The Independent Minyan and Havurah Phenomena

Everything old is new again.

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San Francisco's Mission District has its first new Jewish community in almost a decade. With the appearance of the Mission Minyan in 2005, the neighborhood has emerged as a bustling center of Jewish community for young adults in their 20s and 30s. In less than a year, the Mission Minyan grew from a small group that met in someone's living room into a thriving community. Today, the Women's Building, a multi-cultural community center in the area, hosts more than 120 young adults for volunteer-led Friday night services each week.  

jewish man davening

Courtesy of egalitarianminyan.org

The emergence of this community is not unique to the early 21st century. In the 1960s and 1970s, young adults were similarly creating independent, lay-led prayer communities, which they called havurot. Initiated by baby boomers, then in their 20s and 30s, havurot were that generation's effort to create Jewish communities that reflected their values and lifestyles. 

Nor is this type of gathering unique to San Francisco. In the past decade, Jewish post-boomers (contemporary young adults in their 20s and 30s) have founded more than 48 independent minyanim across the U.S. They are located in cities of all sizes, from those with the largest Jewish populations like New York City, to those with smaller Jewish populations, like Denver and Phoenix. Because of their independence from mainstream Jewish institutions and lack of denominational affiliation, these communities have come to be called independent minyanim.

What Drives People to Pray?

To gain insight into this expression of Jewish identity and community, I conducted an ethnographic examination of the Mission Minyan. I added quantitative data to my study using sociologist Steven Cohen's 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study, a survey of more than 800 participants in independent spiritual communities, which includes responses from 61 Mission Minyan participants.

When examining the Mission Minyan in relation to other independent minyanim, a number of salient themes emerge, including the desire for authenticity, a focus on gender roles, and independence from the denominational movements. These themes also resonated in the havurah communities of the 1970s. Drawing a comparison between contemporary independent minyanim and havurot in decades past can highlight significant continuities and differences in the ways that young adults create Jewish identity and community.

In both havurot and independent minyanim, participants tended to be highly educated, Ashkenazic, heterosexual, middle class, and in their 20s and 30s. In both populations, participants had varying degrees of Jewish education and affiliation growing up. In both, individuals with the most Jewish education (or those with a strong desire to learn) emerged as core participants and leaders. Yet their access to Jewish education differed significantly. Since the 1970s, there has been a proliferation of Jewish educational opportunities in the U.S. to which women and girls have had unprecedented access. So both young men and women in independent minyanim have been exposed to more Jewish education than their counterparts in havurot.  

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Tobin Belzer

Tobin Belzer, Ph.D., is a sociologist of American Jewry at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. This research was made possible by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.