November 1, 2007
A pioneering minyan celebrates double chai birthday
Back in 1971, a group of young married rabbinical school graduates with small children requested a meeting with Rabbi Jacob Pressman of Temple Beth Am. Many of them had just moved back to Los Angeles after graduating the Jewish Theological Seminary, and they were looking for a meaningful prayer experience. Not only that, their children were being shushed for being disruptive in the main sanctuary.
Pressman proposed creating a separate, "parallel" service for the young Jewish professionals and took the concept back to his board, who did not like the idea at all. One man pointed his finger at Pressman and warned, "Rabbi you are going to create another shul that's going to grow up and leave." In fact, the board member was half right. Pressman and the group did create another entity, what has become known as "The Library Minyan," named for the downstairs library where the 15 families began to meet weekly to pray. Members organized and participated in all parts of the service (especially the weekly sermon), discussed all aspects of Judaism and debated the increasingly complex issues of the changing times. But even as the group grew -- eventually eclipsing the main sanctuary in attendance -- it stayed at Beth Am. In fact, it became a draw for new members, some of whom went on to serve on the synagogue's board and who are now among the top Jewish professional leaders in and beyond Los Angeles.
Thirty-six years later, the Library Minyan, with its opportunities for engagement and intellectual rigor is seen as having helped to start a revolution -- empowering lay leaders in the essential structure of spiritual leadership. It has become a model for many Conservative and Reform congregations seeking to create alternatives both within and outside the fold of conventional synagogue structure, and has allowed individual congregations to morph it into new and ever-changing incarnations.
This weekend, the Library Minyan will celebrate its double-chai anniversary (two times "life") with a Shabbaton Nov. 2-4 that will remember the past but also look toward the future.
So, what does the future hold for the Library Minyan and its members? Will they continue to be a creative influence on Judaism? Or is it time for them to step aside and let other younger people establishing new and innovative communities of their own take over? Has the revolution ended?
Not that the Library Minyan set out to be revolutionary. "We were looking for a place where we could daven," said Rabbi Stuart Kelman, who worked at United Synagogue Youth, Camp Ramah and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion before leaving town in 1984 to work in Jewish education in Northern California.
"Since most of us were knowledgeable, we could create a service that was more informal, more intimate, more participatory. I think this minyan was an evolution and not a revolution," Kelman said.
Pressman, for example, helped found Camp Ramah and American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) and got the hotels in town to have kosher kitchens. Under his stewardship, Beth Am grew from 218 families in the 1950s to 1,300 by the 1970s. He recognized the need for something new: "It was unreasonable we could serve all these people," he said, so he gave the green light to the group, which was soon to include Rabbi Eliott Dorff (now rector of American Jewish University), professor Steven L. Spiegel (now UCLA's director of the Middle East Regional Security Program) and Rabbi Joel Rembaum.
"I wish I could call it an immediate success, but it was not," Pressman said. "There was scarcely a minyan" in the early years. Not that that mattered to its attendees, who were happy to have a mixed-seating, lay-led, traditional prayer group where members read from the Torah, delivered parsha sermons and held weekly potluck lunches. They also debated issues: first, whether women could read Torah (they could by the mid-1970s) and then whether women could lead prayers and be counted as a minyan (they could by the early '80s).
"In the late '70s all these people started coming," recalled Dorff, who joined two months after the start, in April 1971, and is now considered one of the driving forces behind its egalitarian spirit. The minyan is filled with rabbis -- more than a dozen -- but has no one rabbi. "There were more and more people who wanted this kind of service."
There was another attraction: "Word came out that the Library Minyan was a good place to meet the opposite sex," Pressman said.
The group relocated a few times, first into the youth building adjacent to the shul, and then to the old chapel (today it's in a newly renovated chapel).
"The minyan also acquired a certain star appeal, with members such as the Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, the scholar of mysticism Jonathan Omer-Man, and the historian of ideas David Ellenson, a Reform rabbi who grappled with Modern Orthodox theology in his doctoral dissertation," as described in a chapter devoted to the history of the Library Minyan by Samuel Freedman in his seminal book, "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry," published in 2000).
