Parashat Vayetzei: Towards Bigger, Happier Tents
Yehuda Kurtzer is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program (Class 15). He is Visiting Professor of Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis University, and a co-coordinator of the Independent Minyan Conference. Yehuda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The juxtaposition of Noah and Abraham as adjoining narratives in the Torah makes for a clear study in contrasts. Both represent paradigms of obedience: Noah acts as the sole obedient listener to God in the antedeluvian world and as the result is the sole survivor; Abraham heeds God’s call to move from the known place to the unknown, from comfort to wilderness. But the comparison ends when we introduce the lens of fate and destiny. Noah’s obedience becomes arresting and stagnant, as he emerges from the narrative the relic of a failed time, meritorious perhaps in his generation but not beyond; in his intoxicated and discombobulated state after emerging from the claustrophobia of months at sea, the Torah renders him a creature whose sole function appears to be the genetic link for humankind between the first created Man and the generations that follow.
Abraham, in contrast, may follow God’s command in leaving his home — but all the while creates his own destiny and legacy. His life-story is one of creation and covenant, promise and fulfillment. He represents the ultimate paradigm for innovation, one who pursues his ambition while still guided by divine promise and a sense of calling. He may be a hero on a quest, but he still maintains his fidelity to his origins and sense of purpose.
It is tempting, if perhaps a bit self-serving, to use this paradigm in thinking about the recent Independent Minyan Conference held in Boston (coincidentally, the conference was on Shabbat Parshat Lech Lecha). The metaphor of the pursuit of new ventures and new terrain – and yet ultimately a quest for a sense of place – surely resonates deeply with all who try to go out on their own and bring about change in their world, whether in the independent minyan scene or beyond. But there is an even more suggestive metaphor from later in the parsha that is useful in thinking about what these minyanim represent and what message, writ large, they may have to share with the Jewish institutional world.
After arriving in Canaan, Abraham and Lot find themselves inhabiting too-close quarters. This seems altogether unnecessary in the wake of the new and available lands at their disposal, and so Abraham – in a moment of prescience and pluralism – pauses to contest the human combative instinct and merely offers to spread out. You go hither and I will go yon, not as a gesture of alienation from one another but so that we may all grow and succeed, that the entirety of the world be filled with the knowledge and service of God. There may be times for territorial disputes and conquests, as Abraham’s subsequent battles with the local kings demonstrate; but there are also countless opportunities to share the big tent, and even to expand its parameters.
Although the proliferation of the independent congregations in North America and Israel in the past 10 years has been largely welcomed with support and enthusiasm by the larger Jewish community, there have been moments and echoes of deep dissent against this trend – no doubt the manifestation of the combative and territorial instinct. The only response is to be as big-tent as possible, to continue to build community in the belief that the more options that are available for community, prayer and practice the more Jews will take part in participating in and owning their Jewish lives. This conference attempted to clarify and articulate this response by means of a four-day conference that consisted of two separate components. The closed portion of the conference held on Shabbat and Sunday consisted of intense conversations among minyan leaders and founders from 32 different communities. The Shabbat experience was designed to build some sense of community across the roughly 90 participants, with several options for tefillot to approximate some of the diversity of the choices made by the participating congregations. Shabbat meals and learning programs cultivated a sense of shared understanding and set the stage for a series of intense panel discussions on subjects like rabbis and authority, age-diversity, managing pluralistic communities, and gender after egalitarianism. A participant list with virtually all minyan leaders provided a unique opportunity for the conference planners, as rather than structuring content to be provided to the participants, the sessions merely had to introduce a topic and almost immediately a learning environment organically ensued.
By Sunday, the group was ready for a work-day and to engage with some of the more practical issues and challenges faced by different minyanim. A brainstorming exercise and breakout sessions provided a context for the congregations to share their experiences and collectively problem-solve, to turn the ongoing networking conversation into actual exchanges of ideas. The afternoon consisted of 10 workshops led by experts from within the conference community as well as some outside recruits, on subjects such as marketing, fundraising, and teaching davening skills. And on Monday, the conference moved to Brandeis and opened its doors to the public to ask some of the bigger and broader questions raised by this phenomenon, to consider its ramifications for contemporary Jewish life. The day at Brandeis featured a dazzling array of presenters from the worlds of minyan leadership, Jewish communal and professional leadership, and the academy. One exceptional highlight was a series of short reflections by Jonathan Sarna, Sylvia Barack Fishman, Art Green and Elie Kaunfer that closed the conference. As inevitably happens at successful such events, the conference introduced as many questions as it answered. Among the lingering issues are whether this “independent minyan scene” reflects any sort of shared ideology, or is more a reflection of a shared structural and infrastructural ethos; what the proliferation of these minyanim mean for existing synagogues; and how these minyanim, with their shoestring budgets and no professional staff, will provide for the pastoral needs of their participants. The schedule for the Monday portion, and audio of the sessions, is now online at www.mechonhadar.org/imconference.
In reflecting on the experience of organizing the conference and looking back at its accomplishments, it is striking quite how many silos were linked to create the program and how powerfully effective Jewish social, philanthropic and professional networks served to strengthen the program. The conference was planned and organized by Mechon Hadar (an organization committed to supporting the work of new minyanim which was founded by Wexner alumni Elie Kaunfer, Ethan Tucker and Shai Held), and by the Bronfman Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis which I currently hold. The conference was funded by a generous grant from the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, and featured Wexner alumni presenters Liz Sacks, Jon Levisohn and Beth Cousens. Minyanim participated from as far west as Los Angeles and as far east as Jerusalem.
And yet mercifully, even with the all the processes of centralization and coordination that go into bringing these groups and networks in dialogue with each other, no concrete or even abstract discussion emerged to think of these congregations as a movement or denomination; and even more mercifully, no meaningful answer emerged as to the future of this phenomenon. If these minyanim reflect a changing approach to the territory on which Jewish creativity might emerge, an appreciation of the size of the tent and the fertility of the ground from which innovation might grow, there may be no need for endgame planning. Our hope, I think, is that we use moments like these to think as big as possible; and to recognize that at the limits of our own imagination lays the beginning of the imagination of those that will follow us.