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.


  1. I actually grew up in a shul like that, where the rabbi didn't lead services and only read Torah when there weren't other people who could do it. It's hard, though, I think one of the problems was finding rabbis who would be willing to be in that position (the shul cycled through many rabbis and rabbinical students). It's hard to maintain a balance - I think some rabbis felt bullied by the congregation.


    Keep saying such things. Please.

  3. why is it rabbis per se that we need? why do they have to be ordained? why can they not be inspired jews with a vision?

  4. Actually, my point was the opposite - "whether or not they have that title". Meaning ordination is not the relevant issue. But depth of learning is just as necessary as vision.

  5. Hey Josh,

    Thanks for this post. It gives me food for thought as (with some other people) I'm trying to start an egal minyan in Baltimore.

    Part of what you imply, I think, is that "lay-led" is an imprecise term. That's why I like "independent" better as a qualifier for "that kind" of minyan. Everybody needs leaders, as you point out - but they can come from different places.

    Hope you guys are all well!

  6. Hey Josh,

    Since I am very active in Rose Crown, I concede it has huge problems with the lay-led aspect as you define it. But we have leaders and a Rabbi liaison. We also have a new re-Visioning committee. Most of our problems have to do with members who have kids and feel they "put in their time" and therefore do not show up to shul to help make a minyan nor volunteer to lead davening.

    I think one of the successes of RCM is tha we are part of Anshe Emet, so we have the feel of an independent minyan while retaining a formal leadership structure that does, incidentally, include a rabbi. So what do you mean when you say that RCM gets trapped by its original vision, or does that have more to do with RCM at an earlier inception?

    Very interesting and thought-provoking blog. Thanks!


  7. Leah - In fact the re-Visioning committee is a HUGE step forward for RCM in my opinion (I'll admit it was done largely on my suggestion). As for the rabbi liaison, it exists in principle but over the years has been of marginal impact for the most part. I hope that Rabbi Futterman's renewed involvement can turn that around.

  8. When we spoke yesterday, I told you I couldn't figure out why I disagree with this post. I figured it out.

    What you're actually saying is that we need knowledgeable, charismatic visionary leaders, which your redefining for no apparent reason as rabbis.

    Yet, some of the visionary leaders with knowledge and charisma you agree will not be rabbis. Also, some rabbis have no vision or charisma.

    So what's the point in re-defining rabbis to include lay-leaders? Is it just so you can announce "WE NEED RABBIS!" while at the same time acknowledging the fact that some minyanim are doing just fine without them?

  9. I've been thinking about this for a few days. I think the part where I differ is not that we need a special class of visionaries (i.e. "Rabbis"), but that minyans need to accept that people's time is money.

    Very unscientifically, I'd venture to say all the big indy minyans had a group of founders that donated a huge amount of their time to getting the thing running. I'm specifically using the word "donation" because these are time donations. It wasn't necessary their vision, but their willingness to donate their time to the cause. At a certain point, others will need to step forward and make those time donations. If you can't find people with both the passion to the cause and the luxury of having enough time to donate, the minyan can stagnate.

    The reason I don't think this is a vision thing is that guiding a community's vision is only one aspect of running a minyan. There's paying rent, keeping track of dues, coordinating service leaders, running educational courses, etc. If your potential visionaries are spending their time donations on all these tasks, they don't have time to devote to the long-term vision.

    One of the key tenants of many lay-led minyanim as opposed to lay led synagogues is an aversion to paying people for their time. For some reason, hiring a book-keeper or a semi-regular teacher seems like a failure of the model. I want to be clear that I think there's no reason every minyan must hire people and no one model for what should be farmed out to paid staff. Still, stagnating minyanim might want to look at their time sinks and figure out if there's any parts that could become a full or part-time job for someone to allow people who donate their time to attend to the long-term vision and what makes the minyan special.

  10. Dan - I agree fully about the question of paying people for their time. I plan to write about that soon.
    In terms of "rabbis" - yes, I define it as a role rather than a degree. The key is people who exercise spiritual leadership and feel empowered to do so fully - who know that this is part of their role.

