Tamara Charm had a watershed experience when she chanted the Torah portion at Yom Kippur services last year at Drisha, the women's Torah learning academy, for a congregation of both women and men.
"It was incredible to daven in a way which conformed to traditional halacha but felt like the women's section was participating as well as the men's," said Charm, 29. "It was very spiritual."
Wanting more, the business consultant and a few friends established the Darkhei Noam (Ways of Peace) minyan in April. Shabbat morning services, generally in a multipurpose room rented from an Upper West Side day school, are Modern Orthodox but egalitarian and now attract some 150 people.
Elie Kaunfer spent a long time shul-hopping between the Upper West Side's many offerings. The congregations serious about prayer were Orthodox and non-egalitarian. Those egalitarian did not pray the entire traditional service, and most congregants seemed to let the rabbi take responsibility for the worship.
Wanting to combine the best of both worlds, Kaunfer, 28, a corporate fraud investigator, and two friends started Kehillat Hadar (Community of Glory), where worship is totally lay-led. About 160 people meet on alternate Shabbat mornings and some holidays at an ever-changing series of locations, their own prayerbooks in hand. Many have strong Jewish educations--some are in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
The result is an intense, fast-moving traditional service they share leading.
"There's no talking, no schmoozing, because people are really trying to have a spiritual moment," Kaunfer said of the minyan that began about a year ago and now has an e-mail list of more than 1,000 "members."
At the Park Slope Minyan, which began in September and employs the Carlebach approach to welcoming Shabbat, participants come from the gamut of synagogues in Brownstone Brooklyn - Orthodox to Reform. Reading from their own prayerbooks or from booklets photocopied out of the Reconstructionist siddur, "men wearing tzitzit out sit next to women" in a church basement singing Kabbalat Shabbat from their hearts, says organizer Meir Feldman, a student at the Reform rabbinical seminary.
Even on the Upper West Side, the neighborhood with arguably more synagogue options per square mile than any other outside of Jerusalem, "this particular niche hadn't been filled," said Hadar's Kaunfer. "Apparently there's enough of a need to keep this model thriving."
Sparked by a desire to create precisely the kind of spiritual experience they desire, the organizers are demonstrating the fulfillment of 1970's "do-it-yourself Judaism" orientation colliding with Generation Xers' style.
And it's no surprise that the trend springs from people now in their 20s and 30s, one researcher says.
Americans born between 1965 and 1981 were raised on a diet of public scandals in leadership, from Watergate to Monicagate, from Enron to priestly pedophilia. As a result, Gen-Xers are "notoriously mistrustful of authority figures and institutions," says Michael Holzman, a Reform rabbinical student examining how churches attract this age group on behalf of Synagogue 2000, the congregational transformation group.
They "are very pragmatic and self-sufficient," said Holzman. "They emphasize lay leadership, and are less interested in rabbinic authority and in creating superstructure buildings than they are in building their community.
"Creating a trusted, reliable group of friends replaces the families that some members of Generation X never felt they had. The minyan community can be that" for Jews, he says.
These new communities - almost all independent of the established denominations - pose a potential threat to the mainstream movements, says one observer.
But according to another expert, the trend doesn't present anything really new.