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 .