How Do I Become an Empowered Jew?

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Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, the Executive Director of Mechon Hadar, has written a new book called Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. It’s an impressive book, and one that’s worth picking up if you’re involved in Jewish communal leadership of any kind, or if you’re constantly worrying about Jewish continuity. (Though this is tangential, I feel I should mention that the design of the book is particularly good. It makes for a remarkably smooth and easy reading experience.)
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I can’t give a straight up review of the book, because I’m hugely impartial. I met Elie at a Simchat Torah meal in 2006, and learned with him for the first time at LimmudNY 2007. I was living in Nashville at the time, and was starved for Jewish learning opportunities, so my time at Limmud was especially important to me. After experiencing Elie’s shiurim (classes) at Limmud I decided to apply to the yeshiva he was opening, and ended up spending that summer learning for 14 hours a day at Yeshivat Hadar. At the end of that year I went back to Nashville to finish grad school, and then moved to New York, where I now attend the minyan Elie co-founded, learn with other alums of the yeshiva, and visit the yeshiva for classes. Clearly, Elie’s model of Empowered Judaism has had a big impact on my life.

In his book, Elie talks about how independent minyanim, and institutions like Yeshivat Hadar are creating meaningful spiritual experiences for young urban Jews, and how this experience can, and has been reinvigorating Jewish life. The book is part explanation–why are young Jews feeling so uninspired by Jewish life? What is missing?–and part prescription–how to build new meaningful communities without lots of capital, a building, or a rabbi. He’s able to lay it all out and make it look simple. People will start new communities when their needs aren’t being met elsewhere. Young Jews are looking for a meaningful spiritual experience, and they’re willing to step up and volunteer their time and resources if what they get out of it is a community that speaks to them, and a prayer experience that transcends what they’re accustomed to. When reading this book you will likely think to yourself–hey, I could do this. It’s not just the communities that Elie’s talking about that are empowering–the book itself is an empowering tool.

At the root of Elie’s work is an experience–usually through prayer or Jewish learning–that’s transformational and transcendental. If you can create an atmosphere that’s really inspiring to a lot of people, they’ll be enthusiastic about carrying the atmosphere further, and to other related realms. In the book, Elie writes about how moving and important the davening was at the minyan he co-founded, Kehilat Hadar. “From that first Shabbat morning service, the minyan awoke a sense of passion, mystery and awe I didn’t know I could ever feel.”

Elie was not the only one to have this reaction to the creation of Hadar. Over and over, my friends and relatives (my older sister was a gabbai at Hadar before I moved here) have spoken with me about how meaningful they found davening at an independent minyan to be. But here is my deep dark secret: I never feel that kind of passion, mystery, and awe when I’m in shul. Even at Hadar.

I have gone to shul almost every Shabbat of my life. In the year after my mother died I was at shul every day, and I have davened in synagogues of all kinds all over the world. I have had good prayer experiences, and I enjoy most of the time that I spend at shul, particularly at Hadar, but I never have the kind of prayer-inspired transcendence that Elie does.

This is obviously some kind of weird personal defect that doesn’t allow me to feel “spirituality.” And it’s somewhat depressing. But what I realized as I was reading Elie’s book is that even though a big part of my reaction was jealousy that Elie, and so many others, have this intense, and wonderful emotional reaction to davening that I don’t, something about the community still gets me out of bed every Saturday morning, sloshing through rain and sleet and snowstorms to pray with the community.

Maybe we can’t all be as spiritually plugged in as dreamers and entrepreneurs like Elie. But I think we can all benefit from empowered Jewish communities.

To learn more about how that might work, I suggest you buy the book.

Posted on February 26, 2010

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