  11. I agree that having an educated visionary is important, but disagree that this person needs the term 'rabbi'. I think you are on to something when you argue that focusing on lay-led as meaning 'no rabbi no how' as self-limiting, but miss the point by engaging in confusing semantics.

    In Chicago, there seems to be a constant dissatisfaction with the minyan scene as new indie-minyans are constantly popping up for a few years, then disappearing. I think part of this is due to the transience of the 'educated visionary leaders' in the city.

    My wife and I started an indie minyan ( in May 2009 and have been pleased that in the last few meetings, people have taken ownership and began planning things themselves. We still provide direction, but a core group is forming that gives me hope that it could outlive our residence here.

    Regarding RoseCrown minyan. It has a weird symbiotic relationship with Anshe Emet. There is no rabbi, but any synagogue rabbi can come in and talk at any time. We commissioned a Torah, but it doesn't belong to us. We create our own policy, but under the approval of the synagogue.

    The community can also be a little cliquey.

  12. Josh - I agree completely with davidsaysthings. Your swticheroo that anyone with vision and knowledge who exercises leadership in a minyan is a rabbi obscures things too much.

    To my mind, the key aspects of being lay led are the following:

    1) Leaders are not necessarily trained and officially certified - it is your knoweldge, skills, and vision that matter and not the degree you hold or the union you belong to.

    2) This means that leaders tend to emerge organically through a democratic and meritocratic process based on the value they bring to the minyan - they are not hired, paid, and supervised by a board.

    3) There are multiple leaders whose "power and influence" may vary based on the relative value of their contributions to the community and the strength of their connections to other important people - BUT they are invested with minimal formal authority for a relatively short period of time (compared to professional leadership).

    Because leadership and vision are more diffuse, independent minyans should be able to withstand the comings and goings of many leaders.

    Some minyanim are more transient. People move away, but people like them move in. There is always a new crop of those who bring a deeper skill set - they graduate from college and move to the city, they come to start a graduate school program, they move back from Israel, they get hired by the local day school, etc.

    Other minyanim (presumably the ones with more stable membership) actively develop the skill-base and knowledge of their members and cultivate new leadership.

    The one thing we are sure of is that they don't stall while conducting a rabbi search.

    At the Mission Minyan in San Francisco we call the formal leadership cadre "Machers" - a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that these people are important because they do the important work of "Making" the minyan happen. People who begin to stand out as those who make important things in the minyan happen are invited by the Machers to become one. And we can proudly point to highly skilled Jews who moved to San Francisco's Mission District BECAUSE of the minyan, as well as "home-grown" leaders whose developing Jewish knowledge and skill eventually enabled them to bring their considerable other talents to bear on the work of the minyan.

    I do agree that when viewed from a distance it looks like some minyans came into existence with an explosion of visionary creativity that eventually tailed off. But that is the nature of all organizations. Creating something from nothing is FAR EASIER than transforming something that already exists. Groups will ossify over time as they accumulate more precedent, and as they retain those who like what they do and repel others.

    Ultimately, I am not even sure that independent minyans need to have long life spans. The advantage of not having a lot of capital and professional staff is that you can grow or shrink more naturally based on trends in the general spiritual marketplace. And if you want to keep doing it like you are doing it, but others want something different, they can just go start their own minyan.

  13. Continued from above (I didn't realize it was going to be THIS long - very sorry!)

    My concern about this kind of lay leadership, to the extent I have any, lies in something you wrote just above about minyans needing people who feel empowered to fully and self-consciously exert spiritual leadership. When a synagogue hires someone to be their rabbi, they are (at least theoretically) asking that person to be their spiritual leader. We all know that it isn't that easy - even after you are hired, some communities are more "open" to being spiritually led than others. But it is certainly MORE difficult in a lay led community. There will be lay people who feel comfortable sharing their knowledge and skill, but providing spiritual guidance and encouragement? Not so much. Doing so (as many professional rabbis know) undermines the peer-relationship you have with others in the minyan. I have experienced, on an individual level, someone "making me their Rav." But it would never be, and I would never want it to be, the minyan as a group.

