Review of Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities”

The following article by Rabbi Goldstein appeared in the January 23, 2012 issue of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin:

There’s a story told about the Jews of Chelm that goes as follows: In Chełm, the shames used to go around waking everyone up for shul in the morning. Every time it snowed, the people would complain that, although the snow was beautiful, they could not see it in its pristine state because by the time they got up in the morning, the shammes had already trekked through the snow. The townspeople decided that they had to find a way to be woken up for shul without having the shammes making tracks in the snow.

The people of Chełm hit on a solution: they got four volunteers to carry the shammes around on a table when there was fresh snow in the morning. That way, the shammes could make his wake up calls, but he would not leave tracks in the snow.

The tragic humour of this tale will bring a good smile to anyone’s lips, but the joke is not as funny when we consider that this flawed logic is prevalent throughout the world of Jewish organizational life. In a time when the Jewish community is in crisis over declining synagogue memberships and low communal affiliation, the tendency has been to search for the next “big idea”, that grand program that will dynamically re-engage with young Jews and bring them back to the broader Jewish community. But in developing that “big idea” we need to ask ourselves: are we so myopically focused on the goal of increasing affiliation and membership that we are forgetting the bigger picture of why these organizations and synagogues exist in the first place? Have we become so focused on getting people in the door that we’ve neglected to provide them with substantive content once they walk through? And if we don’t offer young Jews a product with any substance, will they stay, or will they walk right out?

According to Rabbi Elie Kaunfer in his 2010 book Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities, many synagogues and communal organizations have lost their focus and are out of touch with the real needs of Jewish young adults. Rabbi Kaunfer was a co-founder of Kehillat Hadar, the flagship “Independent Minyan”, a synagogue model characterized by being entirely lay-led (Rabbi Kaunfer was a lay-leader when Hadar was founded; the success of the minyan inspired him to enroll in the Jewish Theological Seminary), and without any denominational affiliation. Most independent minyanim meet in the intimate environment of participants’ homes and apartments, and the structure of their services range from the fully egalitarian to the traditional-mechitza model. And to ensure the vibrancy of the services, the chazzan stands in the middle of the group, and sings tunes designed to get the shul-goers to join in and create a chorus of voices.

Since Hadar was founded in 2001, the Independent Minyan movement has picked up tremendous steam. By 2007, when the S3K (Synagogue 3000) Synagogue Studies Institute published their report on “Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants”, the movement had grown to include 80 independent minyanim with 15,000-20,000 participants across North America.

Rabbi Kaunfer argues that many Jewish communal organizations make the mistake of assuming “that Jews – especially young adults – are only interested in surface-level engagement with Jewish culture:

jokes, bagels, singles events. Anything challenging, deep, or smacking of religion might scare people away. This is simply not the case.” Rather, he writes, “ Jews are in search of meaning and engagement, and they are interested in the wisdom of their own heritage. They may not find that engagement in existing institutions, but that does not mean they aren’t looking for it.”

He cites Birthright as an example of this phenomenon. After returning home from a ten day trip, Birthright alumni have been opened up to the possibility that there is real substance in Judaism. But upon returning home, instead of providing them with substantive options for Jewish learning and practice, the Jewish community provides funding for them to have pub nights, ski trips, and at best a Shabbat dinner (with no traditional content necessary or encouraged). Going on Birthright has brought these young adults through the door, but because their enthusiasm for deeper Jewish engagement has no substantial outlet, it eventually fades away.

An independent minyan, says Rabbi Kaunfer, is that outlet. It is a mechanism for creating community in a substantive way, with a focus on real Jewish practice, prayer, and learning. It is getting Jewish young adults talking with their peers about Torah, the Jewish community, and how they can impact them both, and it is doing so over a glass of wine in the intimate environment of a friend’s apartment or condo party room. It is making community members active participants in Jewish life, instead of passive participants in the back of an auditorium.

So what does this mean for the traditional synagogue? Does this trend spell the end for our beloved shuls? Certainly not. Firstly, the people who are attending independent minyanim are not the same people who are attending traditional shuls. Independent minyanim are attracting participants not from the pews of other shuls, but from the couches of the participants’ apartments; these people aren’t going anywhere else. Furthermore, a traditional shul offers many things, such as weekday davening, that are not offered by independent minyanim. But, says Rabbi Kaunfer, if our shuls are going to continue to thrive they must learn lessons from the Independent Minyan movement and integrate those lessons into the way they operate.

First and foremost, they must make prayer more engaging. Prayer is the bread and butter of a synagogue’s operation, and if the best that a shul can do is ask congregants to show up late and tough it out until Kiddush then they are failing in their primary task. Nobody gets upset with an individual who is disinterested in going to the opera, so why are we upset with someone who is disinterested in attending a cantorial service? And can we blame someone for not wanting to pay $1500 for a ticket to that service?

What independent minyanim have shown is that Judaism is as relevant now as it ever was. We don’t need gimmicks or freebies to get young adults to show up. We just need to present authentic Judaism in a way that is engaging, intimate, and relevant. And if we can do that, then Judaism will sell itself.

Michael Goldstein is the Rabbi of the Glebe Shul, a shul that while technically not an Independent Minyan (it has a Rabbi, after all), does think that Independent Minyanim are really nifty. You can check them out at

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