Margot Lurie is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers'' Workshop, is associate editor of Jewish Ideas Daily. I had questions for her following an article she wrote for The Jewish Review of Books in which she criticizes one of the most fashionable trends of Jewish life: Independent Minyanim (the article in full is here). This article draw my attention as soon as it was published – see my post The Dirty Secrets of the “Independent Minyanim” – but also triggered instant criticism. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, founder of the independent Kehilat Hadar wrote here that Independent minyanim have no dirty secrets!. So – I sent Lurie a couple of questions, in the hope she can clarify things.
Here’s the dialogue:
Let''s start with factual questions. You write that "There is an open secret about Hadar: like many other minyanim, it is funded by lots of organized community money, offered by institutions eager to keep young Jews connected to their heritage." Hadar''s Elie Kaunfer writes: "Independent minyanim are overwhelmingly self-supported by the supposed slacker population that attends it." Can you both be right?
I was referring to things like Hillel campus subsidies for leaders of independent minyanim which draw college students, as well as the subsidized rent and other in-kind contributions that most independent minyanim receive. Incidentally, this marks a difference between today’s situation and that of the 1970s, when synagogues and other communal institutions were much less enamored of independent prayer groups (havurot). As for Hadar in particular, the minyan is only one of its three affiliated institutions, the other two of which report receipts of funding from the organized community.
You write that "It is no accident that of the three leaders of Yeshivat Hadar, both Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker are the sons of prominent Conservative rabbis, and Shai Held is the son of a late professor at the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary." Is this more proof that independent minyanim aren''t really "independent" or more indictment of the Conservative movement''s inability to retain its best and brightest?
The term “independent” suggests a self-sustaining body outside the traditional synagogue structure. But most minyanim are not independent in that sense. Or, more accurately, their independence extends only to serving the needs of their members for prayer and learning, and that’s it. As soon as someone wants to get married or divorced, or arrange for a funeral, then, well, no minyan is an island – it needs the resources of the larger community, on which it is very much dependent.
To my mind, this is part of what lends a juvenile air to the enterprise and its self-image, as if a college town with a surf shop and two burrito bars, but no nursery school or graveyard, laid claim to constituting an independent society.
On the issue of denominationalism, it seems to me disingenuous to frame the project as being aimed at the reform of Judaism as a whole while denying its ideological and biographical roots and its unmistakable denominational profile. Independent minyanim speak to the portion of the Jewish community that is interested in traditional prayer and ritual practice, in progressive halakhah, in modernization, and in women’s full participation in services—in other words, Conservative Judaism.
I shouldn’t have to add that Conservative Judaism is not in a healthy state, but the point is relevant to this discussion. One Conservative rabbi has said that my problem with independent minyanim is that they aren’t Orthodox. Nothing could be farther from the truth. My interest is in having a vigorous liberal Judaism that can hold its own next to Orthodoxy. In my article I gave my reasons for thinking that the minyan movement doesn’t hold the answer.
Critics seem to be offended by the perceived tone of your article - they feel that you''ve failed to recognize the many advantages of independent minyanim. Do you see these communities as net-positive or negative when one considers the future of American Judaism?
ML: The jumping-off point for my article was Kaunfer’s book, a poorly-written, poorly-organized exercise in self-gratulation that was greeted with wild praise and enthusiasm by every single notice preceding mine. In my review, I expressed my respect for particular aspects and achievements of the minyan movement. At the same time, I took seriously my responsibility to weigh both its analysis of the problems confronting Jewish life and its claims to have met them.
The future of American Judaism: One of my chief criticisms of the movement is that independent minyan-goers largely take for granted the institutional frameworks that enable their minyanim to exist. I moved to New York’s Upper West Side from Iowa, so I can attest to the fact that people in small or struggling Jewish communities see the minyan movement (to the extent that they’re aware of it at all) as largely irrelevant to their concerns. There are much more significant issues facing American Judaism, and much greater challenges for young and energetic leaders with big visions.
Did you expect this article to become so controversial - did you think you''re going to be criticized in such way? Do you think independent minyanim have become the sacred goat [SACRED COW?] of contemporary Judaism?
I knew I was going to kick up some dust. Still, the extent of the hysteria brought on by one person’s dissent is a little telling, don’t you think?
What are you trying to say - that independent minyanim should be dismantled? That they should all formally join some "movement" (presumably the Conservative movement)? That they can keep doing what they do as long as they don''t bask in "self-gratulation?"
I’m certainly not calling—or capable of calling—for the dismantling of independent minyanim, which are, as I say in my article, a response to the spiritual bankruptcy and the organized failures of the Conservative movement. Ironically, I think, there is a sense in which independent minyanim indicate the vitality of Conservative Judaism as an American phenomenon endlessly spinning variants of itself.
But the tendentiousness of the independent minyan movement’s critique of synagogue life needs to be addressed, as it has real, and not unrelatedconsequences. The elitism and uncritical self-regard of these communities are a big problem. For one thing, I don’t think it’s a random statistical point that independent minyanim are so age-specific. Separatist impulses, and not ideological differences, are driving many of these communities. For another thing, this separatism often goes hand-in-hand with moral vanity. We should be skeptical that a movement of spiritual revival traffics so heavily in the language of self-empowerment, self-regard, self-assertion, when prayer, as it has been traditionally understood, rests on an element of self-negation.