The Jewish Advocate: Community, egalitarianism making for new minyanim

Originally published in The Jewish Advocate.

CAMBRIDGE – From the Washington Square Minyan in Brookline to the Cambridge Minyan across the Charles River, young leaders are gathering their friends in apartments, social halls, and even leased synagogue chapels to create communities they are not finding in existing Jewish institutions.  There may be rabbis present, but not necessarily as leaders.

These are the new generation of lay-led congregations. While such groups come and go on a regular basis, particularly in a student-filled area like Boston and its surrounding communities, many of the groups in this latest generation of minyanim are planting roots to ensure long-term stability.

Minyan organizers cite two main attractions for their members: a particular approach to services and a community atmosphere.  Yehuda Kurtzer, of the Washington Square minyan, sees these aspects as intertwined.  His minyan, he said, strives to “create a positive social atmosphere with davening, not to obscure core values [of quality davening], but to complement that.”

How each group builds community – and approaches services – sets each one apart from the rest.  In Cambridge, two similar groups share the burden of building community even as they differ in their religious outlook.  Josh Greenfield, founder of the Cambridge Minyan, said that he and the leaders of neighboring Minyan Tehillah consult each other to coordinate service schedules, because there is a great deal of membership overlap.  In fact, they have run side-by-side services for the holiday of Purim with a joint party as well as a joint tikkun (all-night study session) on Shavuot.

However, Greenfield points out that “Tehillah has attracted a lot of people to their community, even though many don’t necessarily share the ideology Tehillah is founded upon.  I personally take part in their services even though I’m more at home in a setting like the Cambridge Minyan in which women and men are counted and participate equally.”

Shira Cohen, one of the leaders of Minyan Tehillah, puts it another way.  Her minyan strives for the “maintenance of traditional halacha combined with a modern outlook of gender equality and participation.”  In practical terms, it means that men and women sit separated by a mechitza, or partition, but services do not start until ten of each gender are present, and the community follows a format set out by Rabbi Mendel Shapiro outlining how women can participate to a greater extent than in an average Orthodox congregation.  “We’re striving for working within a traditional framework to provide opportunities for both men and women to participate in a joyous prayer community,” Cohen said.

Both she and Kurtzer pointed out that their groups are following precedents set elsewhere, in communities like Kehillat Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem and Kehilat Hadar and Darchei Noam in New York.  Greenfield, who was involved with Hadar when he lived in Manhattan, says that the Cambridge Minyan, as well as many similar minyanim across the country, looks to Hadar for advice and resources.

Not all of the minyanim are quite so precise about their practices.  Judy Musnikow is the co-founder of a group called the Minyanaires that meets once a month in homes around the Cambridge/Somerville area for services and a vegetarian potluck dinner. She said her group purposefully takes a broad approach to religious policy:  “It’s up to whoever’s leading.”

Many who participate in this minyan are not what Musnikow would describe as “very observant or religiously oriented,” and minyan co-founder Beth Wasserman said “a lot of the people who come don’t go anywhere else when they’re not with us.”  However, the group experimented with eliminating services altogether on alternating months and found their members hungered for more than just a Sabbath meal together.

The importance of the meal should not be underestimated, according to several leaders of the minyanim.  Greenfield cited Harvard Hillel’s graduate student Sabbath dinners, which welcome graduate students and community members, as part of the inspiration for his group.  Havurah on the Hill, a monthly minyan that meets at the Vilna Shul on Boston’s Beacon Hill, hosts a kosher catered dinner for 150 to 200 people after services.  Dave Gerzof, one of the group’s co-chairs, said, “One of the biggest things for bringing people together and bonding is breaking bread together and sharing a meal.”

Looking to their viability, Gerzof and others may be on the right track with their emphasis on more than just prayer.  Minyan Shaleym in Brookline has been around in one form or another for more than thirty years.  Rebecca Jacobs, a current leader of the group, attributed the long-term success of her community to a similar philosophy.  “It’s not enough to just daven together,” she said.  “You should also be eating together, celebrating together, creating the relationships that go beyond showing up under the same roof to daven.  If you’re talking about nurturing a community, that’s what really makes it work.”

Several of the leaders of the new groups acknowledge the possibility that their minyanim may be ephemeral.  Musnikow has already seen her minyan shrink a bit. “I don’t necessarily see it going on forever,” she said.  “I think as people create their own families, they’ll be looking for more of an institution to be involved in.”

Still, Kurtzer is optimistic, seeing young families with children as a welcome challenge that has already lead to the institution of a children’s program.  Even so, he said “we thrive on the feeling of being temporary.  It allows us to grow without getting bogged down by institutional policy.”

Several long-term members of Minyan Shaleym wax nostalgic about the early days when their minyan was one of the only options in which men and women could participate equally.  Many of today’s new minyan leaders adopt similar when they discuss building new communities with their own mix of tradition and progress.

Anne M. Kahan has been a member of Minyan Shaleym for decades.  She said she that although now it is a bit more established community than it was at the start, “it’s constantly evolving.  There’s always a nucleus, but new people join and people are always moving on.”

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