|Rabbi Elie KaunferIndependent minyanim are not a challenge to the movements — the Internet is. Let me explain.
In his groundbreaking book, What Would Google Do, Jeff Jarvis makes a compelling case that the mass market is dead (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009). There are only niche markets. What happened to the world in which there were only three TV networks? It was replaced—first by dozens of cable channels and then by millions of online videos.
The movements were consciously set up to serve the mass market. Early writings from the Reform and Conservative Movements were explicit about trying to serve all of American Judaism. By the early twentieth century, Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox — the “big-three” movements, demographically speaking — had each carved out its slice on the spectrum of American Judaism. You were either Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. For the most part, there was no in-between.
This started to break down in the middle of last century. New self-proclaimed movements sprung up — Reconstructionism, and the Renewal and Chavurah Movements. People started to describe themselves as in-between: Conservadox, Open Orthodox, Liberal Reform, and so on. The lines between the big-three movements also blurred: what is the fundamental difference between the right wing of Reform and the left wing of Conservative, or between the right wing of Conservative and the left wing of Orthodoxy? The movement brand became harder to define.
Still, the movement institutions — rabbinical schools, synagogues, schools, camps — reigned supreme. The mass market still existed, that is, until the Internet age. The power of the Internet is that it allows people to organize into groups with very few start-up costs. Just send an e-mail or create a Facebook group, and you can energize people to connect. As a result, more and more niche markets have started to form. American Judaism is no exception.
This new reality of niche markets gave rise to independent minyanim. These are grassroots communities that are marked by vibrant prayer services with traditional liturgy, all-volunteer leadership, and gender-egalitarian values. (If this sounds similar to the Chavurah Movement, read Professor Riv-Ellen Prell’s article on some of the differences at www.zeek.net). At Mechon Hadar, we have tracked the growth of independent minyanim (see www.mechonhadar.org). In the past ten years, they have exploded. In 2000, there were three of them; in 2009 there are more than sixty. They serve 20,000 Jews nationwide, most of whom are under 40 years old. (For a demographic study on the minyanim, go to www.mechonhadar.org.)
Independent minyanim capitalized on the Internet’s organizing possibilities. For example, I cofounded Kehilat Hadar (www.kehilathadar.org) in 2001. I wrote a one-paragraph e-mail and sent it to 100 addresses. Sixty people showed up for the first service, cramming into an apartment living room. A few months later, 200 people were coming. We had found our niche market. The whole process took two weeks to launch. Without the Internet, we would have never been able to find the hundreds of young Jews who were looking for what we had to offer.
The independent minyanim tapped into a cultural zeitgeist in which movement identities were simply not important. The majority of people connected with independent minyanim do not claim a movement identity. Why? Because movement labels—meant to serve the mass market—are overly broad. They do not accurately describe the Jewish identity of those in the minyanim. That is why these Jews call their communities “independent”—not independent from Jewish life, values, or history, but independent of the movement labels that do not reflect their identity.
This is a positive development for Jewish life. When people care enough to stake out their own nuanced, complex relationship to Judaism, and reject broad labels in the process, they demonstrate that being Jewish matters deeply to them. If you claim to be “nondenominational,” people can’t make assumptions about your Jewish identity like they can when you claim a traditional denominational label. Instead, you have to explain what about Judaism you connect to—forming the baseline of a robust Jewish conversation.
If the movements continue to try to satisfy a mass market, they will continue to struggle. As Jarvis writes, “If you’re still selling products to the masses, you’re going to find it harder” (Jarvis, What Would Google Do). But movements can capitalize on this development by shifting from serving the masses to serving the niche (or set of niches). Movement leaders often talk about a doomsday scenario of a policy debate that might “split the movement.” But perhaps “split movements” is the future. This will have significant implications for rabbinic training and national movement institutions, but it might result in a better segmented — and better served — American Jewish population.
