The Bum Rap Against Independent Minyanim

Opinion

By Ben Dreyfus

Published March 30, 2011, issue of April 08, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Recent months have seen a wave of opinion pieces and statements — in these pages and elsewhere — that have been critical of independent minyanim. Minyanim are portrayed as too independent and not independent enough, and their participants are painted as both selfish ingrates who take from the community without giving anything back and energetic super-Jews who would automatically revitalize any synagogue they joined if only they were willing to set foot in one.

Let’s set the record straight.

“Independent” means that these minyanim are not affiliated with any of the Jewish denominations or with institutions such as synagogues. That is all.

Independent minyanim do not claim to be self-sufficient Jewish islands. On the contrary, many minyanim, in providing for only a limited subset of the elements of Jewish life (primarily prayer), are explicitly functioning within a larger Jewish ecosystem, with the understanding that they are specializing in some areas while other organizations specialize in others.

Thus, pointing out, as critics often do, that minyan participants are dependent on the existence of the wider Jewish community does not show that independent minyanim are hypocritical or unsustainable; it only shows that we are operating in a networked model of Jewish community, in which many entities contribute pieces to the whole.

Independent minyanim truly are, however, independent of one another. Any two independent minyanim cannot be assumed to agree on Jewish practice, religious ideology, membership structures (or lack thereof), the scope of activities they feel responsible for or where they hope to be in five years. Therefore any generalizations about what “the independent minyanim” or their participants do or think is likely to fall short.

Still, one accurate generalization about independent minyan organizers is that we work hard. Most of us have unrelated day jobs, and do work on behalf of our minyanim as volunteers in our spare time. I know a large number of minyan founders and organizers, and no one could ever call them lazy. They put in untold hours toward building and sustaining their communities. This is not restricted to an elite; the participatory structure of many minyanim means that anyone who so desires has the opportunity to take part in this sacred work.

So my first reaction, when people ask how independent minyan participants are contributing to the Jewish community, is that we are the Jewish community. In running minyanim, we are creating services and programs that are open to anyone who wants to be there. It is a strange double standard that “unaffiliated Jews” who are not connected to any Jewish community are sought out as targets for outreach, while those of us who have taken the initiative to do something are criticized for not doing more.

Some believe that independent minyan-goers ought to be joining synagogues instead. After all, if independent minyan participants are so engaged and passionate about Judaism, then wouldn’t they be valuable assets to synagogues? Not necessarily.

The enthusiasm of many minyan participants is not an intrinsic property of individuals, but rather is inspired and sustained by participation in a community where they feel both supported and needed. Some of today’s most active minyan participants had never been deeply involved in Jewish life before they found their current minyan. Conversely, some who are Jewishly active now would no doubt gradually drift away from Jewish engagement if they found themselves in a place without a Jewish community that was the right fit. One shouldn’t assume that they would simply join the nearest synagogue and maintain their level of activity indefinitely.

Some minyan participants do belong to synagogues too, and others have in the past or will in the future. But we should keep in mind that it wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing if minyan-goers suddenly joined synagogues en masse.

Some synagogues might want to be more like independent minyanim, in a variety of different ways. Minyan participants may have benefited them more by starting minyanim and experimenting with models that those synagogues can emulate, than they would have if they had tried to change the synagogues from the inside while subject to institutional constraints.

Other synagogues are happy as they are and find the less hierarchical style of minyanim entirely unappealing. In those cases, everyone is better off with different models of community co-existing side by side than with conflicting visions under the same roof.

As we write the next page in Jewish history, all communities that bring God and Torah into the world, whether synagogues or independent minyanim, have valuable roles to play. Whatever we all do to strengthen our own communities will strengthen the Jewish people as a whole.

Ben Dreyfus was a founder of Kol Zimrah, an independent minyan in New York City, and is an organizer of Segulah, an independent minyan on the Washington, D.C.-Maryland border. He blogs at mahrabu.blogspot.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.