Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review: Empowered Judaism

WSince the beginning of Judaism, there have been those prognosticators, philosophers and agitators who have written about how the official community isn't working, and something radical is needed. From the book of Jubilees to Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, to Abraham Geiger and David Einhorn in the 19th century, to Arthur Waskow and Art Green more recently, there have been no shortage of folks with prescriptions for how we can reinvigorate, revitalize, re-imagine or reinvent Judaism. Some, like Green, are quite convincing in their efforts. Some, like the book of Jubiliees of antiquity, don't make the final cut. Some are just trying to sell you something

I picked up Empowered Judaism,  expecting it to be along these lines. Written by Elie Kaufner (RKs represent!), it describes the rise and development of the Independent Minyan phenomenon, how it is both similar and different from the chavurah movement of the 60s, and what it offers to the rest of "organizational" Judaism as a whole. In other words, I'm waiting for them to sell me something; to shout from the mountains "this is the way Judaism of the 58th century must be done!" 

Interestingly, it doesn't do that. Kaufner, himself now a rabbi, specifically does not offer independent minyans as a salve or solution to all the problems of North American synagogue life. In fact, he goes out of his way to discuss those ways that synagogues are better institutions than independent minyanim: more responsive to families with children, built-in pastoral care and support networks, more stability (though he later discusses instability as a virtue). Rather, he suggests that we may be addressing the wrong problem. That is, we're spending most of our time worried about survival, when we should be talking about meaning. 

Minyanim, as many of us know, grew out of a generation that had done 'everything right' Jewishly: they went to summer camps, Israel programs, and attended day schools as kids; later they participated in college-level leadership programs. Steven Cohen, in his landmark article "A Tale of Two Jewries" (pdf) describes how this generation is (in part) the most Jewishly well educated in North American history. In addition, this generation (not just the Jews, but in general) are more transient, tending to put off marriage and children until later in life, and tend to stay in urban areas a lot longer. As a result, there wasn't an institution that served their needs: folks in their 20s and 30s (and 40s) who knew how to daven and lein Torah, and give a d'var torah, were drawn to traditional modalities of worship, but were interested in egalitarian participation and leadership, weren't looking for education for their kids, were in "the city" (or 'downtown'), and hadn't put down roots yet. A challenging group indeed! so, they set out to create a community for themselves: 
Its goal, he explains, is "to build a prayer community that speaks to each of its members' spiritual longings, gives participants a sense of community and belonging, and empowers them to find in Judaism a deep sense of meaning and purpose that infuses every corner of their lives."

While there is tremendous freedom to start from scratch, there are also tremendous challenges. No building. No money. No lay-leadership. No clergy. The question did not focus primarily on dealing with logistics however. The question became, "How can we educate and empower a generation of Jews to take hold of their tradition? Can we shift from a mentality of survival to one of meaning? How will we recognize and meet the overwhelming demand for an engaged Jewish life? Can we imagine a new Jewish world?"

It is those two words: empowerment and engagement that then become the bywords of the movement, and the overriding goal that fueled all the decisions that were made at Kehilat Hadar (the minyan Kaufner and his friends founded in New York City), be it leadership (keep an eye out for those who show up early and help; gradually give them more responsibility, but keep ultimate responsibility with a small handful), fundraising (or lack thereof; they pride themselves on a 'suggested donation' and 'pay as you go' ethos, and having a lack of 'machers', which works for transitory folks), service leading (start on time, no change to the liturgy, anyone with skill can lead), to even simple things like arranging the room (rows not circle: looking at others can be intimidating) or communicating programs (email and website only; share what other local communities are offering) and mistakes (unpacking the previous week thoughtfully; being willing to dump a program if it's unsuccessful but also learn from it).  

From here Kaufner is able to share what elements he thinks we can take away from the experience. Primarily, it's about inspired worship and study, and creating more spiritually fulfilling experiences. "Because this generation does not join out of guilt or institutional obligation, but out of a search for meaning, then if the meaning is absent, some will not join at all." How do we achieve that kind of meaning? Let people own the experience, and let them learn. Create more opportunities for learning; Kaufner talks about 15 minute sessions on new melodies or how to lead the service, but also more serious text study, arguing that the mainstream movements' rabbis have ceded serious study to the academies, ending up as 'sacred social workers'. Don't be focused on the particularities of a denomination, and don't treat 'capturing' this demographic as a zero-sum game: 

Loyalty to institutions is not a given. The minyanim were founded by a group of people living a generation after Watergate. They have no loyalty to an institution simply because it is an institution. This is part of the misunderstanding in the denominational challenge to independent minyanim. Denominational loyalists are confounded when graduates of denominational institutions "spurn" a denominational synagogue in favor of a minyan (assuming for a moment that the choice is zero-sum, which I doubt it is in reality). According to the minyan study, most founders were never loyal to the denomination-they liked (or disliked) each discrete experience without signing on to a larger movement loyalty statement.

And don't be afraid to challenge people:

Among American Jews, there is a significant demand for meaningful, engaged Jewish life. There is a temptation to assume 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. 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. They are looking for more than a class; they want to build real community. They want substance, and they want the skills to own their Jewish lives.

(A great example of this, by the way, is the gravitation of post-college educated kids going to PARDES, Hartman, HUC's Beit Midrash or one of the other egalitarian, non-clergy oriented yeshivot in Jerusalem).

As you might imagine, reading this book (especially as a fellow Gen Xer) is exhilarating, especially because Kaufner accentuates the positive--about synagogues, chavurot, and minyanim--at least for the most part. There are some moments of whinging; a certain generational divide (though I suspect it's as much philosophical as generational). While he avoids the triumphalism that often accompanies a new movement, three articles written by leaders of other minyanim don't quite have the same sensitivity (or organization). And the book ends rather suddenly (I noticed this with Art Green's "Radical Judaism" as well) before going into an excellent appendix that's really an example of the kind of robust text study he suggests. I'm not sure why that is, but it feels rather anticlimactic, like he was afraid to push too hard somehow?

Finally, while I find much of the argument compelling (the argument for rows of chairs rather than 'in the round' was a new one and convinced me), a lot of it isn't either rocket science or new. Good congregations have always figured out how to balance their leadership between those with wealth, wisdom and work. The synagogues I've served have used similar methods of evaluating potential leaders, giving them gradually more responsibility. And I worry that, while there are many Jews who are interested in meaningful study, it's not necessarily universal as a goal. A congregant reminded me this summer (after leading an excellent experimental Torah study) that many people are terrified of text (especially traditional study) and find it alien and discouraging. That doesn't make them lesser Jews (nor do I think Kaufner would argue that), but it means they need to experience Torah in a different way: pairing them off in 'chevruta' and putting a Vilna Shas in their hands isn't going to lead them to meaningful encounters with Judaism, but send them screaming.

Minor complaints. In a world full of venture philanthropists, organizational and communal leaders all looking for the 'silver bullet' or 'next big thing' (and consultants and educators willing to suggest they have the answer), it's refreshing to read someone who admits that there is no magic 'one-size-fits-all' solution: just meaningful engagement, inspirational worship, and compelling Torah. All the rest is commentary; time to study.

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