When I got there, I knew right away that this service was different. People were dressed in brightly colored handmade tallit. Both men and women were wearing them. Everyone, men, women and children, was participating. There was no rabbi, as far as I could tell, just lay people taking on the role of leader. And the hakafot were a joyous, whirling free-for-all.
I loved it. It was unlike anything I'd ever experienced as a Jew up to that time. Since then I've attended and belonged to several different shuls. And I've managed from time to time to recapture that heady feeling that Beth Torah - which eventually grew into a "real" bricks-and-mortar congregation in Richardson, Tex. - gave me. But more often than not, that do-it-yourself approach is missing from contemporary, non-Orthodox worship.
I suspect that places like Beth Torah grew out of the same sort of impetus that gave birth to the Jewish Catalog, compiled and edited by Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld and Sharon Strassfeld. It has been 35 years since that book was first published with its counterculture bent. The book supposes that Judaism participatory, and idea that was fairly radical in assimilating communities that sought to emulate mainstream American worship.
The first Jewish Catalog is rife with funky little line drawings demonstrating things like the tying of tzitzit, the fringes worn on the corners of a tallit, or prayer shawl. It has pictures of men in streimels, those incredible fur hats, and of shaggy, hippie Jews davening in the woods. The book asks that you to seize your Judaism, and take responsibility. Even if you're a woman! Learn to lead a prayer service! Make your own tallit! Or a shofar from scratch!
For some this may be a little bit too hands on, but nonetheless the books have left a mark with their experiential take on Jewish life, bringing explanations and describing ritual practice for many who never experienced it first hand.
More recently, there's been a new push by young Jews, those in their 20s and 30s, at recreating the do-it-yourself minyan and other alternative approaches to Jewish prayer and observance. A recent study by demographer Steven M. Cohen, J. Shawn Landres, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer and Michelle Shain, Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants, details the phenomenon and counts more than 80 functioning communities that have been established since 1997. They tend to avoid calling themselves "synagogues" or "congregations" to differentiate themselves from previous alternative movements, like those that flourished in the 70s, as a way of signaling that they are not about reinvigorating or reinventing synagogue life, according to the study.
What they are about is finding a meaningful, hands-on Judaism.
"Both phenomena represent self-organized attempts by spiritually committed Jewish young adults to create spiritual community," Cohen wrote in an email interview. "Both are/were seen as challenges by established congregations. That said, we have differences as well."
And there are several. This movement, according to researcher Landres, is they are not minyanim alone. These are alternative communities, and include IKAR, in Los Angeles, a self-described "spiritual community" that focuses on tikkun olam (repairing the world) with every-other Shabbat potlucks and services; Kavana, of Seattle, a "cooperative" with a green bent that seeks to create a pluralistic community focused on "intentional Jewish living" within the larger community; the Riverway Project in Boston that seeks through ritual and study to connect people to their "Jewish selves," and Storahtelling, in New York City, which according to its website, "promotes Jewish cultural literacy through original theatrical performances and educational programs for multi-generational audiences."
These new communities are not specifically youth oriented. While most participants seem to be singles in their 20s and 30s, some beong with young families, according to the researchers. The participants are not rebelling against traditional settings so much as looking for something different altogether. Nor, according to Cohen are they specifically out "to confront and change congregational life directly" as the previous generation of havurot sought to do. He added that the 70s havurot were "initiating the feminist struggle" while these new minyanim are egalitarian "inherently and unquestionably."
The denominations of those involved in these communities reflect the same denominational distribution found in American Jewish life. But the plurality comes from the Conservative movement, which did a fine job of erecting day schools during the 1980s and educating its youth through them and the various camps scattered throughout the country, and through strong Israel experiences. Yet at the same time the movement was creating educated, capable lay leaders of both sexes, many Conservative congregations continued to adhere to a non-egalitarian service that was rabbi and cantor dominated. Its educated youth were spiritually all dressed up with no place to go.
What are people looking for in these alternative communities? A quick survey of their websites indicates they want meaning. They want to participate. They want to create ritual, learn and reconnect to a Jewish background from which they feel distant at best or for many, in which they often feel poorly educated. They want their Jewish practice to connect with their secular lives, through social action. And like Jews everywhere, they want to eat together, evident by the prominent role that Shabbat dinners play in their lives.
Cohen says that overall these are Jews looking for "a more intensive and a more learned spiritual experience" with an increased sense of ownership and participation. They are also looking for a greater sense of community, and this he says is reflected in their desire to spend Shabbat meals together.
To me, this is a real bright spot in the all the doom-and-gloom of Jewish demographics. You cannot pick up a Jewish publication these days without reading about the startling intermarriage rates among the non-Orthodox, or the overall disinterest among young Jews who are turned off from Jewish life. So to hear that there are young Jews in this country who care so passionately about being active, involved Jews that they need to start their own minyanim or spiritual communities in order to worship in a meaningful way is heartening, even if it's in small measure.
There is no data on what will become of these minyanim as their participants age. Will the morph into congregations with mortgages, the way that crazy minyan where I attended Simchat Torah services did? Or will they die out as participants marry, have kids and spend more time in the back of the service chasing little ones than leading prayers? "Only time will tell," Cohen says.
Rabbi Elie Kaufner, another of the researchers involved in the project, is one of the founders of Mechon Hadar, an environment where young Jews in their 20s and 30s can come for intensive Jewish education to take back to their communities. Efforts like this need to be encouraged, he says.
"This vibrant sector of Judaism depends on groups of young Jews empowered in their Jeiwsh identity taking action and forming communities," he wrote in an email. "By investing in camps, day schools, Hillel, Israel trips, etc., the mainstream Jewish community has helped foster these people. But those efforts usually end when people turn 21. We are living in a world where people's identities are just starting to solidify once they ENTER their 20s.
I would therefore urge the mainstream to invest in organizations looking to foster empowered Jews who are already in their 20s and 30s...."
It is clear that we should be nurturing these groups, rather than thinking of them as post-adolescents with some form of oppositional-defiance disorder. They are doing what Jews have done throughout history - forming their own movements, prayer groups and organization when the establishment no longer meets their needs. Though I suspect that many of them might be a little suspicious of any hand held out from a bricks-and-mortar synagogue or a Jewish Federation, it's on us to encourage them.
After all, it's not every day the statistics say, that you discover Jews who find meaning in our tradition and have the get-up-and-go to do something about it.
Marla Cohen is editor of the Rockland Jewish Reporter.