November 1, 2007
A pioneering minyan celebrates double chai birthday
(Page 3 - Previous Page)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."