August 10, 2001

Any Old Shul Won't Do for the Young and Cool

Post-Boomers Have It Their Way at Spate of New Prayer Groups


Dr. Yosi Fishkin was having trouble keeping track of all the minyans in his heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Far Rockaway, Queens. So, in May, the opthamologist-cum-wireless-innovator culled the dates and times from his Palm Pilot and launched, an online database of informal Orthodox gatherings and synagogues. It now includes the addresses and meeting times of more than 1,200 minyans nationwide.

"Every day my e-mail inbox is flooded with people submitting new minyanim," Dr. Fishkin said. "The momentum is booming these days."

In the Boston area, the sense that established congregations had grown too "rigid" led Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, the headmaster of Waltham's New Jewish High School, to found a traditional, egalitarian minyan with Rabbi Arthur Green of Brandeis University.

In Washington, D.C., Joshua Milner, 28, and his wife, Aliza Sperling, 27, started a minyan based on the teachings and music of the late "neo-chasidic" Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the basement of the capital's Orthodox Kesher Israel. Los Angeles, too, has a new Carlebach minyan, an egalitarian service that meets in the city's Workmen's Circle building.

The epicenter of this new havurah movement, however, may be Manhattan's Upper West Side, where several smaller alternatives to the neighborhood's many large, established synagogues have cropped up in recent months. Why would such a shul-saturated neighborhood breed so many new services? The answer is that the new minyans have taken hold by appealing to a young and restless generation: 20-something Jews looking for small, serious, all-Hebrew egalitarian services that strike a balance between spirituality and informality.

"In a strange sense, variety breeds variety," said Ethan Tucker, 25, a Talmud scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary who in late April founded a yet-to-be named nondenominational minyan with his friends Elie Kaunfer and Mara Benjamin. "The more options that people have, the more they think about even more options that they could have."

More than 60 people turned up for the fortnightly minyan's first meeting in Mr. Tucker's Upper West Side apartment after hearing about it from friends or from an e-mail bulletin ( Almost 200 people attended a Tisha B'Av service in Central Park last month. "It's true viral marketing," said Mr. Kaunfer, 27, an investigator at a law firm.

More than 75 people came to the minyan's most recent service, held in an airy children's school above the CVS pharmacy on Amsterdam Avenue and 96th Street. The mood was spirited and decidedly informal. A woman wearing a long leopard-print skirt led the Musaf service. Some women wore pants, and most donned prayer shawls. Most men wore yarmulkes, but only a few wore ties.

Strangers greeted each other and prayer books were handed out to worshipers who had not brought their own. A bright-eyed graduate student, Wendy Amsellem, delivered a fast-paced Torah commentary that transfixed the congregants. Unlike many services populated by single 20-somethings, there was little whispering and even less gossiping.

"We wanted to create a davening space where people across the traditional spectrum could feel comfortable and inspired," said Mr. Kaunfer, a former chairman of Harvard Hillel and, like Mr. Tucker, the son of a Conservative rabbi.

One woman said she'd been attending services at a Reconstructionist synagogue but found that she brought down the average age of the congregants by several decades. One JTS student said that he liked how the minyan wasn't connected to denomination or organization. Another woman said that she had just returned to New York from Israel and discovered that her parents' synagogue wasn't quite right for her any more.

Many congregants seemed to share a common life trajectory: from Conservative or Orthodox day school to Camp Ramah to an Ivy League college, with at least one stopover year in Israel. A few married couples and parents were in evidence, however. Earlier this summer, Senator Joseph Lieberman, who is Mr. Tucker's stepfather, made a cameo appearance.

"Mostly people say, 'Thank you so much for doing this, for setting this up,'" said Debbie Kaufman, 25, a Web producer at Channel 13 who helps coordinate the minyan. "It's a great combination of serious davening and a liberal point of view. I think it attracts a lot of different kinds of people."

Mr. Kaunfer said he'd like to see a wider range of ages at the minyan, which makes use of a borrowed Torah scroll and is looking for a permanent home. Its next challenge, he said, is raising funds and getting religious incorporation.

Another new minyan was founded last winter by roommates Lauren Thomas and Laurie Hahn, both rabbinical students at JTS. The Friday night service, which before it paused for the summer was drawing 50 people, takes place at their Upper West Side home. Yet another new minyan was started last year by Devora Steinmetz, a Talmud professor at JTS, and her husband, David Silber, founder of the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, who had been holding a similar service in Jerusalem while he was there on sabbatical.

"I wanted to be with people serious about davening," Ms. Thomas said about founding the minyan. "A lot of times it becomes a social scene, which is great but better afterwards, for the kiddush."

Other neighborhood options weren't a perfect fit. Although Ms. Thomas said she loves teaching Hebrew school at the socially active Conservative synagogue B'nai Jeshurun, she found Friday night services there "really huge." Services at Anshe Chesed's smaller Minyan M'at, which are filled with important rabbis and scholars, sometimes seem "too intimidating." Plus, Ms. Thomas said, "There are also a lot of families there, which is great, but I'm not really at that stage."

The new minyans also reflect a shift in the ethos of young Jews. "There was a time when identity was based on what synagogue or what institution you affiliated with," said JTS's Ms. Steinmetz. "Now identity is often based on a smaller community. It's like 'round two' of the havurah movement."

At Rabbi Lehmann's Newton minyan, the leaders wanted "to try something that doesn't have to conform to someone else's vision of what tefillah is," Rabbi Lehmann said, using the Hebrew word for prayer.

The minyan meets each Friday night and once a month on Sabbath morning in Rabbi Lehmann's Newton, Mass., living room. Its leader is Ebn David Leader, who founded a popular minyan in Jerusalem and now teaches at NJHS. Between 15 and 30 people ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s attend the services, which feature Sephardic melodies and Carlebach-style singing.

"Usually, things that have been around for a while don't have that feeling," said Rabbi Lehmann. "After a while they become established and lose some of that edge."