November 1, 2007
A pioneering minyan celebrates double chai birthday
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Like Pressman, Rembaum believed in the "multilevel congregation, the 'multiminyan synagogue.'"
"I think a large synagogue like ours should have many doors -- not everyone has to worship in the same minyan; you have multiple worship needs, and you need to be able to address them," Rembaum said.
The important lesson is to make all the components parts of a whole. Rembaum allowed for new opportunities where different groups could come together, such as reorganizing the schools under one roof: previously the nursery school, day school and religious school were separate entities. He also invited members of all prayer groups to serve on the temple and educational boards.
By the early '90s, Rabbi Perry Netter formed Bait Tefillah to create a more intimate prayer setting and encourage people to get involved in worship and conducting prayer. (Today about 75 pray there.) In 2000, Rabbi Daniel Greyber, then a rabbinical student, started the Neshama minyan, a Friday night Carlebach-style minyan, which he now co-leads with Rabbi Susan Leider, Beth Am's first women rabbi, who also leads a learner's minyan once a month (Greyber is now the executive director of Camp Ramah).
"The notion of the kind of antagonism that existed in the early years has dissipated," Rembaum said. "Everyone clearly identifies themselves as part of Beth Am and is concerned about the well-being of the entire community."
This "breakaway that didn't break away" influenced others that wanted to mimic its success. Rembaum said he receives calls from around the country asking for advice.
But the lay-led Library Minyan was not entirely unique. Its creation coincided with the creation of other chavurot -- small prayer groups -- that served as inspiration. For example, when Kelman left for Northern California in 1984, he went on to help start a Conservative minyan in Berkeley in 1988. By 1992 that community, now known as Netivot Shalom, grew to 200 families, and Kelman moved from part-time rabbi to full time, although the synagogue, in the spirit of the Library Minyan, was not "rabbi-centric."
"The way we made decisions at the Library Minyan was very much the way I decided to let the congregation here make decisions in terms of halachic process," said Kelman, who retired last June, handing over the reigns of a synagogue with 350-unit members to a new rabbi.
But nothing remains new forever. Those fiery Jews at the beginning of their careers have risen to the top (Ellenson is now president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Dorff is rector the American Jewish University, Rachel Adler, the main character of Freedman's chapter on the minyan, is now a leading feminist scholar).
And in the last decade or so, the Library Minyan has gained a reputation as an intellectual sanctuary -- but some shul-shoppers have expressed concerns about the "cliquish" feeling of the minyan.
The membership is aware of this sentiment and addresses it in a note on their Web site, under FAQ: "I don't know anybody, and everyone seems to know everyone else -- how come the minyan is so unfriendly?" it asks. The answer: "We hope the minyan isn't unfriendly -- we want you to introduce yourself, and let us get to know you, so you can answer this question to the next person who comes around...."
Another criticism is that for some, what once was spiritual innovation has now become rote.
"The davening is not particularly inspired, and the talk isn't either," said one long-time member who recently began looking for other places to occasionally go to pray. "It's a great place to go schmooze about serious intellectual matters ... it's a very comfortable, haimish and stimulating setting, in the informal sense."
In 1999 a dozen people -- some from the Library Minyan, some from the Orthodox, hippie-ish Happy Minyan, some from the liberally Orthodox B'nai David-Judea -- formed the Shtibl Minyan, a neo-Chasidic, Carlebach-style, fully egalitarian, lay-led prayer group.
"We all wanted our own davening community...we were all unhappy with the general edifice complex of the Jewish community," Rachel Lawson, a founding member of Shtibl wrote in an essay about Shtibl to be printed in the "Festschrift," a commemorative book on the Library Minyan created for its anniversary weekend.
Titled, "There Are Many Doors in God's Palace," it was compiled by Michael Berenbaum, professor of theology at the American Jewish University and a member of the Library Minyan for the last decade, and Rabbi Mitch Malkus, Pressman Academy education director. It will include three histories of the Library Minyan (by Rabbis Pressman, Rembaum and Kelman); essays from leaders of other Beth Am minyanim (Netter, Greyber); a reprint of Sam Freedman's chapter with an appendix on the recent debate over gays; and contributions from leaders of other local prayer groups influenced by the Library Minyan, such as the Shtibl and Ikar.
"The impetus behind beginning the Library Minyan is certainly similar to what drove the beginning of Ikar and many new minyanim and communities," said Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar, an independent, egalitarian spiritual community founded in 2004. "Even though the structure and spirit of the Library Minyan and Ikar differ, what drives both is a really strong sense that Jews need to be engaged in a much deeper and more personal way than many can access in a conventional institution."
What Ikar has in common with the Library Minyan, Berenbaum explains, is that both are "an expression of liberal Jews that do not seek the cathedral-like service that has been associated with Conservative Judaism." Berenbaum, executive editor of the recently released "Encyclopedia Judaica," hopes this commemorative publication eventually will be turned into a book. "I hope it would be read by people contemplating new liberal services that would say something of the nature of the 21st century 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.