UTJ conference to focus on independent minyans

UTJ conference to focus on independent minyans

The Union for Traditional Judaism will hold its annual conference on Sunday at its Teaneck headquarters. The confab, themed “Independence Day: The Independent Minyan/Prayer Group Phenomenon,” will include a panel of speakers discussing the role of the independent minyan in the wider Jewish organization world, what the establishment can learn from them, and vice versa.

“We’re poised between what would be called the establishment of the Jewish world and what would be called the cutting edge of the Jewish world,” said Rabbi Ronald Price, UTJ’s executive vice president. “We thought this would be an appropriate topic.”

According to a 2008 survey of new Jewish organizations, more than 300 new Jewish initiatives were reaching out to some 400,000 Jews. And of those Jews, some 20,000 were involved in independent minyanim or prayer groups, instead of conventional synagogues.

Speakers at Sunday’s conference will include Adena Berkowitz, founding member of Kol HaNeshamah in New York City; Ann E. Shinnar of the steering committee of Teaneck Women’s Tefillah; and Rabbi Chaim Solomon, founding rabbi of Traditional Congregation of Mt. Dora in Florida. Torah scholar Hakham Isaac Sassoon, a teacher at UTJ’s Institute of Traditional Judaism-The Metivta, will begin the conference.

Price noted that the 2008 survey, conducted by Jumpstart, The Natan Fund, and The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, found that a large number of small, niche initiatives had emerged across the country and that participants were shunning larger organizations for more intimate settings.

The research findings warned that many of the new start-ups face economic troubles, something Price hopes to address during the conference.

“We will be looking at the subject as objectively as possible,” he said. “Obviously UTJ sees itself as a halachic organization, but participants come from liberal as well as traditional backgrounds. We want to see how [independent minyanim] will become applicable to our work and help in communities.”

Organizers want to present a better understanding of these independent groups and why they are attracting so many, said UTJ special projects coordinator Judy Landau. Each speaker is involved in an independent minyan and will answer questions about that group, from how it is funded to challenges it faces, as well as its vision for the future, ritual format, and space layout.

Landau pointed out that these groups appear to be making better inroads with the 20somethings and 30somethings in the Jewish community – which established synagogues have had trouble with.

“That really is what we want to explore: What makes them attractive and how established synagogues might be able to learn something from them,” Landau said. “We want to let people know why they seem to be successful.”

Last year’s conference focused on child sexual abuse, particularly within the yeshiva world. Other topics have included the idea of the Jewish vote and how UTJ and synagogues can work together.

Past conferences have drawn as many as 300 or as few as 50. Attendance at the conference is unpredictable, Price said, but there is another option for those unable to make it to Teaneck: For the third year in a row, the conference will be Webcast on the Internet. In fact, Price said, much of the interest in the conference is coming from around the country, from California to Florida to Maine. Even at conferences with smaller attendance, UTJ has had twice as many people participating through the Internet, Price said.

“That’s very exciting,” he said.

For more information on the Webcast or the conference, e-mail office@utj.org.

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