When Hart Levine and his friends started a Google Doc in 2012 to brainstorm the kind of community they wanted to create in Washington Heights, Levine remembers one of the first things they wrote: “We are not a shul.”
They were looking for a place with a diverse membership, “a place that was more grassroots,” he said, “where it was easy for people to get involved and take on new projects as leaders in the community.”
Fast forward to 2017 — the Beis Community is a small, liberal Orthodox minyan that pulls in those who have not found a home at the more conventional Orthodox synagogues in the area. Attracting 70 people on any given Friday night, the start-up-style synagogue “caters to a population that’s not being catered to elsewhere.”
Levine, 30, describes his constituency as “Orthodox, but…” That group includes a large contingent of LGBTQ Jews, women who want to play a more active role in services and those seeking a more beginner-friendly and spiritually attentive option. Services are broken up by “intentions” before prayers and the Torah reading, and women frequently give the weekly sermon. Special events, including holiday meals and sing-alongs, are also planned for and by the community.
“Something [in the Orthodox community] wasn’t quite enough for them,” Levine said. “Otherwise, why are they coming?”
Levine’s minyan is indicative of a movement among Modern Orthodox — or, more broadly, traditionally minded Jewish — millennials seeking services that speak to their needs and sensibilities.
“People who are under 30 are very savvy consumers,” said Rabbi Daniel Smokler, chief innovation officer of Hillel International. “They’re used to interacting with brands like Google, Amazon and Apple that use predictive analytics to tailor-make experiences just for them based on their preferences and choices.”
As many synagogues venture away from the traditional membership dues model in an effort to attract younger participants, some millennials may simply be looking to start something completely new, he said. Smokler compared traditional synagogues to big-box stores, which are expensive to run and depend on a large number of customers to keep the lights on. More personalized, boutique and convenient options are in high demand.
“As people interact in a market that has those attributes, they expect it from more parts of their life,” said Smokler.
The trend among Modern Orthodox millennials to create new minyans and services where they see options lacking is an extension, albeit updated to 2017, of the independent minyan movement that swept the liberal Jewish world in the early 2000s. The independent minyanim, originally a reaction to establishment, rabbi-led synagogues, were meant to be more participatory and engaging. While some fizzled out over the years, others have continued to operate, like Lab/Shul, and some even turning into established synagogues themselves, like The New Shul, which has membership dues and a religious school.
Levine’s journey to creating the Beis Community has not been without challenges — his innovations have come with a price. Though in 2012 the Beis started hosting services in the declining synagogue Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol on 175th Street, it had to leave the facility after only a few months because the elderly members of the congregation were uncomfortable with some of their more unconventional practices, like the musical prayers. (Members of Beth Hamedrosh Hagadol could not be reached for comment.)
At their new location, the Shteible/Congregation Shmuel Yosef V’Chaya located on 187th Street, another minyan had tried to revive the dying synagogue when the Beis Community started using the space. The rabbi of the existing minyan left because he felt uncomfortable with Levine’s innovations to the Orthodox service such as the new mechitzah. Today, the Beis Community is the space’s sole occupant.
Despite roadblocks, the Beis leadership remained committed to its mission. “We saw that the things that we were doing were attracting people,” said Levine. “It got them to come back.”
“The goal of it is to be entirely peer-led.”
The create-your-own-minyan trend has taken off in other areas of New York as well. Crown Heights is a bastion of prayer options for the liberal-minded, ranging from a partnership minyan, called Kavod, where women take a more active role leading Orthodox services, to an all-women’s minyan, the Brooklyn Women’s Chavura, to an as-yet-unnamed traditional egalitarian minyan that started last month. The new options capitalize on the youthful energy of the post-college crowd, who have flocked to the quickly gentrifying neighborhood for its relatively affordable rent and diverse Jewish community.
Ron Shapiro, who fondly remembers his college years, when he was a leader in the campus Jewish community, the synagogues on the Upper West Side weren’t enough. At Columbia University and JTS “it seemed that everyone in college wanted to go on Friday night to Kabbalat Shabbat.” On the Upper West Side, recent college grads were not stepping into leadership roles in established synagogues as they had on campus. “That transition didn’t really happen on the Upper West Side, and so my hope has been to sort of inspire people to want to take part in the community that they live in,” he said.
“For people our age there’s a lot of meaning that derives from having ownership over your religious experience,” said Jake Wilner, 26, a regular attendee at Ron’s minyan. Being a leader or seeing peers in leadership positions “makes it a more meaningful experience.”“I feel strongly that a lot of people aren’t going to davening because it’s not meaningful [to them],” Shapiro, 26, said. A little over a year ago, he started a new prayer group, which most people call “Ron’s Minyan,” that meets two or three times a month on Friday nights. He hopes to “inject” the services with more spirituality by adding music and encouraging more of his peers to take on leadership roles.
“The goal of it is to be entirely peer-led,” said Shapiro, differentiating his minyan from young professionals’ minyanim, which, he says, are typically led by a small group.
“For people our age there’s a lot of meaning that derives from having ownership over your religious experience.”
Shapiro started his minyan at the Jewish Center, an established synagogue on the Upper West Side. While a young professionals’ minyan already existed there on Shabbat mornings, he felt it was important to get started as a brand-new project. “There’s a lot of people that have a feeling of anti-establishment,” he says. “People have a feeling that establishment with a ‘capital E’ is ‘capital B’ bad.”
Rabbi Yossie Levine of the Jewish Center recognizes the benefit the minyan adds to the synagogue. “Many of the people who are coming to this minyan are people who otherwise wouldn’t be coming to our shul on Friday night, so it’s additive,” said Rabbi Levine. “It’s not a zero-sum game where we’re taking people away from one group.”
Mijal Bitton, 27, a doctoral student at NYU and co-founder of the Downtown Minyan, where she serves as its resident scholar, noted the difference in how today’s generation approaches religion and spirituality. While older generations had “stronger loyalty to legacy institutions,” young Jews are “experimenting with different ways of engagement.”
Last year, Bitton launched the Downtown Minyan along with Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Dr. Michelle Sarna and Gabriel Slamovits. The minyan, which serves graduate students and young professionals in and around NYU, meets in the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU where Rabbi Sarna serves as executive director.
“Our services are both sophisticated and accessible,” said Slamovits, a law student who also serves as gabbai, the religious services coordinator. The minyan, which calls itself “intellectually engaging, spiritually uplifting, and outward looking,” attracts people from a range of Jewish backgrounds, including those with limited Jewish education but an intellectual bent as well as graduates of yeshiva day schools. “It’s about everyone being a learner,” says Rabbi Sarna.
“We’re making it different, but we’re not making it scary different — we’re making it comfortable different.”
“People often tell me they are looking for something different,” says Slamovits. “We’re making it different, but we’re not making it scary different — we’re making it comfortable different.” That difference is in the explanations of the service and Torah portion that are given throughout the traditional Orthodox service.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, president and CEO of Mechon Hadar, an educational institution in New York, echoes Smokler’s sentiments about the nature of these start-ups. “It’s very hard to be excellent at so many different things,” he said. “So the advantage of some of these start-ups is they’re focusing on one or two things that they hopefully are excellent at, and that way it’s more of a niche approach.”
“If the Internet has taught us anything,” he added, “it’s that people have their own playlists and their own news feeds. To expect that everyone would be satisfied with a particular prayer service or synagogue may not be matching the culture of the time.”