Monday, February 28, 2011

Shtiebel Yidden

Surfing the news during the past few weeks I kept on tripping over an unfamiliar term “Indie Minyans”. It seems as though these Indie Minyans have been popping up all over like mushrooms after a summer rain. I had no idea what an Indie Minyan was. True, I could have googled it sooner than later and I would have filled another gap in my education. Disappointedly I learned that Indie Minyans (minyanim would be grammatically correct) was no more than an independent minyan; a start up minyan that I’d been witness to (and in some cases helped start) all my life. Succumbing to reading several articles on the subject I was a bit perplexed with the thought that the subject was being treated with as much gravitas as one would treat the possible fallout from the Egyptian junta. As I understand it the Indie Minyan, may or may not be affiliated with a movement, denomination or umbrella synagogue. Each one is unique in their makeup, hashkafa (if I may use the term), ritual and tradition. Some may be egalitarian, others more traditional. The most important thing however is that it is the story of people of like mind and kindred spirits coming together to daven. They have intentionally started their indie minyan because the trappings of the classic synagogue structure that include the paid professionals aren’t really necessary or essential for their purpose.

The Indie Minyanim are an expression of a Jewish renaissance after the excesses of the past few decades that resulted in a gaping spiritual lacuna after the heady spiritual days of the 1960’s-1970’s that had given birth to the chavurot. What happened to the chavurot is the subject of another posting, but what interests me regarding the Indie Minyanim is the lack of perspective surrounding these minyanim. To be sure, most of the Indie attendees are plugged in to Jewish life, and Jewishly educated. Perhaps what was lacking was the spiritual connection that rounded out their Jewishly lived lives. They sought out and obviously created that spiritual vortex, accompanied with the warmth, friendship and kindred spirits that only an Indie Minyan can provide. I am flummoxed because there is nothing new in this. Its been going on for generations.

Many of the participants have the mistaken notion that the Indie Minyan is something novel, groundbreaking, and perhaps even reactionary. One blogger’s description of the concern of the affiliated Jewish community is that “those who participate in Indie Minyans are living off the grid of Jewish life.” It seemed that she agreed with that assessment. I can understand the concern of the establishment because in truth they are loosing some of the precious and scarce market share – the best of that market share. They are loosing the rare, knowledgeable and committed Jews, the ones that care. What remains then of the market share are the three day a year Jews, those not as committed, those perhaps not as intellectually challenged by the issues confronting the Jewish world today. Like any retail establishment assessing their competition, they are deeply troubled with diminishing revenue, the grist that fuels there overinflated overhead, whopping salaries and mega mortgages. They are looking at the questionable future sustainability of their monolith, given the success of their competition and their diminished membership rolls.

But I take exception with those bloggers who agree that they are living off of the Jewish grid. On the contrary; they are living on the grid. They are smack dab in the middle of the grid where they belong. They are the Shtiebel Yidden of the 21st century. The shtiebel yid has always been part of the Jewish spiritual experience and was never assessed as being off the grid. Where I grew up there was a plethora of Indie minyanim, shtieblech, each with their own customs and traditions. Some were hassidish others were litvish. What they all had in common were the kindred spirits that peopled these small intimate sites, gathering there three times daily.

Entering a shtiebel in 1955 was probably different than entering an Indie Minyan of 2011. However they shared the same impulse to opt out of the mammoth, overpowering, architecturally flat buildings run more like corporations than intimate spiritual space where one can feel his Jewish neshama hyper-beating, aching to express itself. Stepping into a shtiebel in 1955 was like stepping into a time warp, my grandfather’s litvishe world. Participating in an Indie Minyan is reaching out to community of like-minded seeking its nexus to history while at the same time staying connecting to the present tense.

The proliferation of Indie Minyanim gives me hope that the tension between Keva and kavanah is being addressed with resolution happening for some already. But to secure that resolution will require more than the mushrooming of ad hoc Indie Minyans. It will require the serious commitment of Jewish leadership to rethink the current way the Jewish community is structured, its funding and allocation priorities.