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.


  1. I've never thought about much of this in your terms and I find myself somewhat persuaded by most of what you have to say.

    But there's one thing, that you don't seem to acknowledge: What if key to what makes the minyan work for those who go there is the size?

    On the other hand, I agree that the sort of apply-to-be-a-member model that took place in some of the old-school chavurot decades ago was no good. (The Strassfelds themselves will be the first to acknowledge that!)

  2. It can be nice to be in a small minyan. But I'm interested in where a family can settle down. Parents don't want to feel like they're letting people down if they can't make it. And they need enough other kids around for their kids to play with, and ideally good kids programming. So very few families will settle for an eternally small minyan.

  3. So they don't have to. Not every synagogue/minyan/etc is the right one for every person or every family.

  4. Independent minyanim seem to start with a particular vision in mind, grow until they have reached all those in their catchment area who are interested in the vision, and then plateau in terms of attendance, with the hope that inflows balance outflows, demographically. Good synagogues see it as their mission to look beyond their membership for Jews to serve and engage, but don't necessarily have that core vision that independent minyanim have. Also, independent minyanim don't always have the budget and infrastructure to handle vast numbers of requests. Why aren't Hadar or Darkhei Noam listed in the Jewish Week ever? Perhaps because they don't have a phone number to call, or anyone to answer it.

  5. to think of and judge a minyan in strictly the context of business is a category mistake, or rather, to frame the measure of success as delimited by growth is inaccurate.
    the minyan may not be looking to conquer the world. perhaps the minyan, as an entity, is looking to create a certain type of community for a select group of people. people should be allowed to develop something they feel they need. they don't actually have the responsibility to expand.
    this notion may sound exclusivistic... and it is. but there is something to be said about holding to a specific vision and not having to dilute it so you meet the needs of others.
    the key is to hold these needs as valid but not exclusionary. something we have all learned from the soup of the UWS minyan scene is that a minyan/kehilah is not an exclusive membership.

  6. @invisible_hand, I agree
    thinking in terms of a business is a good idea, but there is more to a successful business than 'size'

  7. I am still a bit skeptical about the business model. In San Francisco (perhaps not surprisingly), we think of ourselves more like a co-op. And while it is challenging to draw the lines between "core" participants and others, there are major differences in how much different people contribute to making the minyan happen. The somewhat loosely defined "core" is not driven, at this point, by a desire to grow our numbers in general. We'd like more people to come to Shababt morning davening, but we don't want Friday night to be any bigger.

    We do intend to expand our services(literally and figuratively) because we meet more of our own needs that way. We are essentially driven by enlightened self-interest - weighing the benefits and drawbacks of developments in the minyan that make it more attractive to particular other people. Some want the minyan to be more attractive to more people who are already highly skilled and observant. That way, they will move to the community, shoulder some of the leadership load, and (best of all) be another kosher kitchen where other more observant folks can be hosted. Other people want the minyan to attract more hip young men or women to expand their social pool. We'd like the minyan to attract more young families so that our daughters have other kids (and not just 20 and 30-something adults) to play with on Shabbat. Whether some kind of change or new program happens depends on a complex algorithm of how many people want it, how much they want it, how much time they have to pursue it, how much skill they have, and how important they themselves are to the group (people help people they care about with their projects, even when they don't care about the project itself).

    But ultimately, our minyan abides by a simple rule - we do it because WE like it (or what results it achieves), not because it would appeal to some theoretical other.

    The collective energy of the already committed "core" is the "bird in the hand" - and we value it more than however many there are in the bush.

  8. I agree with your statement of the problem and the goal, especially:
    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.

    But when you talk about it as a moral imperative and a responsibility, my question is on whom this imperative is incumbent, and how this responsibility is required. Regardless of what the Supreme Court said last week, corporations aren't people, and minyanim aren't people either; they are created by people. And you seem to suggest that the people running minyanim are responsible for everyone else, while the people who stay home on Shabbat morning (or daven in a community that doesn't reflect their values) aren't responsible even for themselves. The problem with this approach is that there's often no intrinsic difference between these people - they can often be the same people under different life circumstances, or even (since many independent minyanim don't meet every Shabbat) on different weeks!

    I'm making this point not out of laziness, elitism, or unfriendliness, but because I fear that it may be counterproductive to tell minyanim sustained by volunteer energy that they are "shirking an important responsibility". Many independent minyanim came into being because someone decided they should, and made it happen. But if that founder understood that the moment s/he created the minyan, s/he would become responsible for everyone who didn't find their way to the minyan, s/he might think twice about whether s/he was capable of meeting these higher expectations, and therefore whether to start the minyan at all. (It's the equivalent of "why convert and become accountable for every mitzvah that you don't fulfill, when you can be a good Noahide instead?".) And then we're no better off -- instead of having a new minyan that meets some people's (but not everyone's) previously unmet needs, we have no new minyan and aren't meeting anyone's needs.

  9. Oops, typo! "how this responsibility is required" should have said "...acquired".