Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. He’ll be blogging all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Authors Blog series.
Itâ€™s strange to write a book about independent minyanim when you donâ€™t even attend one anymore.
Independent minyanim are those grassroots, all-volunteer-led Jewish prayer communities that have popped up with force across the United States, Israel and Europe over the past decade. In 2000 there were three of them; now there are more than 70. I wrote about them in
Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities
For eight years, since I co-founded Kehilat Hadar -â€“ one of the flagship independent minyanim â€“- in 2001, the minyan was my Jewish community and spiritual home. Even after I retired from the leadership in 2005, I would attend the minyanâ€™s services and learning programs, watching the community grow and mature.
Then I fell victim to a force much more powerful than upstart Jewish community: New York City real estate prices. My wife and I had a daughter a couple of years ago, and all of a sudden, our cozy 1-bedroom apartment on 110th Street transformed into a nightmare of space needs. We couldnâ€™t afford a bigger place on the Upper West Side. So we did what Jews have done for centuries: we migrated.
Shunning the obvious next-step neighborhoods like Park Slope or Riverdale, we moved up to Washington Heights. We even recruited people to join us. But we didnâ€™t start an independent minyan. Instead, we joined a synagogue.
The synagogue is by no means cutting-edge. It was founded in 1938. It has an old-school name: The Fort Tryon Jewish Center. It uses a siddur that was published in 1960. There is a ritual committee, a board and membership dues.
And yet, itâ€™s not your average synagogue either. It never affiliated with a denomination, and prides itself on being independent. Laypeople read the Torah and lead the prayers. It is multigenerational, with people in their 80s schmoozing with people in their 20s (many of whom are students at Kehilat Hadar’s affiliated Yeshivat Hadar) at kiddush. They have hot cholent and hot veggie stew for the non-meat-eaters.