Sunday, January 31, 2010

Faith and Reason; or Reasons for Faith

A bibliographic note: While it is no secret that I am dealing with questions that have been discussed many times before, a friend pointed out to me one book on the topic that has been on my shelf for years but I'd never opened, and that I (having now read it) would urge anyone concerned about the questions I have raised to read. Larry Hoffman's The Art of Public Prayer tackled these issue brilliantly in 1988, and is still right on the mark today.

It is unquestionable that Orthodoxy is the only sub-community in the Jewish world whose numbers are growing. That said, it makes me crazy when Orthodox leaders point to this phenomenon as evidence of the inherent correctness of their theology. It is a lot like the Church asserting that the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the 4th century constituted proof that Jesus was the Savior.

Underlying this is a deeper misconception. It is easy to assume that the reasons people belong to a particular religious community are primarily theological. Jews believe certain things about how (or whether) God gave the Torah, or about how (or whether) Halakha (Jewish law) developed, and therefore join particular synagogues. But more often than not, the opposite is the case. Hoffman argues that faith in God is not the product of rational deductions about the nature of the universe. Faith is generated when we experience profound moments of emotional high and spiritual fulfillment in a religious context. Those experiences lead to an awareness of God's presence within moments of transcendence, and to a desire build up our connection with God. Put simply, spiritual experience creates faith, and the beliefs we embrace about God are a largely a result of that faith, not their cause.

This is especially true of those who become Orthodox. Of the many baalei teshuva (those who join Orthodox communities as adults) I have known, most are very strident in asserting their belief in Orthodox doctrine. But few of them became Orthodox as a result of this belief. In search of something, they tried out or just stumbled upon a shul or yeshiva which offered experiences or a community which they found deeply fulfilling. Wanting to be a part of it, they took on the set of doctrines that their teachers taught them were required to be full participants. Thus whether one is convinced that Torah Codes are real, that God revealed all of Halakha to Moses at Sinai, or that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah, often depends on who first enabled those profound experiences.

All of this demagoguery is to make one simple point. People choose communities based mostly on where they find social support and spiritual fulfillment. Indeed, for young parents theology is well down the list of priorities. But what community they choose will have a profound impact on the beliefs and identity of their children, who will grow up shaped by their parents' choices. And a community's beliefs will also, over time, shape the religious vision of those who find inspiration and fulfillment there.

I am personally convinced that what kind of Torah Jews will teach to the world depends on the kind of Torah being learned in communities of committed Jews. If we want a progressive and socially conscious Torah to have a serious influence on the Jewish future, our most important work has to be replicating the major successes of Orthodoxy: shaping profound religious experiences that draw people in, and developing real communities of shared religious commitment and values that make them want, even need, to stay.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Children and Identity

Like any group, a minyan that reaches a certain age needs to re-evaluate itself. It needs to look at its goals and needs to ask how it is meeting them and whether it could be doing so more effectively. Part of this is making choices. As we grow, the needs of different parts of the community grow diverse and we need to ask whether to try to meet them all or focus on a narrower population. This is a matter of whether the multiple directions are compatible and whether we are comfortable with one sub-group going elsewhere.

This statement may seem so simple as to be banal, except for two things: One, it is much more difficult to redefine the identity of an existing institution than to define it as it starts out; and two, it is not necessary to day-to-day functioning and thus is often forgotten, especially by overtaxed lay leaders already giving their max just to keep things running. So it is common for a minyan at the outset to be perfectly matched to the needs of its constituency but to fail to adapt as those needs change.

The most obvious "changing need" in a young adult community is that of families with young children. A minyan started by 25-year-olds is, after 10 years, going to have 35-year-olds, many of whom have started families in the interim and now need different things from their shul. But it also has a new crop of 25-year-olds who were attracted to the minyan because of what it has been and, they expect, will continue to be. And so we face two questions: Can we effectively meet the needs of both groups? And should we? It is hard to even effectively ask the question because lay-led minyanim by definition depend on huge amounts of volunteer labor, time that parents of young children are not willing or able to commit. So for any real rethinking to happen, it is the younger lay leaders who need to make it a priority.

