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.