Last week, Rabbi David Starr posted this comment:
"A note to all of you elitist minyanaires out there: what would it mean for you to try to fix problematic shuls rather than forming affinity groups just for folks like you?"
This is a challenge often made to Indy minyanim. The premise is that there are lots of existing, established institutions which are underperforming, and that young Jews should be working to transform them to meet all of the religious and social needs that are currently not being met rather than deepening their crisis by investing resources in new institutions.
If the rationale is that we should support these struggling institutions because they are there, it is not compelling. Few of us believe in sustaining ineffectual institutions for their own sake – for an extreme formulation of this attitude, see Elie Kaunfer's new book. So let's focus on the idea that we can actually accomplish more by working through existing institutions than we can on our own.
Elie argues that, by not being tied down to real estate, Independent Minyanim can be nimble, have low overhead, and focus on their primary mission. This idea is attractive but has definite limits. Many have been limited by challenges of space. There is no room for proper children's programming, or the space is not always available. There is also a severe limit to resources – organizing the range of offerings that its constituency needs demands much more money and time than a lay-led, nomadic minyan can invest. These are things that established shuls often have in abundance. And we need shuls to get involved with because no place will have the concentration of like-minded people we have on the Upper West Side of NY, Dupont Circle in DC, etc. Creating a symbiotic relationship should be both obvious and easy.
Why isn't it? Here are some key reasons:
- Most shuls that want to be "reinvigorated" actually want an influx of young people to enable them to keep doing what they have always done. They do not want experiment with new models of prayer or programming. This is especially the case in struggling shuls whose membership tends to be older and more deeply attached to "the way things have been". But this culture is precisely what needs to be changed in order to bring in new life. Even where the leadership promises that they are open to new ideas, change is in reality extremely slow and laborious.
- In many shuls, the religious needs of the membership and of young observant families barely overlap. At one shul, there is little integration between the populations despite years of joint programming, mostly because they have little in common. Another has wonderful children's programming which minyan families avoid because it is full of shabbat violations.
- Some of the things Indy minyaners find most onerous are built into the culture of many shuls. Five different special blessings for various celebrations. Bnai Mitzva being given such prominence that the rest of davening feels like an afterthought. Rabbis who conduct and control the flow of services from up on the bimah, even in shuls with an educated membership who don't need it. Hazzanim who discourage participation rather than encouraging it. And so forth.
I do not speak for everyone, but here is my understanding:
We would love to find shuls who would welcome us and where we could be part of revitalizing a community rather than starting a new one. Most of us are willing to make significant compromises to make that possible. We are also willing to invest in making that happen. But it can only happen in places where the shul and shul leadership are willing to fully understand what we are looking for and what it would mean to cultivate this kind of culture. I don't know KI in Brookline (Rabbi Starr's example), but I know that its rabbi is someone who understands and embraces that culture. It is certainly the right kind of place to start.