Davening outside the box

Davening outside the box

Alternate prayer groups take root in northern New Jersey

Gene Sklar grew up in a distinctly Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, but rarely stepped inside a synagogue, did not mark becoming a bar mitzvah, and did not celebrate Jewish holidays.

“My parents were leftist socialists from Russia,” says Sklar, an 80-year-old retired social worker and grandfather of eight from Fort Lee. “Religion was totally rejected.”

That all changed six years ago when he discovered Sha’ar Communities (Sha-ar is the Hebrew word for “Gate”), one of nearly a dozen independent minyanim, or prayer groups, now thriving in Bergen County.

The hallmark of a worship and study community such as Sha’ar is that it develops independently of established denominational and synagogue institutions within the organized Jewish community, says Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, author of “Empowered Judaism,” the 2010 book documenting the rise of the American Independent Minyan movement. The phenomenon is often mentioned by academics as a product of the “post-denominational age.”

These minyanim, or Jewish communal or spiritual groups, are often punctuated by innovations – sometimes controversial ones – around prayer, learning, and community, Kaunfer says.

Estimates put the number of these independent Jewish entities at more than 90 nationwide, many of which have been established since 2000. Nationally, Jews in their 20s and 30s mostly have been attracted to these independent communities; however, in Bergen County, members of independent minyanim reflect a somewhat broader age range, from 25 to 90. “Many are focused on creating a community enterprise,” says Kaunfer, a co-founder of Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva in New York City, as well as Kehilat Hadar, an independent minyan. “The goal is to build a place where people are energized by the community.”

For Gene and his wife, Ria, Sha’ar Communities represents a gift that arrived late in life. “I was attracted by the openness, the level of intellectual Jewish thinking, and the opportunity to fill in a void of my own knowledge of Jewish tradition, particularly philosophic tradition,” Sklar says. “It has made me become more interested in the idea of Jewish continuity.”

Ria Sklar says Sha’ar Communities provided a long-missing opportunity for her and her husband to connect to a Jewish identity that was comfortable for him. “We’re not service-goers and that seemed to be mostly what was on offer,” Ria says. “We’ve been looking for an understanding that Jewish identity and education have many different directions, not just traditional ones.” For the Sklars, that has taken the form of traveling with Sha’ar Communities to learn first hand about Jewish communities in Argentina, Cuba and Canada, Ria says.

As many as 60 people attend the weekly Shabbat services or study sessions, and even greater numbers participate in the community’s tikkun olam (social action) and bar/bat mitzvah programs, says Rabbi Adina Lewittes, a Jewish Theological Seminary-trained rabbi who serves as the community’s leader. “Sha’ar Communities evolved from the recognition of changing trends,” Lewittes says. “It’s compelling for people who find themselves on the margins of the traditional Jewish community to find a personally meaningful ‘gate,’ or access point, through which they can participate in Jewish life.”

Although Sha’ar Communities has a rabbi at its helm, most independent minyanim in the county and across the country are community-organized and peer-led; however, all are focused on cultivating a spirit of engagement in spirituality, community, and prayer, says Kaunfer. “These minyanim, by and large, have not come into being as a breakaway situation with people unhappy with synagogue politics,” he says; “it is people who are committed to a particular Jewish vision, but have not laid down institutional roots.”

In fact, these independent minyanim often reflect peoples’ desires to imbue more traditional aspects of prayer into the Jewish Renewal movement, Kaunfer adds. Jewish Renewal is a non-denominational grassroots movement that draws on the joy of chasidism and incorporates certain facets of feminism.

Take, for example, Minyan Tiferet, an independent Orthodox minyan that gathers every six weeks in Englewood-area homes on alternating Friday nights and Saturday mornings. (NOTE: Reporter Leah Krakinowski, who wrote this article, is a member of Minyan Tiferet’s board. – Ed.)

Founded in late 2009 by Evan Hochberg and his wife, Samantha Kur, and several other Englewood-area residents, Minyan Tiferet is an outgrowth of Hochberg’s first experience with an independent minyan while living and studying in Israel.

He says attending a Friday night service in which a woman led the preliminary Kabbalat Shabbat prayers and a man led the Maariv (evening) service had a profound impact on him. “It was a gut emotional experience to have found a place that had a commitment to halachah (Jewish law) within an Orthodox framework, and where women had a voice within communal prayer,” he says. “It showed me that there were others who were committed to empowering both men and women to be active participants in serious davening.” Upon returning to the United States, the couple founded a Friday night minyan in Cambridge, Mass.

When Kur and Hochberg moved to Englewood, they wanted to be members of an active synagogue, but they also wanted to find people who were interested in forming an independent minyan. “Tiferet draws people who are committed to their synagogues, and who also are drawn to an intensive positive prayer community,” he says.

Some 40 to 70 people attend the Tiferet minyan on a Friday night, with 60 to 80 on a typical Shabbat morning. Children are an essential part of the minyan, Hochberg says. “The idea that this minyan has the ability to model women’s participation for our sons and daughter is very powerful,” he says. “When my wife was preparing to read Torah at the minyan, one of our sons asked what she was doing. I could see surprise and then acknowledgment that both his father and mother read Torah; we are teaching them that Torah is accessible to men and women.”

For the past 10 years, access to meaningful prayer and Torah study also has provided the inspiration for a group of 25 county residents to gather each week for Shabbat services and Torah discussion at the Demarest home of Dennis Shulman and Pamela Tropper.

Informally dubbed “The Shabbat Service,” the group was formed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide attacks on the United States, says Shulman, a clinical psychologist and rabbi who made an unsuccessful bid to wrest a congressional seat from Republican Rep. Scott Garrett in 2008. Sept. 11, he says, “was a time when a lot of us had questions about our relationships with God, and we turned to our own liturgy and texts to feel more courage in the face of such vulnerability.”

The minyan continues to meet every Shabbat morning and has built a service around prayers adapted from both Reform and Conservative liturgies and the occasional use of a guitar, says Shulman.

“There’s an informality we enjoy during the service,” he says. “Someone will ask a question about a prayer or a particular reading and a spontaneous discussion will ensue.”

In addition to hosting occasional holiday services for Yom Kippur and Shavuot, the group also meets every Monday to study Torah and Talmud, with some participants joining in via Skype, Shulman says. “There’s no budget, no building fund, and the cake and fruit are free.”

Bergen County also is home to a number of synagogue-affiliated alternative minyanim, which do not necessarily fit the classic definition of an independent minyan.

Examples are Congregation Beth Shalom’s Minyan Koleinu, a traditional egalitarian minyan that supports lay-led Torah study, full Torah reading, and a lot of singing, as well as The Parallel Minyan, a lay-led minyan that meets every other Shabbat, says David Greenberg, a longtime participant.

“I characterize The Parallel Minyan to a 19th-century painting of Jews huddled around texts arguing,” he says. “It promotes a lot of good discussion that continues at kiddush.” The Parallel Minyan is guided by its own steering committee. “In this minyan, we can lead davening even if it’s not perfect and no one feels embarrassed.”

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