'Empowered Judaism" Appeals to Young Jews

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

by Aaron Leibel
April 1, 2010, Washington Jewish Week

Orthodox and Reform Jews sharing the same congregation? Davening together? Even eating at the same table? It seems only a somewhat more likely occurrence than seeing Saudi Arabian King Abdullah presiding over a ceremony in Mecca consecrating a statue honoring Theodor Herzl.

But that's exactly what's happening in the Mission Minyan in San Francisco and, to a greater or lesser extent, in 60 or so other Independent Minyanim throughout the country, including the DC Minyan and Tikkun Leil Shabbat, both in the District.

The book tells the story of those traditional, yet egalitarian, minyanim and advocates a new outlook on how to connect younger Jews to their tradition.

So how do these groups finesse the seemingly irreconcilable differences between traditional and progressive Jews? The DC Minyan and the Mission Minyan in San Francisco define a quorum as consisting of 10 men and 10 women, thus getting around the problem of whether to count women. In San Francisco, the mechitzah conundrum is solved by having three sections in shul ‹ one for men, one for women and one for both sexes.

At Tikkun Leil Shabbat, "two-table" potluck dinners accommodate people with varying ideas about kashrut. One table features hechshered, certified kosher, vegetarian, made in a hechsher-only kitchen, with its own set of dishes that are washed separately. The other table offers straight vegetarian dishes.

Bringing together Jews who don't always agree on ritual is an offshoot of trying to implement what the author terms "empowered Judaism," the idea that the future of Judaism depends on Jews returning to the ideas found in their texts and traditions, and reading them in their original languages.

"It is about reclaiming those ideas, bringing them to life in this century, and taking them so seriously that they might change your life," author Rabbi Elie Kaunfer writes.

The Independent Minyanim are one manifestation of this idea, and Kehilat Hadar, which Kaunfer helped found, is the mother of all those groups.

"The leaders of the minyanim drew from an Orthodox world that was increasingly frustrated by the lack of inclusion of women and a non-Orthodox world that was increasingly frustrated by the lack of traditional prayer," writes Kaunfer in trying to explain the appeal of these kinds of groups.

The book discusses Kehilat Hadar and how the movement has spread across the country, showing how some of the minyanim are innovating and coping with their problems. Also included are chapters on Yeshivat Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva, and about how to make davening more accessible to congregations ‹ for example, by including "inviting," "transformative" and new melodies.

But the most interesting part of the book is the chapter "Empowerment and Meaning" in which the author tries to distinguish between the federation-synagogue approach to American Jewish life and that of "Empowered Judaism."

The rationale for many programs by Jewish federations and synagogues is to try to appeal to Jews in their 20s and 30s so that the institutions of Jewish life will continue or so that Judaism will survive by combating intermarriage and assimilation, the author writes.

"But there is little focus on the content of the programs that draw in this demographic ... . The program content is simply a means to a demographic end."

American Judaism is in trouble, writes the author, but the real cause is not the intermarriage crisis that institutional Judaism preaches, the author writes. "The real crisis is one of meaning and engagement. For the first time in centuries, two Jews can marry each other and have Jewish children without any connection to Jewish heritage, wisdom, or tradition."

Empowered Judaism, on the other hand, focuses on "what kind of substantive Jewish community we can build and engaging stakeholders to make it happen. In other words, a Jewish race preserved for its own sake, without any deeper connection to Torah, culture, Israel, or practice, is not on the Jewish empowerment agenda."

So far, so good. But when the author writes about seeing "a significant demand" for the kind of Judaism he is advocating, I think that he is allowing hope to crowd out reality.

Kaunfer notes that the Independent Minyanim movement has been most successful among Jews in their 20s and 30s, but the number of Jews involved represents a very small percentage of Jews in that age group.

From my observations, most younger Jews feel alienated from the Hebrew language- and text-based services that he advocates. And many of the few to whom such services would appeal ‹ those from the Orthodox community ‹ might be put off by the egalitarianism of the movement.

As for me, a Hebrew-based, traditional prayer service in an egalitarian setting ‹ no mechizot and with aliyot for women ‹ sounds pretty enticing.