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Jewish Journal

New Prayer Communities Seek Spiritual High

by Jane Ulman

August 19, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Rabbi Miriam Lefkovits-Hamrell prays with congregants at Ahavat Torah's Saturday morning minyan. Photo by Jane Ulman

Rabbi Miriam Lefkovits-Hamrell prays with congregants at Ahavat Torah's Saturday morning minyan. Photo by Jane Ulman

Don't call them synagogues.

They are minyanim, or spiritual communities. They have evolved from shared and individual dreams and from serendipitous, profound and beshert connections. They are new, egalitarian, independent, warm, collaborative and vibrant.

And they are all led by female rabbis.

Ahavat Torah, with Rabbi Miriam Lefkovits-Hamrell, meets Saturday mornings in rented space at Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles.

Ikar, with Rabbi Sharon Brous, holds biweekly Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Roxbury Park Community Center in Beverly Hills.

And Nashuva, with Rabbi Naomi Levy, hosts a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Westwood Hills Congregational Church in Westwood.

Technically, a minyan is a quorum of 10 people, traditionally men, which is necessary for reciting certain prayers and performing certain rituals, according to the Mishnah.

In the United States, however, the minyan emerged as an independent prayer group created and led by lay leaders in the late '60s and '70s, an outgrowth of the havurah movement. An example is the Library Minyan, formed in 1971 and originally housed in Temple Beth Am's library. A more recent example is Shtibl Minyan, founded in 2000, which meets in The Workmen's Circle in Los Angeles.

"A minyan is a natural answer to what many refer to as Judaism's 'edifice complex.' It attracts Jews interested in praying, who can do that anywhere," said Isa Aron, professor at Los Angeles' Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and founding director of the Experiment in Congregational Education.

These new minyanim, however, attract not only practicing Jews but also what Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president of University of Judaism and co-founder of Synagogue 2000, calls "spiritual seekers."

"I think a lot of people are looking for that spiritual high and, guess what, these independent minyanim are actually offering it," Wolfson said.

They're also offering fellowship, a commitment to social action and a rabbi at the helm.

Ahavat Torah

"Right now I really consider myself living my dream," said Lefkovits-Hamrell, who was ordained in May 2003 through the Academy of Jewish Religion and who became the spiritual leader of Ahavat Torah, meaning love of Torah, shortly thereafter.

As a child in Israel, the goal of becoming a congregational rabbi was unreachable. She would sit in shul, a mechitzah between her and her father, and ask why they had to be separated.

"On Simchat Torah I yearned to hold and dance with the Torah," she said.

Finally, when Lefkovits-Hamrell and her family moved to Los Angeles in 1969, she was able to hold a Torah and later become a bat mitzvah. And while she married and raised three now-grown sons, she continued to pursue her dream, always studying and working as a Jewish educator. Along the way she even acquired her own Torah, which sits in a case in her living room.

Her dream became a reality when a friend introduced her to a group who had formed Ahavat Torah as a lay minyan a few months prior.

"We had been roaming around to different congregations to see if we fit," founding member Blanche Moss said. "Finally we decided we fit together."

And they decided Lefkovits-Hamrell fit with them.

She described her minyan, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, as "Conservative/Reform/Chasidic," with lots of singing, clapping and even spontaneous dancing in the aisles. She and lay cantor Gary Levine, an executive at Showtime, lead it. Adhering to their motto "One Torah, Many Teachers, One Community," it is participatory, with congregants reading Torah, presenting d'vrai Torah and leading discussions.

Following services, members share a potluck dairy lunch.

Learning continues during the week, with many taking part in one of three study groups that Lefkovits-Hamrell facilitates. They also observe holidays and socialize together. Ahavat Torah also boasts a strong program of gemilut chasadim -- acts of lovingkindness.

"We give each other a lot of help, being there as family," member Lois Miller-Nave said.

And Lefkovits-Hamrell remains in close and constant contact with her congregants.

Membership numbers about 70, with a goal of 120. Visitors are effusively welcomed, and dues are reasonable "so as not to exclude anyone," said member Rick Nave. Most congregants are in their 50s and 60s, though the minyan has celebrated its first bar mitzvah, with a second one coming up.

And this year, Ahavat Torah will hold its first High Holiday services, at Congregation Kehillat Ma'arav in Santa Monica.

But the Saturday morning minyan, which attracts between 40 and 70 people, remains the group's focus.

"These people deeply care about Judaism and search for meaning and spirituality. That's what unites us," Lefkovits-Hamrell said.

For more information, call (310) 362-1111.

Ikar

"For the last couple of years, I've been dreaming about what kind of spiritual community I could help build," said Sharon Brous, rabbi of Ikar, which means root or essence.

One force fueling this dream was her two-year stint as a rabbinic fellow at Manhattan's Congregation B'nai Jeshurun -- which she describes as "the country's most vibrant, compelling Jewish community -- following ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The other force is her continuing work as rabbi for Reboot, a network of 25- to 35-year-old Jews who are creative and intellectual trendsetters but don't always resonate to traditional Jewish ways.

Additionally, she met parents and others who were "hungry for Jewish learning and real spiritual encounter."

Brous' dream began to materialize when a friend connected her with three couples desperately seeking to make Shabbat central in their lives.

