Five weeks ago in this space I quoted Edgar Bronfman saying that Judaism’s denominational movements are out dated and praising the 80 or so participatory lay lead independent minyanim whose members are mainly young adult alumni of Conservative, Reform, and Modern Orthodox day schools, youth groups, summer camps, college Hillel groups, and/or programs in Israel. This article will survey some of those minyanim here in New York City. In that March article I also quoted Bronfman’s prediction that if Modern Orthodox Judaism embraces gender equality the denominational movements that currently divide non-ultra-Orthodox Judaism (from left to right: Humanistic, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Modern Orthodox) will have outlived their usefulness. The compromise Orthodox feminists have come up with, the Partnership Minyan falls short of full gender equality. To experience such a partially gender egalitarian Modern Orthodox style minyan service try Darchei Noam which meets at the Heschel School on West 89th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue. Here women and men sit separately divided by a mechitsa, only adult men are counted in a minyan, both women and men may have aliyot and read Torah and Haftarah. P’sukei D’zimra (introductory Psalms) and the Torah service are led both by women and men, while men lead Shacharit and Mussaf (Orthodox halacha allows women to read from the Torah but forbids them from leading services) following the example of Jerusalem’s Kehillat Shira Hadasha.
To see and hear what a fully egalitarian traditional all Hebrew lay led post-denominational minyan prayer service looks and sounds like try Kehilat Hadar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side or Altshul in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I’ve prayed at Altshul several times and while services are more traditional than those at Park Slope Jewish Center (PSJC, a Conservative egalitarian congregation where my wife Shoshana and I are members) its liturgy and Torah service is only slightly more traditional than that of Kane Street Synagogue in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn (a Conservative egalitarian congregation where Shoshana and I were members from 1987-2007) though Altshulers have better voices, more spirited singing and a richer repertoire of nigunim (melodies). Copies are provided and page numbers announced for both the Conservative Sim Shalom and the Orthodox Art Scroll sidurim (prayer books). The only prayer read in English is the “Prayer for Our Country.” The “Prayer for the State of Israel” is recited silently; worshipers are provided a hand out with two different versions of the prayer (one written by one of the Chief Rabbis of Israel in 1948 and another written in this country in 1994) and told to chose one. An acquaintance who grew up Reform and has minimal Hebrew once attended services at Altshul with a friend and felt lost. Novices would do well to attend a learners’ minyan at a Conservative shul and become comfortable with the traditional Hebrew liturgy before visiting a traditional all Hebrew minyan.
The average Altshuler is 32, which makes me old enough to be his or her father, but there are three other couples my and Shoshana’s age who regularly attend. Once I had the disconcerting experience of being addressed as “sir” by a twenty-something Altshul member. Altshul and Kehilat Hadar insist they are not dating organizations, but as one might expect of twenty- and thirty-somethings its members’ attire, body language, and interactions leave no doubt that they have marriage and mating on their minds (several Altshul members are clients of Yolanda Shoshana, a life coach who teaches single women how to have more passion in their lives and live lusciously), and that’s a good thing! Altshul announcements frequently mention engagements, brises, and baby namings, and the minyan has a simultaneous pre-school prayer service, Kindershul, in a room filled with little ones and their young parents down the hall from the grown-up service. Though most Altshulers are straight it is a gay friendly community. At a recent Shabbat morning service a lesbian couple had an aliyah to the Torah to welcome their new baby to the community and so the community could welcome them back. There seem to be far fewer Jews by choice at Altshul compared to either Kane Street or PSJC.
The Conservative movement seems to be ambivalent about these independent minyanim; on the one hand there is pride that young adults who grew up in the Conservative movement have created such strong communities, and on the other hand there is chagrin that they have created these communities outside the movement. In Queens the Forest Hills Minyan meets every two to three weeks in the youth lounge of Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, and has accepted a grant from the Conservative movement, but nonetheless considers itself independent and non-denominational. On off weeks members are welcome to attend services at FHJC.
Likewise, Altshul meets the second and fourth Shabbat mornings and the third Erev Shabbat (Friday evening) of each month at Beth Elohim, a Park Slope Reform congregation. Some members do not attend services anywhere else, but one Shabbat morning on a recent off week I counted no fewer than ten Altshulers at PSJC. I also see Kane Streeters at Altshul, and quite a few Altshulers are fond of the Friday evening services at Kane Street Synagogue led by music director cantorial intern Joey Weisenberg (who will graduate, be ordained, and presumably pursue other opportunities this spring).
Last Yom Kippur Kane Street Synagogue rented space in a neighboring church where Weisenberg led services for 45 Altshulers. Kane Street Synagogue president Jay Brodsky told this examiner that the congregation lost money and will not provide such an additional service again next year.(See Jay Brodsky’s comment in the comments section below this article.) Individual Altshulers are welcome to buy tickets to attend High Holiday services at any of Brownstone Brooklyn’s shuls. When their children reach school age some Altshulers will be able to afford day school tuitions, and some lucky Altshul parents may get their kids into the new Hebrew language public charter school, but those who will not be so lucky or affluent will need a shul with a Hebrew school. I know of one PSJC parent whose son attends first grade at a public school and is learning Hebrew at home with the Rosetta Stone software program, but Rosetta Stone is culturally neutral which still leaves the need for a weekday afternoon and Sunday religious school. Upper West Siders who want to combine the minyan experience with the institutional framework of a synagogue will find just that at Anshei Chesed, a Conservative egalitarian synagogue comprising several minyanim.
To see and hear the full spectrum of post-denominational Jewish prayer in New York one would also attend Friday evening services at Kol Zimrah (on the Upper West Side) where musical instruments are used, prayer leaders might or might not include English, and head covering is optional, and the Jewish Renewal style of prayer found at Romemu where prayer engages the body as well as the mind but which more traditional daveners might find too touchy-feely with too much English. Romemu’s members represent a greater diversity of ages some of whom are veterans of the 1970s Havura movement. It meets Friday evenings and Saturday mornings at West End Presbyterian Church, 165 West 105th Street at Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan.. The Jewish Renewal style of prayer is also found atHavura Bet which meets in members homes in Kensington, Brooklyn.