The Shivyon Minyan may be a 4-year-old prayer group of about 65 people that meets at a hotel once a month, but it has many of the assets that older, more established synagogues recognize are requirements for success: strong lay leaders and a grass-roots base of committed members, the capacity to meet needs that are not being met elsewhere, and a history of challenges and struggles that have strengthened the group's character.
Founded at Congregation Mogen David, then a Traditional congregation on Pico, the Shivyon Minyan -- Shivyon is Hebrew for equality -- is an egalitarian prayer, study and social group committed to providing a comfortable, intimate setting for Shabbat.
Annette Berman, who with her husband Abe founded the minyan, described for the Journal some of the minyan's basic principles: being open and friendly, greeting newcomers, giving beginners a place to try out new skills. Every service is followed by a free catered lunch, since Berman believes the meal, with the singing and conversation it includes, is essential to the Shabbat experience.
And at the foundation of it all is the commitment to having women be full participants and leaders in a traditional service.
"I've been a shulgoer my whole life, and I never had the opportunity to lead services or be called up to the Torah," said Cynthia Tivers, who has been a Shivyon member since its inception. "I led the Torah service one Shabbat, and that was a very big deal for me, and it was new and exciting," she said.
Berman realized there was a need for such a service at her 60th birthday celebration six years ago, when she held a women's Shabbat service and asked her friends to participate. Many ended up reading from the Torah, leading prayers or having an aliyah for the first time, after going to great lengths to acquire the necessary skills.
"It was quite an important day in quite a few people's lives," Berman said.
About two years later, Berman saw an opening for setting up a permanent venue at Congregation Mogen David, where she had been a member for nearly 50 years and had just received a service award.
Mogen David -- which just last month became Orthodox -- was confronting an aging and dwindling membership. And as the neighborhood grew more and more Orthodox, young families were choosing shuls that met their ideological needs, which did not include Mogen David's services, which used an Orthodox prayerbook, but also used microphones and had no mechitzah separating men and women.
Rabbi Yisroel Kelemer, who was then the rabbi, decided to allow alternatives to help get people through the door. He oversaw the establishment of an Orthodox mechitzah minyan and six months later, with Berman's prodding, the Shivyon Minyan.
"At the time they came into being, I felt that we wanted to give everyone a chance to give expression. We could be the all-purpose shul, with a mechitzah minyan, the Shivyon Minyan and the Traditional minyan in the main sanctuary," Kelemer said.
The board agreed, thinking the auxiliary minyans would bring more people through the doors and attract more members.
But while the Shivyon Minyan was successful in attracting people -- up to 40 or 50 at the monthly Shabbat service, 85 to one shabbaton on Sukkot -- many participants, like their counterparts in the mechitzah minyan, didn't join Mogen David.
At the same time, political infighting intensified as conflicting ideological factions tried to gain control over the future of the shul.
"As the Orthodox element got stronger and stronger, pressure was put on us that if this is going to become an Orthodox shul, we can no longer have the Shivyon Minyan," Kelemer said.
And so 18 months after Shivyon Minyan began, it was terminated, along with the mechitzah minyan, and soon afterward Berman was removed from the shul's board. The mechitzah minyan was restarted at Mogen David a few months later and eventually became the primary service when Mogen David erected its mechitzah in the main sanctuary. Shivyon met for a while at the Berman home, then found space another minyan had just vacated at the Holiday Inn Select on Beverly Drive just north of Pico Boulevard.
"It was a traumatic time, but I think there was a recognition by those involved that this was something that transcended location," said Rabbi Tracee Rosen, who was then a rabbinic intern at the Shivyon Minyan. The minyan got prayerbooks from nearby Conservative Temple Beth Am and a Torah scroll from Temple Emanuel, a Reform shul in Beverly Hills, and members still sponsor a lunch each time the minyan meets. Rosen, who is now a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, says that smaller services like Shivyon are becoming more and more attractive to worshippers. Even large congregations are setting up smaller alternative minyanim to meet that demand.
"People want a growing sense of community, of being able to participate, not having it be just about the big lifecycle events and wanting to do a little bit more singing, a little bit more learning and a lot more participation," Rosen said.
And with nearly all of the shuls along the Pico corridor being Orthodox, Shivyon offers a liberal alternative. It also reads the full Torah portion each week, unlike many other liberal services, which read a fraction of the portion of the week on a triennial cycle.
Berman hopes that the minyan, with its strong core community and target audience, will continue to thrive, despite the rocky past.
"We're grateful to Mogen David," she said. "They gave us our start. If we hadn't had a home for 18 months, we would not have been able to develop the core group that continued on."
For more information about Shivyon Minyan, call (310) 556-2744.