To be clear, I do not presume that the answer is necessarily that we should be working to meet all of these needs. There may simply be a point at which families graduate from a minyan and look for a shul that offers more resources. There is a benefit to this – it provides a conduit for bringing the energy and culture of a successful minyan into shuls which can get stuck in their own ruts. There is also a price – the more a minyan sees itself as different and unique, the harder it is to accept closing the door on families who want to be part of that, many of whom are the minyan's founders or previous leadership. Of course, what we want in theory must be balanced with the practical – is it even possible for a minyan with limited budget and in rented space to keep these families? Is it even worth trying?

There are certainly examples of minyanim that have done this successfully – I make no claims to any new discovery. But insofar as numerous places are currently struggling with this question, I want to briefly sketch out a few principles that I take to be essential to effective retention of families, and invite readers to add to the list, in the hope of encouraging minyanim to address it proactively and thoughtfully.

  1. If you don't have good childcare, you will lose every young family, no matter how unique and amazing your services are. If there's nothing for my child to do at shul, I will spend the whole service either shushing them or in the hallway, so I won't enjoy it anyway.
  2. Services need to be child-friendly. Parents who are long-time members will figure out the line between acceptable and disruptive noise. The community's priority has to be creating a culture where they are welcome.
  3. The best childcare allows the parents to spend some time in the service. Many 'tot shabbat' programs require the participation of both parents and children. This can be wonderful but it removes them from the community despite being in the same building, and thus defeats much of the purpose.
    1. For younger kids, regular babysitting with occasional programs may be the best (and cheapest) model.
    2. Location is everything. A space for quiet play at the back of or adjoining the prayer space allows a parent to be part of both or a child who needs her parent to find him. Babysitting or tot shabbat rooms should be as close as possible – when they are far removed, parents who go to drop kids off or check on them often never make it back to the service.
  4. Recruit! The biggest needs that a shul can meet for young parents are having peers for their kids to play with and other parents as a social network. In this area, critical mass is, indeed, critical. Don't assume that "if you build it, they will come." You'll end up planning a nice program, getting only the 2 kids you already had, and feeling defeated. Find the people who would love your minyan if not for their kids, and pull them in.
  5. And a final note which will eventually merit its own post. Parents need to reclaim a sense of responsibility to the minyan. We often use parenthood as an excuse for being less involved. Division of labor has to mean not that one parent is 'on' while the other reads the Times, but that one parent is free to make it to shul for shacharit. If not, the intense and participatory culture that we so prize in these minyanim will dissipate, and grown-up communities which are as spiritually fulfilling as these minyanim will remain a pipe-dream.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

When Torah Has the Chance to Teach

A brief interlude in my progression of diatribes to call your attention to this story in the NY Times about kosher food at the Super Bowl. The article describes the rapid growth in the purchase of kosher meat among non-Jewish consumers. I was especially struck by those who buy kosher meat as a stand-in for organic or as a response to concerns about cruelty to animals. So many people are looking for express their values through their daily lives, and often they look to religion to provide that guidance. It is disturbing that many observant Jews think smugly that this trend confirms the inherent moral superiority of halakha. In fact, what it shows is that people want high moral standards and trust us when we claim to adhere to them, without examining the details. Which makes the reality that those high standards are applied only to the ritual aspects of halakha but not the moral aspects all the more disheartening. And makes ventures like Magen Tzedek all the more urgent.

