A Fresh Take on the Jewish Faith

Halfway through the Saturday morning service, it struck me: A transcript of the service would be no different from that of a standard Orthodox Jewish service. We were faithfully adhering to the unamended, centuries-old traditional Hebrew liturgy. A transcript, however, would not show that men and women were sitting together, without the physical divider that separates them at an Orthodox synagogue, or that women were leading parts of the service -- another blatant egalitarian break with Orthodoxy.

For that matter, a transcript wouldn't show the fervor of the singing -- by the congregation, not just the leader -- in the rented church basement on New York's Upper West Side. It wouldn't indicate that nearly everyone there was between 20 and 35 -- precisely the demographic that professional leaders of established denominations of American Judaism ritually complain they have trouble getting into synagogues. But this congregation, known as Kehilat Hadar ("community of splendor") doesn't belong to an established denomination and quite deliberately doesn't have professional clergy. Lay members of the loose-knit community lead the services.

In New York intermittently to teach, I ended up at Hadar on the advice of a progressive Jewish blogger. Hadar is a central institution in the growing, rather anti-institutional movement of "independent minyanim" -- Jewish prayer communities that do not identify with the established denominations. Both Hadar and the wider movement neatly subvert much conventional thinking about American Judaism, and American religion in general.

To start, there's the stereotype that an attraction to intensive, traditional religion goes necessarily with conservative social and political stances. Within Judaism, this translates into the assertion I've repeatedly heard over Sabbath meals with religious friends and in café conversations with nonreligious ones when I'm states-side: The only branch of American Judaism that has flourished in the 30 years since I emigrated from America is Orthodoxy, which is also the only denomination to attract young adults. Within Orthodoxy, says the accepted conventional wisdom, moderates are losing ground to hardliners with ever-stricter interpretations of Jewish law, greater gender distinctions, and more fundamentalist versions of belief.

Those assumptions don't fit the dozens of independent Jewish religious communities that have sprung up around North America and beyond in recent years. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer one of Hadar's founders, says the minyanim represent a generation of Jews who "take for granted … that women should have equal participation, that gays should have a place in the community." Yet, he says, they also show "a human desire that's drawn to something that traditional religious language speaks to." (Kaunfer's wording is convoluted but careful: Ancient words of prayer shouldn't be read literally as expressing factoids about God, in the fundamentalist fashion, but poetically as reaching toward the inexpressible.)

The religious traditionalism and social liberalism of the minyanim go beyond prayer services. A 2007 report on the new communities cites the example of a minyan that demands strict adherence to Jewish dietary laws at communal functions, while also declaring itself "queer friendly." A survey conducted for the report found that 82.6 percent of participants identified politically as Democrats, 15.3 percent as independents, and 2.1 percent as Republicans, Kaunfer told me. Even in the liberal-leaning U.S. Jewish community, that's a particularly liberal profile. A return to God, it turns out, doesn't necessarily represent "the revenge of God," to borrow French scholar Gilles Kepel 's phrase for the rise of reactionary religion.

You can see the growth of independent minyanim as proof of the failure, or of the success, of the established U.S. Jewish community's efforts to keep the next generation involved. Those efforts include the expansion of Jewish day schools, of the on-campus Hillel movement for Jewish students, and of programs in Israel for young Jews. Independent minyan members, much more than other American Jews, are alumni of all these programs. The 2007 study showed that over half had spent four months or more in Israel for a single visit -- far above the proportion for the wider Jewish community. Yet they haven't found their place in the established synagogues. They're likely to say they are "nondenominational" -- a term usually, and mistakenly, taken as meaning that someone is drifting away from Judaism. Instead, they've created a traditional Judaism with an anarchic accent, in which participants expect rabbis to teach them but not to lead their services or be religious in their place.

The figures on time spent in Israel point to another characteristic certain to confound leaders of established Jewish institutions. The minyanim "have not necessarily rallied around Israel programming as a central part of their existence," Kaunfer says. "Israel-focused advocacy is not really part of minyan culture." In New York, Kehilat Hadar has spun off its own egalitarian yeshiva --an academy for study of Jewish religion for its own sake, without degrees or professional goals. That's implicitly an alternative to study programs in Israel.

The survey stats show that a higher proportion of minyan members than synagogue members say they're "very emotionally attached to Israel" (58 percent to 37 percent, respectively). But the numbers go the opposite way when the two groups are asked about feeling "proud of Israel always": only 23 percent of minyan members say yes to that, compared to 40 percent of synagogue members. That's the difference between knee-jerk support of a mythical place and a family tie to a real place.

Indeed, there's a rough parallel between the minyanim as a religious phenomenon and the pro-peace Israel lobby, J Street, as a political phenomenon. True, as Kaunfer suggests, the relation of minyanim to synagogues is that of an alternative; the relationship of J Street to the established lobbying group, AIPAC, has more of an adversarial tone.

The common message, though, is this: To stay involved as Jews, young people don't have to buy into conservative, top-down organizations. And American Judaism isn't fading away, even if some of its institutions might be. The next generation, meeting in rented halls, is devoted, progressive, and casually unwilling to be bound by conventional wisdom.

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