Capital Quorum Forum

Without a rabbi or synagogue, increasing numbers of young American Jews are creating alternative spiritual communities. A visit to the DC Minyan

WASHINGTON, D.C. - An American Jewish journalist, a friend of mine, declared with evident pity that I have twice been a victim: first, of the Soviet system that tried to do away with all religions, and then of the Orthodox monopoly over religion in Israel, where I moved in 1990. The religious pluralism of American Judaism, he declared, is the ultimate therapy for that.

As secular Israelis residing in the United States, my husband and I did not even consider trying to forge a connection with any kind of religious establishment. Especially since they call a brit in these parts a bris, and instead of "mazal tov," as it is said in modern Hebrew, they say "mazeltoff" - and anyone who pronounces these words differently has no chance of social acclimatization. But my mother-in-law said: "Think of the children and their identity." So we did, and we arrived at a compromise: going to services on Friday night, but in what we initially thought would be a non-serious, noncommittal sort of forum.

That is how we found ourselves at an independent minyan (the Hebrew word used to describe a prayer quorum ), part of a movement that has gained momentum in the United States in recent years. It usually consists of groups of young urban Jews who gather for prayers and Jewish activities without a rabbi, and far from any synagogue sanctuary.

At present, some 20,000 people are paying members of independent minyanim, which makes this a somewhat negligible phenomenon in light of the estimated five to seven million Jews in America. But the number of such communities in the country has grown since they were first established a little over a decade ago. (The havurot of the late 1960s and the '70s may have been an early precursor of the independent minyanim, but they tended to be more counter-culture in style, and their latter-day heirs are more likely to be found in the Renewal movement. )

The independent minyanim are now starting to spread to suburban areas and to attract more young families with children. The impact of this movement on American synagogue life is not clear, but its activity is generally welcome, especially since so many young Jews have distanced themselves from the greater community in recent years. The independent minyan offers an alternative, one generally based on a halakhic (traditionally religious ) model, for many who are looking both to get involved in a community and for spiritual fulfillment. Often, they are well educated Jewishly .

One of the most prominent of these minyanim is located in the capital; it was founded eight years ago and is called DC Minyan. Its services are conducted in a hall in the city's Jewish community center near Dupont Circle (one of the city's focal points, where various demonstrations and events are held ), and seem to be very popular; it was so crowded the first time we went that the last row of seats pushed up almost against the back wall.

The DC Minyan website says that anyone is welcome, so we took along our 10-year-old son and our 3-year-old daughter, who insisted on accompanying the young man leading the service that day with her own singing. Then she asked in a loud voice why her father and brother were sitting apart from us. Like many of the independent minyanim, DC Minyan defines itself as a "traditional egalitarian" community; the men and women sit opposite each other, without a partition - but still separately. This makes it possible - unlike at typical Conservative and Reform congregations - for Jews of all denominations to take part.

The following week I took my place, prayer book in hand, alongside some smiling young women, one of whom had a nose ring. This time, Deena Fox, a young woman wearing a tallit over a flowery knee-length dress, stood at the dais and opened the service - in Hebrew. Fox, a lawyer by profession, said she led prayers even when she was a girl. "I had experience with egalitarian services in Chicago," she explained, "and it was only natural that I'd look for something similar when I came to Washington."

DC Minyan gathers on weekends and holidays, and also sponsors a study group that meets in the middle of the week. The congregation during the High Holy Days was mixed: young and old people, students, and couples with children - and lots of lawyers. For many, this is a temporary sort of congregation, just as Washington as a city is a stop-over for tens of thousands of interns who work at government institutions and then move elsewhere.

One reason young people are attracted to DC Minyan is that membership in a regular local synagogue can cost up to $2,600 per year for a couple. Not everyone can pay such sums, or wants to have to ask for a discount. The annual membership fee at the DC Minyan, by contrast, is $260 per person for anyone earning $35,000 a year or more.

'Participatory experience'

Julia Zuckerman, 31, a member of the DC Minyan Steering Committee, and also an attorney, started attending the group's activities five years ago when she moved to Washington from New York.

"I grew up in the Conservative movement, but was looking for something other than a regular synagogue," she says. "I don't want to say anything negative about other institutions, but in my experience, the DC Minyan, or Kehilat Hadar in New York [another independent minyan], offer a much more participatory experience. So instead of having a rabbi or cantor leading and telling everyone else what is going on - you feel like you are really contributing and participating rather than just showing up."

While women can lead services at DC Minyan, the prayers are conducted in Hebrew and the atmosphere is more reminiscent of an Orthodox synagogue than a Reform temple.

