and Haftarah reading, although the one I ended up with was an all-Hebrew Tanach with no commentary.

The minyan community was very heterogeneous in age, ranging from pre-bar mitzvah children to senior citizens. I was almost certainly the oldest person there, but that tends to be true many of the places I go. However, the group was older than the post-collegiate yuppie image I had conjured up from what I had read. The school-kids, I was later told, mostly go to day schools – tossing out the hypothesis that young people would leave the independent minyan scene for the synagogue when they had to provide a Jewish education for their children.

I didn’t find out who everybody was or what they do for a living, but at least three members of the minyan are rabbis. There were three service leaders – one with a guitar for Birkat HaShachar, the morning blessings; one (assisted by two of the school-kids) from the Barchu until the Torah service, and a third for the Torah service and wrap-up. Interestingly, all three were women, but both Torah chanters were men. The Torah verses were selected from Year Three of the triennial reading cycle (Kahal is currently reading Year Two), with three (group) aliyot. One of the women leaders, a rabbi, also provided an insightful d’var Torah, which was augmented by pertinent commentary from the group.

Besides me, there were four other familiar faces from Kahal – people who often worship with us weeks when the monthly minyan is not meeting. Before services started, people came over and introduced themselves, and at the end of services, the other first-time guest and I were asked to introduce ourselves. I was also asked to join the group for the pot-luck lunch after services, held in a member’s home. (The minyan meets in the library at Hillel.)

The minyan’s siddur characterizes the liturgy as drawn from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Renewal traditions. I would translate that as a Reform service using mostly Conservative liturgy in a Renewal style. No musaf; no repetition of a silent Amidah; very selective Morning Blessings – I particularly missed Ma Tovu; almost no English; everything participatory; lots of singing; lots of unison first sentences and last sentences with all on their own for the intermediate passages. We sat for the Shma. As someone who chooses the mechayeh meitim (gives life to the dead) option in Mishkan T’filah while most of my community is singing mechayeh hakol (giving life to all), I was comfortable with a siddur that only provided mechayeh meitim, but noted that the woman next to me was singing mechayeh kol chai (giving life to all that lives). The Misheberach for healing segued from Debbie Friedman into Sim Shalom. .

My expectation in going to the minyan was that I would find a service and a community very similar to what I experience every week, and from a qualitative and “performance” standpoint, that proved to be the case. I’m less concerned with strict adherence to any particular blueprint for what a service should contain than I am with the creation of community through a shared worship experience. The keva is more fungible than the kavana; the religious “product” emerges from the shared experience of a like-minded liturgically-literate voluntary community. The value provided by the independent minyan, it seems to me, does not lie in its independence, but in its minyan-ness.

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11 Responses to “My Foray into Independent Minyan Land”

  1. Rabbi Hayim Herring Says:

    Larry: thanks for providing a very rich description of your experience. The crowd there (not sure where the “there” is) definitely sounds more heterogeneous than most. We will see what happens when the younger, married indie crowd have children and need more kinds of traditional “services” and tefilot offered by synagogues. Will they find ways to partner with them or continue to create their own experiences? The jury is out on this one and it will depend upon the leadership both of synagogues and indie minyanim. My hope: they will find a way to partner.

    Rabbi Hayim Herring

    (Can I add you to an email distribution list of mine so that you can automatically receive my posts?)

  2. Michael Balinsky Says:

    Larry,

    The Lomdim minyan you attended is not really an independant minyan. It is more of a vestige of a chavurah that meets once a month. Most of the participants have been around in that group for years. It is far less traditional than most of the independant minyanim, in that there are virtually no shomer shabbat people who participate and few, if any, see themselves as egaliterian and halachic in their ongoing observance.

    Let me be clear, I am being descriptive here and not critical. I am friends with many of the participants and many have studied with me and they are deeply committed Jews.

    • David A.M. Wilensky Says:

      Michael, despite Hadar’s claims that they invented the indie minyan, not all groups that might describe themselves as such include a significant number of traditional/egal folks. I don’t know anything about the particular group you’re describing, but I know that to be fact at plenty of places that might be described as an indie minyan.

    • BZ Says:

      I’m not familiar with this particular congregation, but if it’s not affiliated with a movement or a synagogue, then it’s independent, and if it’s 10 or more Jews who gather for prayer, then it’s a minyan. (And if it’s a grassroots community run by its participants, then it may also be a havurah. “Minyan” and “havurah” are not mutually exclusive categories.) If this community differs (in liturgy, demographics, etc.) from other independent minyanim with which you are familiar, that doesn’t mean that it’s “not really an independent minyan”; it means that independent minyanim are more diverse than you thought.