    As for the example you gave of Hadar, maybe the challenges you say it has faced since the departure of its founders is less an indictment of "lay leadership" as such, and more a revelation that Hadar was not, in fact, as lay led as it claimed to be. I doubt that the Mission Minyan's conception of "lay-led" would be able to abide someone being designated the minyan's scholar-in-residence. And to the exten that we are organized, we have had numerous people funcation as "chief organizers."

    We know that there is grant money out there that would enable some Mission Minyan Macher to get paid to do more and better work on some aspect of the minyan. And even though we see the clear upsides of having more skilled people having more time to apply their skills, we are still wary of the creep toward professionalization.

    The flip side of professionalization doesn't have to be lay passivity - it just too often is.

  14. I agree that all communities (whether run by volunteers, professionals, or both) need leaders with an overall vision for the community, a sense of big-picture responsibility, the knowledge necessary to implement this vision, and (particularly for non-founding leaders) enough of a feeling of ownership and empowerment that they're not "trapped by the limits of the original vision" (or, kal vachomer, trapped by the original implementation of the original vision, which might not even have been the ideal expression of that vision, but might have been constrained by circumstances to be less than ideal, and should not be elevated by future generations to the status of an ideal).

    But I also agree with all the comments that it's a "switcheroo" to equate this kind of leader with "rabbis".

    I get that the word "rabbi" has multiple meanings, and in a previous thread here, I distinguished between rabbi1 (a job description) and rabbi2 (ordination). And I get that you're not talking about rabbi2. But it doesn't seem to me that the kind of leadership we're talking about has to match up with a rabbi1nic role either. Even eliminating the specific functions that you mention (being paid, leading services, etc.), there are key aspects of a congregational rabbi1's role that don't correspond to the role of a lay leader (even a visionary/empowered/etc. lay leader).

    1) The rabbi of a congregation is a public figure, even at the most participatory synagogue. His/her name is at the top of the congregation's letterhead and website, and is known to everyone as being "the rabbi". As a founder/visionary of Kol Zimrah, my role was entirely behind the scenes, except when it was my turn to be sheliach tzibbur or to make announcements (but we already agree that these aren't fundamentally "rabbinic" tasks). Last year I was delighted to find out that one of the newer members of the steering committee (from which I retired a few years ago) didn't know that I had been a founder.

    2) Lay leaders become leaders in one of two ways: either they were already part of the community and then took on a leadership role, or they started the community, generally because they were creating the community that they wanted for themselves. One way or the other, they would want to be civilian participants in the community even if they weren't leaders. Rare is the congregational rabbi who has that luxury. Congregational rabbis most often end up in their positions in one of two ways: either they were hired from the outside by an existing community (with which they had no prior relationship) when its previous rabbi left (or a hitherto rabbiless community decided it wanted a rabbi), or (again) they started the community (e.g. the leaders of the communities classified as "rabbi-led emergent" in the 2007 Spiritual Communities Study). But when an entrepreneurial rabbi1 starts a community with him/herself in the explicit role of rabbi1, s/he is generally creating a community for others, not creating a community that s/he would want to be a part of. So the relationship between a rabbi1 and his/her community is fundamentally different from the relationship between a lay leader and his/her community.


  15. 3) A lay leader's role, no matter how visionary and expansive, is limited to the functioning of the community. A congregational rabbi's role is seen as encompassing individuals' entire Jewish lives in one way or another (whether this is the sort of community where the rabbi is viewed as the halachic decisor, or the sort of community where the entirety of Jewish life is what happens in the synagogue building, or both, or other possibilities too).

    You can say again that we need "a rabbi who doesn't do those things", but at some point, if we take away everything associated with a "rabbi", what's left, and why is the word "rabbi" useful? Eventually we're getting into the realm of "This is Abraham Lincoln's axe; the handle was replaced twice, and the blade was replaced three times", or "A turkey can wear clothes and sit at the table."

  16. (BTW, I always questioned whether it was necessary for Hadar to designate one individual as "scholar-in-residence". This is not intended in any way as disrespect for that individual, but just as a recognition that he was always one of many excellent teachers in the Hadar community.)

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