Empow­ered Judaism: What Inde­pen­dent Minyan­im Can Teach Us about Build­ing Vibrant Jew­ish Communities

  • Review
By – August 25, 2011
Accord­ing to one of the con­trib­u­tors cit­ed by Rab­bi Elie Kaun­fer in his excel­lent new book, Empow­ered Judaism, Describ­ing [inde­pen­dent minyan­im] remains chal­leng­ing even today, because just as every Israelite at Sinai is said to have received the Torah dif­fer­ent­ly, each of our par­tic­i­pants has his or her own per­spec­tive on what makes the com­mu­ni­ty vibrant and spe­cial.” Nonethe­less, Empow­ered Judaism sets out to do just that, describ­ing the inde­pen­dent minyan phe­nom­e­non on a gen­er­a­tional, com­mu­nal and indi­vid­ual lev­el. The gen­er­a­tion of Jews cur­rent­ly in their twen­ties and thir­ties, Rab­bi Kaun­fer con­vinc­ing­ly and cogent­ly argues, inter­prets Judaism in a way that is unique from Jews of oth­er gen­er­a­tions through the lens of egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, Israel, effec­tive Jew­ish edu­ca­tion, a desire for spir­i­tu­al­ism in com­mu­nal wor­ship, and oth­er key fac­tors. More­over, each indi­vid­ual com­mu­ni­ty (and indeed, indi­vid­u­als with­in each of these com­mu­ni­ties) finds with­in the defin­ing struc­ture of the inde­pen­dent minyan a spe­cif­ic bal­ance and con­stel­la­tion of beliefs and prac­tices that reflects its own com­po­si­tion and val­ues. 

Empow­ered Judaism alter­nates effec­tive­ly between the descrip­tive and pre­scrip­tive. It mov­ing­ly describes the pro­found effects that inde­pen­dent minyan­im have had on the indi­vid­ual and on the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, using the exam­ple of the com­mu­ni­ty that Rab­bi Kaun­fer helped cre­ate, Kehi­lat Hadar on the Upper West Side of New York City. Rab­bi Kaun­fer explains both the val­ues that ani­mat­ed the deci­sion to estab­lish Hadar and, crit­i­cal­ly, the imple­men­ta­tion of these val­ues to form a coher­ent and vibrant com­mu­ni­ty. He does not shy away from describ­ing the dif­fi­cult deci­sions that were made by the founders, nor the com­pro­mis­es that those deci­sions inflict­ed on the some­time con­flict­ing val­ues ani­mat­ing the estab­lish­ment of the minyan. He also per­sua­sive­ly responds oth­er Jew­ish insti­tu­tions’ reac­tions to, and crit­i­cisms of, the inde­pen­dent minyan phe­nom­e­non. While Rab­bi Kaun­fer per­haps gives some­what short shrift to the influ­ences ear­li­er move­ments have had on the evo­lu­tion of the inde­pen­dent minyan­im, he does offer a brief overview of his­tor­i­cal trends that is use­ful in under­stand­ing how these minyan­im have come to be. 

The book then moves into the realm of the pre­scrip­tive, offer­ing prac­ti­cal advice to future inde­pen­dent minyan orga­niz­ers. Rab­bi Kaun­fer gives sol­id advice on start­ing one’s own prayer com­mu­ni­ty and then goes a step fur­ther to con­sid­er how Jews become empow­ered” — through com­mu­nal learn­ing and spir­i­tu­al explo­ration — and what this type of empow­er­ment offers to a pop­u­la­tion hun­ger­ing for a deep­er and more pro­found con­nec­tion to Judaism. Crit­i­cal­ly, Rab­bi Kaun­fer effec­tive­ly tack­les the now what” ques­tion — what effect inde­pen­dent minyan­im can have on the larg­er Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, and what will hap­pen to mem­bers of these com­mu­ni­ties as they begin to have fam­i­lies and move out of the urban cen­ters that gen­er­al­ly are the locus of this new type of com­mu­ni­ty. If Rab­bi Kaun­fer is right, and these minyan­im, devel­oped in reac­tion to the unique upbring­ing, cul­ture and his­tor­i­cal moment that shaped today’s young adults, are the begin­ning of a rein­vig­o­ra­tion of Jew­ish learn­ing and activism, his most impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion is not the book itself but rather his engage­ment with this vibrant pop­u­la­tion and the move­ment inspired by his efforts to teach and to lead.

Read Elie Kaun­fer­’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Syn­a­gogues and Set­tle­ments

Why Bake Your Own Matzah?

Imag­ine You Don’t Know How To Read A Novel

Ilana Fried­man Ehrlich grad­u­at­ed from Barnard Col­lege in 2004. She is a reg­u­lar attendee at Kehi­lat Hadar and an attor­ney prac­tic­ing in New York City.

Discussion Questions