      Since a number of people in this conversation are from Chicago, here’s an analogy from my experiences as a Chicago expat living on the east coast: Some east coast people will say things like “Chicago isn’t really in the Midwest”. They say this because Chicago is urban, multiethnic, etc., and their perception of the Midwest is that it is rural, white, Christian, etc. Of course, we know that Chicago is in the Midwest by any definition, and their perception of the Midwest reflects only some parts of the Midwest and not others.

      “Independent minyan” is a structural category, not a liturgical category; there are other labels that describe liturgical styles, such as “traditional egalitarian” (which can describe both minyanim/havurot and synagogues). While many independent minyan participants are transient, this is not a defining category of independent minyanim; so the fact that “Most of the participants have been around in that group for years” doesn’t make it any less an independent minyan. And in regard to categories such as “shomer shabbat” (by whatever definition) and “halachic in their ongoing observance”, you might be surprised by the diversity of participants even at independent minyanim that you might consider “traditional”.

  3. David A.M. Wilensky Says:

    Hayim, did you even read the post?

    As Larry said,”The school-kids, I was later told, mostly go to day schools – tossing out the hypothesis that young people would leave the independent minyan scene for the synagogue when they had to provide a Jewish education for their children.”

    Your incredulity is expected, Hayim. Those of us who spend our time in independent minyanim keep saying it and everyone else keeps ignoring us. So I’ll say it again (though Larry almost already said it in the very post we are commenting on!): There are ways to raise an educated Jewish child away from the bankrupt system of congregational Sunday school and Hebrew school.

  4. larrykaufman Says:

    Michael, I’ve seen some commentary in the blogosphere about the distinctions between minyanim and chavurot, but I’m still not clear as to whether the distinctions are meaningful or pilpul. Meanwhile, Lomdim calls itself a minyan, so that’s good enough for me. And given that Beth Emet provides the default back-up for several of the Lomdim daveners, I would not have expected to find it any more “traditional” than it is.

    Meanwhile, David, watch for my post coming soon on the “indy cheder” where my formal Jewish education began. From what I know of the non-Orthodox Jewish education scene in Chicago, alternatives to congregational schools , other than day schools, are sparse. Camp picks up some of the slack. What other ways do you suggest?

    • David A.M. Wilensky Says:

      The difference between chavurot and minyanim (though both terms tend to apply in a literal sense to both) is basically historical. Minyanim tend to be newer, while chavurot were generally founded in the sixties and seventies.

      And, Larry, there was just a story in one of bigger US jewish press outlets (can’t remember which) about Jews who hire one-on-one tutors for their kids. It’s just one more example in the long list of ways to educate a Jew.

      • larrykaufman Says:

        One-on-one tutoring flies in the face of my Jewish value system, which puts al tifrosh min hatzibur, don’t separate yourself from the community, ahead even of talmud torah k’neged kulam, the study of Torah outweighs other virtuous acts.

        One-on-one tutoring not only isolates kids from their peers, but fails to transmit the minyan-ness of Judaism. As I’ve seen it in action, it seems as if the parent is saying that the child’s Jewish studies must be at the family’s convenience, rather than having the child’s schedule adapt to the community’s program. Nice that they make room for it at all — but….

      • BZ Says:

        Minyanim tend to be newer, while chavurot were generally founded in the sixties and seventies.

        If you’re talking about self-definition, then it may be true that more communities founded recently call themselves “minyanim”, and more communities founded in the ’60s and ’70s call/called themselves “havurot”. But there are also “minyanim” founded in the ’60s and ’70s (some of which are indistinguishable from “havurot” founded at that time), and there are “havurot” founded recently (some of which are indistinguishable from “minyanim” founded recently).

    • BZ Says:

      Michael, I’ve seen some commentary in the blogosphere about the distinctions between minyanim and chavurot, but I’m still not clear as to whether the distinctions are meaningful or pilpul.

      While there are many examples of chavurot that are not minyanim (e.g. chavurot that gather only for activities other than prayer), and even more examples of minyanim that are not chavurot (e.g. the regular clergy-led sanctuary minyan at a synagogue), most of the grassroots prayer communities in question can be accurately described as both minyanim and chavurot, and I think the distinction is not meaningful (and not even pilpul) in regard to these communities.

  5. michael balinsky Says:

    I hear what has been said collapsing the distinction. I will ask them when I see them how they define themselves.

    To their credit, a huge part of the leadership of the group is running Limmud Chicago.

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