To me, the most important verse in the Bible in terms of how we think about halakha in our world is Deut. 4:6: "For [the law] will be a sign of your wisdom and discernment before other nations." In a world where religious commitment is valued highly, we have the opportunity to model the adherence to high moral standards for all of American culture. But it doesn't work if we cling to fantasy that stringency about the laws of kosher meat magically lead to morality in some mystical, inscrutable way. It works if we return the moral demands of halakha to a central place alongside the ritual, if we examine ourselves and accept no less than the lofty spiritual discipline that we claim to represent.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Lay-Led Minyan and Other Fairy Tales

One of the most talked-about aspects of Independent Minyanim is that they are 'lay-led', they are Of the People, By the People, For the People. Inspiring, except for one problem: for the most part, they really aren't. A wave of protest bubbles up. They don't have rabbis! There's no paid staff! What else does 'lay-led' mean? Ah, this is exactly my point. I want to suggest that we consistently misunderstand what about being lay-led is important, and in doing so deprive ourselves of much needed leadership and cripple our own mission.

How do you define lay-led? Not having a rabbi 'officiating'? Hadar always clung tightly to the mantra of being lay-led. But under the surface, there was clear leadership. We had a chief organizer who guided the necessary grunt-work to develop the minyan and shaped its mission and character. And we had a 'scholar-in-residence' who gave the theologically sophisticated drashot that helped people to feel that they could learn and grow there. The Rose Crown minyan in Chicago started with a 'lay-leader' (a camp director) who organized it and small circle of members who formulated its purpose. The Havura movement in the 70s gelled around a circle of rabbis in disguise, energetic and knowledgeable people who shaped a vision and had the skills to build it. Many of them went on to become leaders in the Jewish world – Art Waskow, Art Green, Michael Strassfeld, and others.

Here is the secret: each of these minyanim lost some of their driving energy once their first generation of crypto-rabbis moved on. Though a few of the original havurot still exist, they mostly stagnated after a while because they were too committed to being lay-led. Similarly with Rose Crown. The emphasis on consensus and shared leadership meant that the vision was not revised or refreshed, and they ended up trapped by the limits of the original vision. This is the challenge that Hadar is struggling with now. With the founders now replaced by a rotating group of gabbaim (organizers), no one is in a position to provide the same kind of visionary leadership, and many of us feel the absence keenly. It is in part the very ideology of being lay-led that stops us from cultivating new leaders (as opposed to new organizers) and cripples our ability to keep refining and sharpening the minyan's character and mission.

In other words, it's time to get over ourselves. We need rabbis. Whether or not they have that title, we need leaders who are always thinking about the big picture, about the community's vision and how we can better fulfill it. We need voices which challenge us to grow, to learn, and to think differently about ourselves and about Torah. We need people who know it is their job to offer precisely those things that it is nearly impossible to do by committee (life-cycle events and children are a whole other topic which will get their own post). There have been a few minyanim that have truly succeeded in functioning communally (take a deep breath, Aryeh), but I would argue that they are not replicable because most young parents, not to mention doctors and lawyers, cannot sustain that level of civic engagement.

Here is the key, and an intro to my next post. When we emphasize being 'lay-led', many of us mean that a) we don't have a rabbi directing or controlling the service; b) services and Torah reading are led by a rotation of members; and c) most aspects of our services and programs are planned and executed by member volunteers. What we need is not no rabbi but a rabbi who doesn't do those things. We need rabbis to help keep focus on our vision and to raise the level of discourse while allowing our services to retain the natural, organic, family character that we so prize.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Centrality of Outreach

There are, without a doubt, egalitarian minyanim that have survived and flourished, some for much longer than Hadar et al. It is also true that a few shuls have made the partnership with a second minyan work reasonably well. Yet the point of this blog (beyond procrastination from writing my dissertation) is to question at what point a minyan can think of itself as "successful".

My colleague Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky recently told me, "Shuls are a service industry. We can talk about guiding people all we want, but ultimately it comes down to whether we're offering them what they need." We should be thinking of a shul or minyan as a business. In business, if you're not growing, you're stagnating. Staying small means that you are not impacting the world around you, and that is not acceptable in a world that really needs to hear what you have to say.

