Get Serious About Your Jewish Life: An Interview with Elie Kaunfer

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

by Gary Rosenblatt
April 7, 2010, The Jewish Week

Elie Kaunfer’s new book, “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities” (Jewish Lights Publishing)  is being described as a manifesto for independent minyanim, which have been flourishing and attracting increased attention in recent years. But while a good deal of the book serves as a practical guide for busy lay people interested in creating meaningful prayer groups of their own, the bigger message is intended for anyone “invested in making the Jewish community a more vibrant place,” Kaunfer says.

“It’s for people engaged in the Jewish conversation — from federation leaders to clergy to people looking for a vision to engage them in Jewish life.”
At the outset of the book Kaunfer describes his own journey as the son of a Conservative rabbi to the college Hillel, where he found prayer primarily “a community experience” rather than a spiritual one, to a year in Israel where the more soulful services excluded women and left him “sulking in righteous indignation at their lack of egalitarianism,” to six years of job-focused life in New York that took him further from the Jewish community.

It was in 2000, when he went back to the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, a co-ed yeshiva where he had spent time before, that he re-engaged in Talmud study and felt ready to “search out a meaningful relationship to God through prayer.”

But on his return to New York he was frustrated by the difficulty in finding both spiritual prayer and a serious concern about “the wider world,” including egalitarianism, in the same synagogue. He decided to try starting a new minyan, and was joined by his friends Ethan Tucker and Mara Benjamin. Within weeks they launched Kehilat Hadar, now an Upper West Side institution and the flagship of the independent minyanim network.

Kaunfer became a rabbi (ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary) and is co-founder and executive director of Hadar, an institute that helps Jews build community and which recently launched the first egalitarian yeshiva program in the U.S. He now lives in Washington Heights, but still visits Kehilat Hadar when in the neighborhood.

His book details what works and what doesn’t in starting a lay-led minyan, from attracting and training dedicated volunteers and creating “a culture of cooperation” to speeding up the prayer service and literally bringing people into the circle — on Simchat Torah, that means directly inviting bystanders into the dancing circle. Kaunfer says it works every time.

The far tougher assignment, and core theme of the book, is that Jews should experience text directly, learn Hebrew, become familiar with the prayers and generally take ownership of their Jewish learning curve.

Is that too intimidating for an adult with little background?

“It does require serious engagement,” Kaunfer says, and acknowledges that some will say it’s too difficult for them. “But it’s the real responsibility of the Jewish community to make sure that’s not the case. We haven’t really given people the opportunity to be empowered.”

He feels that the communal focus has been on educating youngsters while largely neglecting adults, and that there needs to be a lot more supply to meet the demand for engagement among young college graduates and other adults.

As for the independent minyanim representing a threat to existing synagogues, Kaunfer says many of the young attendees at the minyanim would otherwise be staying home on Shabbat.

This year’s national conference of the independent minyanim will be held in New York on April 25 and for the first time will include a session open to “synagogues and synagogue leaders interested in vibrant synagogue and prayer communities,” Kaunfer says.
“I hope it will be a time of sharing with and learning from each other.”

For all the challenges of Jewish life, Kaunfer asserts: “I’m an optimist. That’s why I’m in this business. We have a great opportunity to capitalize on the demand for Jewish content and have a tremendously exciting future.”