His students have left, and Steven Exler is taking a moment to reflect. He’s just finished his session, presented to representatives of independent prayer minyanim, on how to comfort mourners. It’s a pastoral role that Exler, associate rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, has performed countless times.
Now, he wonders what’s next.
“There’s sort of a moment of fear,” said Exler, 29. “Am I teaching people to make myself obsolete? I struggle with that question.”
He’s not the only one. Rabbi Exler was one of over 100 people participating in “Empowered Judaism: How to Build Vibrant Jewish Communities,” a conference organized by Mechon Hadar and held Sunday at Central Synagogue on Manhattan’s East Side.
If the name of the conference sounds familiar, it may be because it’s almost identical to the title of Hadar co-founder Elie Kaunfer’s new book, “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities.”
Note the difference, though. As Kaunfer said in his brief opening statement, “This is an opportunity for us to learn from each other” — not just to learn from independent minyanim, but to learn from more traditional synagogues as well.
It’s an evolving dynamic, and a big change from just a few years ago, when independent minyanim like Hadar — lay-led and pan-denominational — were still seen as a threat to mainstream synagogues. Now, many bigger synagogues are welcoming new ideas from their smaller, non-traditional counterparts — just as many independent minyanim continue to rely on larger institutions for both physical space and religious infrastructure.
Those larger institutions were well represented on an overcast Sunday. In addition to Rabbi Exler, rabbis and board members came from some of the most established synagogues in New York — Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side, B’nai Jeshurun and Ansche Chesed on the Upper West Side.
BJ’s Rabbi Ezra Weinberg wasn’t surprised by the heavyweights in the room.
“Nobody’s figured out how to reach [people in their] 20s and 30s, who are the primary attendants of these independent minyanim,” said Weinberg, 35, a Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow. “You are on the cutting edge simply by connecting to it.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Susan Wagner, 52, co-chair of the ritual committee at Temple Israel of Great Neck, on Long Island. With over 800 families in the congregation, the Conservative synagogue boasts a strong membership. But, she said, the old membership model might not work anymore for that coveted 20s-30s demographic.
“Our temple does not have a core of pre-marrieds,” said Wagner, a trained attorney who’s now studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “There really wasn’t a place for their age group that felt comfortable. Accommodating the needs of people of that generation is very important.”
Park Avenue Synagogue’s president, Brian Lustbader, led a contingent from his 3,000-member-strong synagogue, divvying up the day’s simultaneous sessions among them. The lawyer-by-trade succinctly summed up the day’s purpose.
“We think it’s important to change with the times,” said Lustbader, 56. “I want to know what’s the attraction, and how I can help our synagogue.”
The times changed a long time ago at Ansche Chesed, which has housed multiple minyanim since the 1970s. It’s a mixed blessing, said Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, who also presented a session, “Multiple Minyanim in a Shul: How Can it Work Well?”
One must beware, he said, of what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small differences,” and find common ideological ground.
Members of the Conservative synagogue may not pray together all the time, but they do share a chevra kadisha — member volunteers who provide for the ritual needs of bereaved congregants.
“People of multiple minyanim could, and did, serve each other in this most kind, most loving, most crisis-oriented way,” he said.
An audience of more than 20 people listened intently and spoke candidly about their experiences in their own communities. Representatives of the larger synagogues spoke of feeling threatened by the growing size of independent minyanim, while trying to emulate their inspiring services. Members of independent minyanim talked about the struggle for acceptance by their local communities, and dealing with the expectations of their landlords — the synagogues that often serve as the rented spaces for their services.
And then, of course, there’s the role of the rabbi. Most independent minyanim, including Kehilat Hadar, aren’t led by one rabbi. But, as Rabbi Kalmanofsky points out, “Hadar is a lay-led community filled with trained Jewish professionals.”
The lack of a single rabbinic leader doesn’t trouble Rachel Gibeley, an architectural engineer who attends Minyan Tehillah in Cambridge, Mass.
“When it’s lay led, everyone really needs to step up and take responsibility,” said Gibeley, 25. She contributes by shopping for the kiddush, while her husband serves as finance chair of the minyan.
Gibeley said she hoped to learn from the bigger organizations at the conference — and to send a message that independent minyanim are here to stay.
“I hope that we’re able to really establish ourselves as a core part of the community,” she said. “I think there’s still a lacking in legitimacy, from other people’s perspectives.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Rori Picker Neiss, who resists being linked to any “minyan movement,” although the full-time Drisha student did start the informally named “Potluck Minyan” in her Midwood, Brooklyn home.
“It wasn’t like we were starting a minyan,” she said. “I started it with some of my friends. I’m not looking to be the next big thing.”
She now hosts up to 35 people once a month for Carlebach-style Friday night services and dinner — potluck, of course.
Neiss, 24, lives in a neighborhood where, “at the most basic level, you can’t find a Carlebach minyan.” But while she created an alternative place to pray, Neiss also attends a more traditional neighboring minyan the rest of the month.
“I don’t see it as competition,” she said. “I see it as contributing.”
Her vision is shared by HIR’s Rabbi Exler, who prayed with a now-defunct independent minyan in Washington Heights, and now helps lead a synagogue of 800 families in Riverdale.
“It’s a great tension, because I believe in the establishment and my heart is with shuls,” he said. “Shuls that have more experience and infrastructure have wisdom to share. I also really value the empowerment of the laity.”
Those goals converged during Rabbi Exler’s session, as he gently shared his experiences of supporting mourners with the young representatives of independent minyanim — many of whom exclusively pray with members of their own age group, and have not yet confronted the challenges of mourning.
They may not pray with a rabbi, but on that day, they were seeking a rabbi’s guidance. Exler calls it “a healthy dynamic.”
“I hope for continued healthy interaction,” he said. “I’d like to see the models meet in the middle.”
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