"We sat on the verge of tears, feeling something of great importance was happening. It felt beshert," Brous explained.

They held an experimental service in April, expecting 40; 135 showed up. The group then raised enough money to hire Brous full time.

Since June, services have been held biweekly, a family picnic followed by Kabbalat Shabbat. The service, led by Brous and second-year rabbinic student Andy Shugerman, is primarily in Hebrew, a combination of the Conservative siddur and Shlomo Carlebach melodies. Text study is incorporated into the service, and Brous' d'var Torah weaves together congregants' reflections.

More than 200 adults and children attend each service, clapping, swaying, dancing and holding babies. A few bring drums. The crowd is diverse, ranging from observant Jews to people like Reboot member Josh Kun, who admitted, "I don't understand 80 percent of the service, but the intense mixture of connection and spiritual enthusiasm is incredibly appealing."

Ikar is planning to hold High Holiday services at the Westside Jewish Community Center, and afterward will add a monthly Saturday minyan to the schedule.

Brous and the Ikar board work closely to create a community that reflects the group's values in all areas, from the arrangement of chairs to the structuring of dues. In addition to money, members are asked to contribute toward community building, tikkun olam and learning.

Tikkun olam is especially critical to Brous. She wants people's spiritual development to lead to transforming the world.

And the learning piece, which will include studies for children in kindergarten through bar and bat mitzvah, is important to many parents.

"We want the intellectual, spiritual and social justice values transmitted to our children," founding parent Melissa Balaban said. "We want them to fall in love with Judaism."

But the core values remain important to everyone.

"We want to do away with what's orderly, precise and dignified and build a place where people have a spiritual encounter that's profound and joyous and creative and transformative," Brous said.

For more information, call (310) 450-9679 or visit www.Ikar-la.org .

Nashuva

"Naomi, it's time."

"Time for what?" Rabbi Naomi Levy asked two friends who had invited her to breakfast last April.

"Time to start a service."

Levy knew from age 4 that she wanted to be a rabbi. She entered the Jewish Theological Seminary in the first class of women and spent seven years as rabbi of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. She has spent the last seven years writing the best-seller, "To Begin Again" (Ballantine, 1999) and "Talking to God" (Knopf, 2002).

Levy decided to act. Looking for an available location, she cold-called a church whose facade she often admired.

"Did you call me because you know my husband is Jewish?" the reverend asked.

"No," Levy answered.

"Well, my husband is Jewish and there is nothing I would like more. It would be such an honor."

Levy and the Rev. Kirsten Linford-Steinfeld met that afternoon.

"We both felt like we were led to each other, like we'd known each other our entire lives," Levy said.

Things promptly fell into place. Levy knew the name would be Nashuva, meaning "we will return," from the last line in Lamentations. She also knew prayer would be meaningless if not linked to social action, and immediately she and Linford-Steinfeld committed to joint monthly projects.

Levy also knew she would offer new translations of the Hebrew prayer book that would be "accessible, personal and soulful." And she knew she wanted to work with musicians who could, "get congregants out of their seats and on their feet."

Levy, who is married to Jewish Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman, met with 11 founding members around her dining room table to make this happen. She created a prayerbook with every Hebrew word transliterated and with accompanying English prayers in simple, poetic language. She also assembled a group of eight musicians and gathered music from Jewish Eastern European, Sephardic, African and other traditions.

Founding member Wanda Peretz handpainted and appliquéd a wall hanging for the bima, a Tree of Life with the words of Lamentations, "Turn us to you, O God, and we will return."

Levy committed to one service each month, beginning last June. And each so far has overfilled the church, which seats 250. Nashuva is also planning a Tashlich service for Rosh Hashanah, with a drumming circle, shofar blowing and dancing on Venice Beach. Other High Holiday services will be announced on Nashuva's Web site.

Last month, the standing-room-only crowd showed that Levy's joyful and intimate approach has touched a chord among all types of Jews: young parents (Nashuva provides free child care and a children's service), singles, seniors, interfaith couples, traditional affiliated Jews and adults whose last visit to shul was on their bar mitzvah.

They swing and sway to upbeat and moving melodies. They listen raptly to Levy's engaging and insightful d'var Torah. "There's a wonderful sense of community in the room, even if you don't know anyone," said Carol Taubman.

At this point, Nashuva is privately funded. Levy said she believes people who value the experience will make free-will offerings.

"When people come to Nashuva and feel elevated and [have] an honest communication with God, I feel blessed. When people come to Nashuva and then go and serve in the community, I feel overwhelmed," Levy said.

For more information, visit www.nashuva.org .

Are these new minyanim a threat to established synagogues?

Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., when Jewish life became cooperative rather than hierarchical, Jews have been forming, disbanding, merging and splitting prayer communities.

"This is an old tradition in the Jewish world," Wolfson said.

To be fair, synagogues themselves are offering minyanim and alternative services, from Beth Jacob Congregation's Happy Minyan to Adat Ari El's One Shabbat Morning to University Synagogue's Great Shabbos.

And, as Levy herself said, "Shuls in Los Angeles are doing incredible work."

But in the meantime, as Aron points out, "The new minyanim are making more Jews more intensely Jewish, and that's basically a good thing."

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