Waltham, Mass. – The dozens of independent Jewish prayer groups cropping up all over the country in the past decade have mostly attracted worshipers with traditional roots, rather than converts or secular Jews, a new study reports.
Based on a 2007 survey of 747 members of independent minyans, or lay-led prayer groups, the findings show that only 13 percent had not either attended Jewish day schools or camp programs as children, or participated frequently in Hillel activities during college.
Nearly half of participants come from Conservative Jewish backgrounds, and 20 percent from Orthodox upbringings — both higher percentages than the nation’s estimated 26 percent of U.S. Jews who are Conservative and 10 percent who are Orthodox, according to the National Jewish Population Survey.
”There are only a small number of total newcomers to Jewish life as of yet,” said Steven M. Cohen, a Jewish social policy professor at Hebrew Union College, who presented the study at the Independent Minyan Conference at Brandeis University on Monday (Nov. 10).
“These are largely groomed, not bloomed, Jews.”
Given that most are also in their 20s and 30s, the minyan members who attended the Brandeis conference said the study showed that young, devout Jews are increasingly looking for ways to practice their faith with their peers, leading their own services in living rooms rather than listening to the rabbis in their parents’ synagogues.
In some cases, Orthodox Jews also view their groups as more egalitarian worship experiences, providing more roles for women, while maintaining some of the traditional elements they would miss if they instead joined a Conservative or Reform Jewish community.
”These minyan(s) are about feminism,” said Elitzur Bar-Asher, who founded Minyan Urim at Yale University with his wife three years ago.
“We are progressive and we believe in an ideology whose justification is not religious.”
The findings do not indicate whether minyan participants will eventually join synagogues over time, as they marry, have children and move to the suburbs, Cohen noted, as happened with some members of the similar Havurah movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Today’s independent minyans seem to focus more on prayer than on Havurah’s community-building focus, said Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, dean of Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School.
Anisfeld, who hasn’t belonged to a congregation in 30 years and worships at the Newton Centre Minyan with her family, said that rabbis and seminaries should see the lay-led groups as an opportunity to redefine the role of a Jewish spiritual leader, rather than as a rebellion against clergy.
”We need to see independent minyan(s) not as a threat, but as an important challenge,” she said. “Significant numbers of Jews are rejecting a consumer model of Judaism and are opting for a model where they see themselves as co-creators of Judaism and Jewish life.”
By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service
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