Freedman pointed out that the participants were "products of the Jewish counterculture, committed to applying the New Left's ideal of participatory democracy to religious practice. Yet they did not throw out all convention: Ninety percent of services were in Hebrew, and most members were Sabbath observant."
Other forces were also at work: In 1985, Pressman retired and handed Beth Am's senior rabbi mantle over to Rembaum, one of the original members of the Library Minyan, which was now considerably larger, with about 130 individuals on a Shabbat morning, Rembaum said.
The complaints continued: "Why don't you bring those people in?" some of the same Beth Am members now complained to the new rabbi.
"I'm one of them," Rembaum replied.
Like Pressman, Rembaum believed in the "multilevel congregation, the 'multiminyan synagogue.'"
The 21st century Library Minyan is now held in the Dorff-Nelson chapel downstairs at Beth Am, a low-ceilinged, warmly lit space that seats about 200 people -- a little more than the crowd that shows up on any given Shabbat -- and it can expand to 500 for the High Holy Days. Wooden benches circle the bimah in the middle and there is a tall, wooden ark, shaped like a Torah scroll. The walls are adorned with novice murals of the five megilot. The atmosphere is nothing like that of the sanctuary, with its imposing high ceilings, seating for 1,000 (425 downstairs) facing a stage, where a keyboardist plays to accompany the more traditional, rabbi-led services. There, some 125 people attend weekly (with 300 for a bar mitzvah and 1,250 on the High Holy Days). But it's also a far cry from the new school library (not the original home to the Library Minyan), which houses books and, as of August, the Pico Egal Minyan.
Pico Egal is an unaffiliated, egalitarian, halachic prayer group founded three years ago by American Jewish University's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies' Conservative-trained rabbinical students who were looking for a new type of prayer service. Between 20 and 30 young men and women gather, sing, pray and read the entire Torah portion (unlike the Library Minyan, which operates on a three-year cycle). Like Shtibl, Pico Egal started in someone's living room and has no official membership (after years of debate, Shtibl established a loose "membership" in 2005).
"In some respects they remind me of what we were like in the '70s," Rembaum said.
But the difference is that Pico Egal, like the Shtibl and Ikar, are institutions themselves. Will they eventually join Beth Am and all its different prayer services?
"I don't think that's going to happen," said Justin Goldstein, a Ziegler rabbinical student and gabbai (organizer) at Pico Egal.
Rembaum sees all these new groups as a natural evolution: "As the institutionalized establishment in the area, we could nurture that role and become antagonistic and worrisome, but we have chosen not to," he said. New prayer groups attract different constituencies -- including the unaffiliated, as well as those looking for a particular style of prayer.
"We can't be all things to all people," Rembaum said, "we can try to afford them as many alternatives as possible."
Besides, he said, some people want to be part of an institution, they want the structure and benefits it offers, and some people even want to be part of large services; Sinai Temple has about 1,000 people and Beth Jacob has 800 (and both offer smaller, alternative prayer groups).
"Halevai [I wish] that the Jewish community would grow and grow and grow," Rembaum said, "and pretty soon instead of getting 10 percent of the people participating in synagogue life, you'll get 40 percent. We have an obligation to share the Jewish tradition and to serve the community."
But what are the lessons learned from the success of the Library Minyan? Does it mean that large services should allow breakaways in their midst? Or are the "Library Minyans" of today simply the nondenominational prayer groups that will eventually start communities -- and institutions -- of their own?
Be careful not to draw too many conclusions, cautions Sam Freedman. The Columbia University professor said he hasn't been keeping up with the Library Minyan since he wrote "Jew vs. Jew," but the one thing he can say that is unique to this particular group: Its members have executed enormous influence on Jewish life. And as far as trends go, prayer groups are going in both directions, as independent entities and as components of a larger whole.
"There's a lot that's been said over the years about the challenges of the Conservative movement, about how it reconciles liberalism and greater tradition, and the simplistic takeaway, as the whole movement is in crisis," Freedman said. But one thing's for sure: "The Library Minyan shows the contrary, how much vitality can be there."