The Rise of Lay-Led Congregations
At a recent meeting of the Minyan Shivyoni of Baka, located in Jerusalem, a sandy-haired man of 35 shifted uncomfortably in his seat, readying his response to the statement that a majority of his community wants to expand egalitarian practice in services at the minyan. “I believe in feminism,” he said, “but I don’t know what I will tell my sons when they visit their friends’ shul. Will I be able to tell them that we are also Orthodox?”
This meeting, like all others at the minyan, does not include a rabbinical authority. The congregation makes its own decisions, based on its own pulse and its own understanding of halakhic Judaism. The Shivyoni—which literally means egalitarian in Hebrew—is just one in a trend of prayer groups that have placed decision-making in the hands of laypeople. These independent minyans define the way they pray: the atmosphere, the liturgy, gender roles, and the method of decision-making. Communal consensus determines decisions through democratic votes, elected boards of laypeople, and volunteer ‘leadership teams.’ While independent minyans vary in their practices and motivations, all have accepted the challenge of creating direction and community cohesion without traditional top-down leadership.
“In [the last synagogue from which we broke], there were so many rules and regulations for implementing change that it was impossible,” said Yair Furstenburg, one of the Shivyoni’s founding members. “Most important is that the minyan actually serves the needs of the community and that it is flexible enough to change accordingly.”
As the Minyan Shivyoni navigates the process of becoming more egalitarian, each decision begins with open communal learning on the topic of discussion. From that point, there is an e-mail follow-up, disseminating the traditional sources discussed, which lead to more ideological and value-driven missives. Then, there is a vote. “There is a shared culture and atmosphere, even though there are great gaps between the different people in the minyan,” Furstenburg said. “People give different weight to different elements—values, custom, traditional legal texts, atmosphere.”
The Shivyoni is not alone in its wrestling with consensus building. The collection of independent minyans across the world run the gamut of the religious spectrum—as one might expect, no two look exactly alike. For congregations originating in the Orthodox community, many sought an independent outlet precisely because of the question of egalitarianism. Other minyans have sprung up from communities that take an egalitarian construct as given, but were in search of a warmer atmosphere, more song, and a more flexible leadership style.
For example, Shira Chadasha, a popular Jerusalem minyan, sprouted from a need to bring egalitarianism into the Orthodox world-view. However, the minyan sees its mission to create a community of hospitality and song as vital to its success—just as important as opening Torah reading to women while simultaneously allowing Orthodox Jews to feel comfortable halakhically. Other minyans, such as Kol Zimrah, based in New York, have sought to reinvigorate Conservative and Reform prayers with full liturgy and music. But their purpose is equally to create an individualized service—official prayerbooks, “please rise” directions, and denominational affiliation have all been taken out of the equation.
The changes made by these communities represent a fundamental disaffection from the major streams of Judaism. Traditionally, key changes in congregational worship originate from the most respected scholars and official rabbinical councils who make legal decisions for hundreds of communities, though they have little contact with them, if any. In contrast, independent minyans are localized and democratic. For communities rooted in a halakhic background, the validity granted by traditional sources is still highly important, but the rabbinical stamp of authority is readily swapped for the stamp of a professor of Talmud. Leadership is often much younger and participatory. As Hadar, a traditional egalitarian minyan in New York, states on its website: “Hadar believes that excitement, not guilt, is the most effective method of motivating a volunteer community.” If any hierarchy can be discerned, perhaps it is that, de facto, power is given to those with initiative—Talmud professors and students, gabbais who ensure that the needs of the service are met, those congregants with the musical ability to carry a service to fruition, and the most engaged members of the community.
Without a clear hierarchy, these minyans have to creatively deal with change and communal need. Alyssa Frank, a past board member of Kol Zimrah, feels strongly that a community’s flexibility is vital to decision-making in the independent minyan, even though board turnover and disparate visions for a minyan’s core goals pose challenges to the community. Frank served Kol Zimrah for two years, but no longer regularly attends services. “In the institutionalized Jewish world, there are too many organizations that exist just for the sake of perpetuating themselves. I don’t want Kol Zimrah to become frozen,” Frank explained in a recent conversation. “If the community changes, so should the minyan.” Accordingly, the new Kol Zimrah board placed social justice programming at the center of the minyan’s mission, focusing less on meaningful, musical, and smooth prayer services, which demand recruiting and training new prayer leaders.
As such, the team, in many minyans, has taken on the role of temporary leader. Hadar has a life cycle committee, through which you can make contact with a rabbi, many of whom are members themselves. Many independent minyans enjoy a different community member’s sermon each week, often drawing wisdom from many corners of lay people’s knowledge: a social worker with a psychological perspective on the weekly parsha, a lawyer with legal insight, and so on. Tova Hartman, founder of Shira Chadasha and a professor of Educational Psychology, believes a psychological void has been created by the lack of central leadership.
“People need a central figure for transference,” Hartman said. She is referring to Freudian transference, a process by which a figure of authority serves as a surrogate through which people work through their emotions about past relationships. “If the rabbi reminds you of your father, today you love him or maybe hate him. The congregants rally together around the cause of loving or hating the rabbi and it actually builds community,” Hartman said. Sometimes, she has noticed Shira Chadasha members relating to its founding board with such transference. But, she says, that is because there isn’t one leader and the job is not an official salaried position—no one person takes on the role in a regular manner.
In the Shivyoni’s latest decision, 75 percent of the community voted for change. After heated debate and intense deliberation, not one regular member left the minyan. The group who voted against expanding egalitarian practice accepted the psak, or legal decision, of the democratic process—just as, in the past, many people relied on the rabbi’s decision, with which they may not have thoroughly agreed, but nevertheless deferred to. Asked about the outcome of the process, Yair Furstenburg seemed pleased. “It’s like a recipe that each person assembles differently, but the end result looks the same.”
Alieza Salzberg recently completed Matan’s Advanced Talmudic Institute and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Talmud at Bar Ilan University. She teaches and writes from Jerusalem.