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Minyan Man

After starting his own prayer group, Elie Kaunfer is teaching others to do the same

Samantha M. Shapiro
February 19, 2010
Kaunfer with students at Yeshivat Hadar.(Alisa Grace Photography)
Kaunfer with students at Yeshivat Hadar.(Alisa Grace Photography)

I first met Elie Kaunfer in 2001 when a friend of a friend invited me to a Saturday morning prayer service that Kaunfer and friends had organized in a Manhattan apartment. Kaunfer, then 27, was working as a corporate-fraud investigator, and the minyan was his side project. But Kaunfer is hyper-organized, passionate, and single-minded; his hobbies are not like yours and mine. That minyan soon started meeting regularly in a rented church basement. It acquired a name—Kehilat Hadar—a website, subcommittees, spreadsheets, weekly Torah Study sessions, and an annual Shavuot retreat attended by hundreds.

In the past nine years, roughly 60 independent minyanim, or prayer groups, have cropped up around the country. None is affiliated with Judaism’s three main denominations. They usually lack a rabbi, and they tend to start out meeting in apartments, following the Hebrew liturgy used at most Orthodox congregations. Although about a third of the minyanim adhere to what they call a “partnership” model in which women are not allowed to lead all parts of the service, they all push women’s participation and leadership, and they tend to be gay-friendly. They also are free of the stilted air of duty that typifies many Reform and Conservative services; at independent minyanim, people pray like it’s the most fun they’ve had since karaoke night. The mainstream Jewish world has greeted this unexpected surge of youthful excitement with wary enthusiasm; some skeptics worry that the minyanim are draining the most committed Jews of the next generation away from established denominations or structures, which will leave them weakened.

Kaunfer didn’t invent independent minyanim, but he’s pursued the movement more doggedly than anyone else and brought fledgling signs of organization and coherence to it. Kaunfer quit his job and entered rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2002; now an ordained rabbi, he’s going further with his study, pursuing a doctorate in liturgy at JTS. He co-founded an institute, Mechon Hadar, that serves as a clearinghouse for independent minyanim and a think tank that helps them tackle halachic issues in their own communities. Kaunfer also co-founded Yeshivat Hadar, the only full-time egalitarian yeshiva in North America which offers text study 14 hours a day, along with yoga classes and organic lunch. And this month, he published Empowered Judaism, a manifesto for the movement. He and I met to discuss it in the slightly rundown West End Synagogue in New York City, where his yeshiva rents space.

How is the independent minyanim movement different from Havurah movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, which basically also spawned independent congregations?

The general cultural context is different. The Havurot were part of the general countercultural 1960s youth movement. Both the independent minyanim and Havurot are invested in meaningful spiritual prayer, but what that looks like is different. For the Havurot, it was cutting and reducing some of the prayers and being very focused on the Torah discussion—they would often have a 30- to 40-minute Torah discussion. It was also a sense of prayer being in fellowship—everyone sat in a circle and they would have a real intense relationship, both in prayer and outside. The minyanim are less intense on that scale—you come to daven, not necessarily to form a close-knit community. In terms of prayer, the minyanim return to the traditional liturgy and the innovation is in the singing. The seating at independent minyanim is in rows, the more traditional layout.

If the Havurah movement was reflecting that ‘60s counterculture moment, what does the independent minyan movement reflect?

The very first thing is that there is a new demographic that didn’t exist: post-college, pre-whatever. People are getting married and having kids later, if at all, and there is an institutional vacuum for that group of people.

The second thing is that the minyanim reflect the general internet culture. In the old days, there were three networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—and it was the same with Jewish life—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. Now it’s much more normal for people to carve out their own space, both in secular culture and in religious culture. The D.C. Minyan has separate seating with no mehitza, and men and women leading equally; it doesn’t fit on the institutional map, per se, but it’s drawing in a niche market of Jews. It’s not trying to take over the whole world with a new institutional model. It’s reflecting the larger internet culture: new niche markets are popping up and being met by these independent minyanim.

Do you think that independent minyanim, by meeting in borrrowed rooms and rented basements, lose the sense of sacred space that’s created in a building specifically intended for prayer?

The problem is we have often confused sacred space from a visual perspective with sacred space from an audio perspective. You can walk into a 1,000-seat sanctuary and be overwhelmed with beauty of it, but when you’re singing Kabbalat Shabbat with 50 people in that sanctuary, it sounds depressing. Independent minyanim usually start in an apartment so the space is never too big, and part of what’s going for them in the feel of the service is they have auditory sacredness. It’s the voices that are carrying people as opposed to the view.

Does the movement attract people who aren’t in their 20s and 30s?

The narrow view is that it’s providing an outlet for a group of people who had no institutional outlet. But the broader view is that the values the independent minyanim represent are having an impact on larger trends in American Judaism. That’s why the book is called Empowered Judaism not “Independent Minyanim.” The minyanim represent a desire that people have to own their Judaism. In past decades, in American Jewish culture, there was a ceding of knowledge and control and ownership to a vaunted clergy. What the minyanim represent is the sense that people want to take charge of their Jewish heritage. The internet makes everything available, you don’t have to wait for an expert to translate Judaism or religion, you can just have access to it.

I was surprised to learn from the book is that you were your high school prom king.

It was an election, and I won because the football players split the vote. There were six of them and only one nerdy guy, so all the nerdy guys voted for me. It’s how Willis won the beautify pageant, if you remember that episode of Diff’rent Strokes. I did get to dance with prom queen—she was the head cheerleader—and I met her for first time on dance floor. She was about as surprised as I was.

Samantha M. Shapiro is a writer based in New York City.

Samantha M. Shapiro is a writer and journalist.