How Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities
By Rabbi Elie Kaunfer
Forward by Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010, 196 pages
ISBN 10: 1-58023-412-7
ISBN 13: 978-1-58023-412-2
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 13, 2010
Probably when the first synagogue was established, which may have occurred sometime between 200 BCE and 70 CE, a sizable percentage of Jews who attended the services objected to something they saw or heard. This is human nature. Whenever a large group is involved in something, many will dislike what they see and hear. Thus, for example, the president of the United States is considered to be well liked if 60 percent of Americans favor him.
This disapproval of the synagogue services frequently happened for good reasons. Many people recognized that the way that the services were conducted failed to satisfy a large percentage of the attendees. As a result, the alienation from the synagogue and from Judaism is large, and the intermarriage rate among Jews is over fifty percent. Thus, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer's book about creating minyanim, prayer groups, that are relevant and that interest congregants is important.
Rabbi Kaunfer readily admits everyone will not agree with his concerns or his solutions; in fact different minyanim have different solutions. This is fine. What is significant is that the rabbi is trying to do something about this Jewish problem. Even if readers may disagree with some of his answers, they will still be stimulated by the concerns he raises and encouraged to act when they read his ideas.
Rabbi Kaunfer notes that "more than sixty independent minyanim have been started in the past ten years" and more than 20,000 Jews in their twenties and early thirties are involved. He describes how the groups differ from each other in their approaches to the community, to prayer, and to Jewish life. Each seeks its own way to find meaning, how to answer critical life questions, and how to increase the engagement of Jews in the services.
Should a synagogue have a cantor? Are peer-led services better than having a rabbi? Should congregants rush through prayers? How much English makes the services relevant? Does too much English make the prayers non-Jewish? How do people add spiritual meaning to a service? How do we define "spiritual"? How do we create a sense of community? How can a congregation increase the number and percentage of satisfied attendees? How are boundaries set while, at the same time, being open?
Rabbi Kaunfer describes how the minyanim used volunteers, including people who read from the Torah scroll. He tells how they balanced tradition and creativity in their egalitarian services, including adding prayers about women, and how the group taught melodies to people who did not know them so that they would participate in the services, and how the sermon is limited to five minutes.
One chapter of the book describes seven minyanim in the US and in Israel, their concerns and how they resolved them. Another addresses Rabbi Kaunfer's key interest, the creation of "a meaningful, spiritual prayer experience, and offers a couple of dozen ways that minyan attendees can reach this goal. Still another describes Yeshivat Hadar, an egalitarian school that he and others established to teach Judaism in 2006.