Most minyanim don't think about growth. They don't ask why people who should be coming to their minyan are not coming. Because of this, they don't ask what they could do differently to attract those people. They don't go out and find potential members and ask what would draw them. I'm not talking about Orthodox people who are going to Orthodox shuls or uninvolved people who go jogging instead. But when families who are ideologically egalitarian go to an Orthodox synagogue when there is an egalitarian minyan in the area, the minyan has work to do. When religious Jews stay in bed Shabbat morning because 'there's nowhere I really like to daven,' there's work to do. Not all barriers can be removed, and each person will make his own choice. But when I hear someone in a minyan say, 'If they want to come we would be happy to have them,' or 'What we have is sufficient for the people who are coming,' I cringe.

There are two reasons for this. One is that if a group is not thinking about how they can be more attractive to potential members, they are probably also not thinking proactively about how they can better meet the needs of current members, especially as those needs change. And it is the inflow of new personalities, new ideas, and new energy that helps the old members feel like they are growing. You might just not realize how much better it could become.

More central, though, is this: Expanding the population of people involved in observant communities which are egalitarian, open-minded, and progressive is not a nice idea. It is a moral imperative. That is because I am certain that the more people committed to Torah and mitzvot who pray and study in a way that is deeply socially conscious and fully engaged with the world, the stronger Torah will be. In fact, I would argue that it is only that kind of Torah community that has anything meaningful to say to the world around us, that is capable of true tikkun olam (repairing the world). It is worth reading Rabbi Shai Held's compelling expression of this idea here.

Most families, obviously, do not choose a shul based on its cosmic significance. And that is the point. Each family that is turned off by the Conservative shul and welcomed warmly by the Orthodox shul is a step away from the goal of transforming Torah. And each minyan that does not actively think about outreach and growth is shirking an important responsibility.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Indie minyaners: Where do we go next?

One of the issues I hope to address in this blog is the looming question of the next stage for the members of Independent Minyanim. With all of the fanfare and newspaper coverage, and even a conference and a sociological study, we hear a lot about the successes of these minyanim. We are also aware that most of them are driven by a narrow demographic – singles and young families, mostly 20s and 30s. The young demographic is related to (part cause, part effect) three other aspects of these minyanim: most are "lay-led" (I'll have more to say about the deceptive nature of that term later); in high-rent urban areas; and not encumbered by celebrations for people who aren't already firmly part of the community. But it's not only the critics who know that this is transient – many of us are now starting families and looking for the place we're going to settle down. In New York, that means we're looking at Riverdale, Teaneck, Washington Heights, etc., trying to figure out where we can find the right balance of comfort and community. And it raises the question of where we can go.

The problem is particularly acute for those of us looking for egalitarian communities. Conservative shuls and rabbis often suggest that we should obviously be joining them. But it is not so simple. Most Conservative shuls are not located in the neighborhoods where shomer shabbat people tend to live, nor do they have more than a handful of families who walk to shul. The norm for Conservative shuls is a very frontal prayer experience, with the rabbi literally 'directing' the service and a Hazzan leading most or all Shabbat services, a model that is a major turn-off for Indies looking for a more communal, participatory setting. And since most of the membership of many of them are not observant or Jewishly educated, the vast majority of shuls' and rabbis' energy and resources are aimed at them and are of limited interest to most of us.

We could all just start Indie minyanim in the suburbs or wherever we move to. That is already happening in some places – Koleinu at Beth Shalom in Teaneck, Pico Egal in LA, Segula at the northern edge of DC, to name just a few. But they're not the solution. Families do want shuls, more formal communities. They need rabbis and good children's services and learning etc. There are enough families today that would strongly prefer an egal community to build on. What it will take is a few shuls who are in the right locations to decide to rethink what they're doing and offer a real opening. And it will take some of these families taking the offer seriously enough to decide to make the long-term investment to build it up into what we all think it can become. The question is, how do we make that happen. How do we convince people who have done things one way for a long time to be open to significant cultural change? And how do we organize a core of families prepared to reward them for that openness?