Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Minyan without a Binyan

This morning's New York Times carries an excellent article on the trend for young Jews (20-somethings and 30-somethings) to gather for Shabbat worship in non-synagogue settings.

The article suggests that the phenomenon constitutes some kind of threat to established congregations. Whether or not that's actually the case, congregations need to know what's going on here, and why, and what it means for them today, and what it may mean for them tomorrow.

I happen not to think that these minyanim represent a threat. They do represent something of a failure, but at the same time, they signify that the generation that has been lost to the synagogue has not been lost to Judaism. These are the people who will join (or organize) full-fledged congregations when their life circumstances change and they need more from their Jeiwsh connection than a place to worship.

So what are these kids finding, and what are they avoiding? The Times points out that these Shabbat services are lay-led, and wherever they may be held, they're not in synagogue buildings. The Times does not tell us what siddurim are being used (or even if a "published" siddur is being used), but does tell us that the traditional liturgy (by traditional, neither I nor they mean Orthodox) is being used, and that it is mostly sung. The Times also does not tell us how these worship-gatherings are being financed, but it's almost certainly not through "dues," and it also appears that the only significant expense is likely to be rent -- no salaries, which represent two-thirds of the budget in the conventional synagogue.

So -- these daveners are finding community, autonomy, spirituality, a fusion of variety and continuity. They're avoiding rabbis, boards, sermons, responsive readings, dues and pledges, and long-term institutional commitments. Their arguments are probably more about style than about content -- they do care which Ma Tovu they sing, but not whether Rachel comes before or after Leah. By the nature of what they are doing, they don't have to worry about formal affiliation with a movement, much less which one. (That's likely to be the big argument when they move to a new suburb, and start worrying about religious school for the kids -- which will eventually grow from a school into the full-fledged congregation they are now trying to avoid.)

Various commentators on the "lost generation" have suggested that the aversion to "organized religion" and avoidance of the synagogue relates to bad childhood experiences at Sunday school or Hebrew school. I think it has more to do with the dynamic of growing up -- breaking away from the parental mold, finding one's one identity, and eventually maturing into a realization that the parental mold contributed some good things to that identity.

This does not mean that the institutional synagogue should be let off the hook. We are almost all guilty of trying to be all things to all people, whether because eyn breira, there is no choice when we're the only game in town, or because we're under-resourced for implementing a synaplex model, or because we're ultimately religious-school centered and don't market effectively to our other niches.

For those without Hebrew, binyan as used in the heading for this post means a building. What the minyanim described in the Times lack is the Edifice complex, and that lack relates to the Oedipus complex and the push to "kill" our fathers. Fortunately, that push is balanced by loving our mothers, which eventually brings us back to what our fathers built.

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