Zuckerman: "We put out some siddurim [prayer books] with transliteration that may be a bit helpful if people don't know how to read Hebrew at all. We want to be welcoming and as open as possible, but we also want to keep up the congregation's 'standards.' I do not think anyone wants the tefillot [prayers] to be in English. We have a 'learners course' approximately once a year for people who want to know more about the services, but we don't have regular Hebrew classes."

If it is so important for you to stick to tradition, why don't you take a rabbi with an open mind who doesn't object to women leading the service?

Zuckerman: "We are not at all against rabbis - I personally think rabbis are usually very helpful and knowledgeable, but some synagogues rely on the rabbi far too much. You don't have to be a rabbi to know how to lead a prayer session. Anyone can do that, you just have to learn how. Once I went to a synagogue for the reading of the Megillah [on Purim]. It is a huge event and an honor [to participate]; people ask weeks in advance if they can recite portions of it. But at that synagogue, the rabbi and cantor read almost the whole megillah. It was very sad - nobody there knew how to do it or even wanted to learn."

At present there are some 30 men and women who can lead services at DC Minyan. All who are interested must first meet with the gabai (a layperson with some religious functions ) and others, and go through the service with them.

"In the past, there were instances where people didn't prepare well enough or didn't know the melodies. I don't think we ever had anything extremely weird or inappropriate happen," explains Zuckerman, "but quality is very important to us ... You shouldn't lead the service until you are ready to do so. Most people would rather make a mistake in front of the [gabai] than in front of everyone, so they don't mind participating in this 'trial run.'"

As far as the separate seating for men and women is concerned, she notes: "People who founded this minyan came from different backgrounds - one was Orthodox, one Conservative and one Reform. It was a compromise that would allow making as many people as possible comfortable."

However, DC Minyan's website does stipulate that people who identify with a different sex from that written on their birth certificates are invited to sit in the section designated for it. "No one will ask what gender you are," Zuckerman adds.

Another issue that arose when the group got started was how to define a minyan, the number of worshipers necessary for reciting certain prayers or for reading from the Torah: Did it have to consist only of 10 men, according to Orthodox tradition, or could it be mixed? The answer the congregation came up with - in accordance with its egalitarian approach, but without upsetting members who believe a minyan should consist of men - was that a minyan consists of 10 men and 10 women. (This was based on the policy adopted by Jerusalem's Shira Hadasha community. ) When it comes to kashrut, however, there is no room for innovation; the food served at all events is kosher.

"Shabbat dinners and lunches are usually catered by a kosher supermarket and we charge $18 for members and $21 for non-members," Zuckerman explains.

Many rabbis affiliated with established religious streams say they do not see the independent minyan movement as a form of protest, but rather as a means for filling spiritual needs during a transient period in peoples' lives. When the young people settle down and have families, the religious leaders believe, they will look for a "regular" community.

"We are a downtown community," Zuckerman says, "a young community, and some of the families here will stay in D.C. for the long run. But we also have a lot of other families who, often, once they have a second kid, will need to move out of the city because they don't have enough space."

Despite the big turnover in Washington, DC Minyan manages to maintain more or less the same number of attendees, "about 300 official members and for the High Holidays and Purim, many more people join us who are not members," notes Zuckerman. "For Yom Kippur last year, we had more people than than our space can accommodate. So this year, we had to close the registration earlier."

Some of the singles who come to the minyan activities are looking for a social network. "We don't have a dating program or events for singles," adds Zuckerman, "but we have a happy hour, which is purely social. We have several couples who met at DC Minyan and subsequently got married."

The most obvious strength of the independent minyan also contributes to its greatest weakness, she notes: "the lack of pastoral care." Participants in the minyan may have a chance to express themselves religiously or spiritually, but "we do not have anyone professionally trained to offer spiritual counseling. That's something that is missing," Zuckerman says. "We've thought of putting together a list of rabbis who are willing to help people in these situations. As far as halakhic issues that we cannot resolve within the community [are concerned], we consult with [outside] rabbis."

The Friday evening dvar Torah (sermon ) at DC Minyan is generally delivered by a member of the congregation. However, on one recent evening, Israeli ambassador Michael Oren gave the address, and even spoke a little about what Israel is prepared to sacrifice for peace. For the most part, speakers usually avoid politics - a somewhat difficult mission in so political a city as this.

"We do recite the prayer for the State of Israel on Saturday mornings," Zuckerman says, "but we make an effort to stay away from anything that is political because people in our community have really different views. We have people who work for AIPAC and people involved with J Street. We don't think that DC Minyan is the appropriate place for [political discussions]. If a group of people want to gather at someone's house, they are, however, welcome to report about it in our bulletin."