Independent minyanim stepped into a vacuum created by the shift from mass markets to niche markets. Movements can bemoan their existence or try to scoop them up into an imagined mass market. Or they can react to the new reality the minyanim represent. Indeed, independent minyanim might spur the movements to define their markets better. As Jarvis recommends, “Serve the niche well rather than the mass badly” (ibid.).
|Rabbi Sydney MintzAs 5770 progresses, I think ahead to the question that will be on our minds and our lips in Nissan: Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh mi kol halailot? “Why is this night different from all other nights?” It is a question that we have asked for millennium—one that I believe we should continue to ask not only on Pesach at the seder table, but also throughout the year in our communities. It is a question we should consider about Jewish identity: what is different about the Jewish community of today from that of any other time? I do not view the emergence of independent minyanim as a threat, but as a challenge to our movement—and by extension—to the idea of denominational Judaism. Although I believe that the movements in modernity are relevant and important, I also believe that it is healthy for us to be challenged and respond to forces both internally and externally.
The jump from fifteen independent minyanim in 2001 to over eighty in 2009 is a strong indicator that young Jews are intent on their own brand of affiliation and that this is important to the evolution of Jewish identity. These “emergent sacred communities” offer us a new lens into the predominantly young Jewish audience that is drawn to nonsynagogue communal affiliation. And they can also challenge our movement to figure out how to attract and welcome back Jews on the periphery. These minyanim are a shofar call to what lies ahead for all of the movements and all of us.
According to findings in the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Survey about these emergent communities of Jews: most participants are under 40 and unmarried; two-thirds of them are women; 40 percent grew up in the Conservative Movement; and a majority attended a Hebrew day school, Jewish summer camps, and Hillel. Moreover, they are comfortable with Hebrew and know Israel — more than half of those in independent minyans have spent more than four months in an Israel program; they like worship — most attend services at least once a month and two-thirds pray with more than one congregation; and they tend to be socially progressive yet religiously traditional, illustrating the Gen X phenomenon of the “observant liberal” (see www.jewishemergent.org).
One might ask, who needs these Jews and who wants them? We do. We want Jews who already have a positive connection with their own Jewish identity to continue to strengthen our people. We might call them “unaffiliated” Jews, but if you ask them, they will tell you that their minyan is their community: it is their affiliation, it is their affinity, it is their Jewish home. I view this as yet another way to include those who are searching. If independent minyanim can appeal to those who may not at this point in their lives step into a synagogue, why should we be threatened? Why shouldn’t we pay attention to where these young Jews are heading and strengthen our movement by creating vibrant minyanim of our own? No one is stopping us. In San Francisco, our synagogue “Late Shabbat Young Adult” program draws in 500 Jews to each Kabbalat Shabbat service. Across town, the Mission Minyan is thriving and growing. Do we crossover? Yes. Do minyan members worship both with us and with the minyan? Yes. Are we threatened? No. Are they? No.
We can continue to strengthen our own movement with opportunities for these Jews who already feel a sense of community, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of belonging. It’s not us or them—it’s just us.
We are being challenged to make Judaism important: to create opportunities for us to join, invest in, and embed within the evolving Jewish community. What the study found about being Jewish is that it is, “on average, more important to participants in the emergent spiritual communities than it is to members of American congregations. While 69% of American Jewish congregants in American congregations say the being Jewish is very important to them, even more, 76% of the participants in the rabbi-led emergent communities make this claim, as do fully 90% of independent minyan participants” (ibid., p. 19).
“New Jews Stake Claim to Faithful, Culture,” by Jessica Ravitz, an article on CNN.com, related that these emergent Jewish communities are the kind of “innovation that Jonathan Sarna, of Brandeis University and a leading scholar of American Jewish history, can get behind. ‘When there’s religious complacency, when there’s boredom, we’re much more likely to see people check out,’ said Sarna, who is a member of an Orthodox synagogue. The more pressing issue, he added, is whether cultural ties alone can keep Jewish life going” (see www.cnn.com).
The Reform Jewish community needs to not only blow our own shofar, but also to listen closely to the new voices that are blowing our ancient instrument. They are showing us the possibility of a new engaged, immersed, committed generation. I believe that our own shofar blasts will ultimately be strengthened and invigorated if we invite these members of our tribe to blow their instruments along with ours.