The Independent Minyan and Havurah Phenomena

Everything old is new again.

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Independent minyanim are not outside of the Jewish mainstream; they are on the margins of it. In fact, many independent minyanim have strong ties with Jewish institutions. Some receive funding from Jewish foundations, others gather in borrowed spaces in synagogues, and still others use Torah scrolls loaned from area congregations. 

Rather than the latest incarnation of a Jewish counterculture, independent minyanim represent a Jewish subculture. A subculture is a group that differentiates itself from the larger culture to which it belongs, while borrowing and transforming the symbols, values, and beliefs of that culture. Subcultures form as a collective solution to problems arising when a group of people feels that its position in the broader community is ambiguous.

In the case of participants in independent minyanim, most are in a lifecycle stage of emerging adulthood, a population that often feels underserved by existing Jewish institutions. They created their own communities to make a place for themselves where it did not previously exist.

Scholars and communal leaders have characterized the independent minyanim subculture as emergent, entrepreneurial, and innovative. Yet in a larger historical context, the phenomenon is far from unique. It is the most recent manifestation of a development that occurs in every age, as Jews find and create ways to congregate that reflect the particularities of their time and place. It seems that for every generation, everything old is new again.

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Tobin Belzer

Tobin Belzer, Ph.D., is a sociologist of American Jewry at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. This research was made possible by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.