The Independent Minyan and Havurah Phenomena

Everything old is new again.

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The Aesthetics of the Prayer Service

Individuals in both groups were motivated by the desire to participate in prayer services they found personally meaningful. How that desire manifested in each group, however, was very different.

In her book Prayer and Community (1989), Riv-Ellen Prell describes how havurah participants engaged in a process of reflection about the meaning of the prayers in order to establish a personal connection with the Shabbat service. They sometimes changed the traditional liturgy and incorporated the use of both English and Hebrew in an effort to make prayer relevant to their contemporary lives.

In contrast to havurot, most independent minyanim tend to conduct services with an emphasis on Hebrew. For many participants in independent minyanim, authenticity comes from a feeling of connection to history that is evoked through their use of traditional liturgy.  

A Search for Meaning

While havurah participants brought relevance to their prayer by integrating contemporary music, art, and culture into the service, participants in independent minyanim integrate contemporary music of another sort. Many, including the Mission Minyan, use Hasidic-style melodies composed by Shlomo Carlebach, a 20th-century charismatic Orthodox rabbi and singer/songwriter. The incorporation of Hasidic-style music (however contemporary) is a way that participants further experience a connection to tradition.

Like members of havurot, participants in independent minyanim endeavor to incorporate their contemporary values into the service with regard to women's roles. The Mission Minyan community employs various strategies to address participants' both progressive and traditional ideals in terms of gender. Those participants who observe halakhah (Jewish law) require separate seating for men and women. For those who are uncomfortable with gender segregation, mixed seating is important. To address the differing needs of community members, the seating on Saturday mornings is arranged as a "tri-chitzah," with a men's section and a women's section that are separated by mixed gender seating in the middle. 

Other independent minyanim are also experimenting with this seating style, while others have a more traditional mechitzah, and still others have mixed seating. At havurot, mixed seating was the norm, reflecting their views about how to enact egalitarianism. 

Counterculture/Subculture

Because it was purposely positioned outside of mainstream institutions, the havurah phenomenon was often referred to as the Jewish counterculture. Participants published books and articles criticizing American Judaism. They also spoke publically and even organized sit-in style protests, critiquing the Federation system for what they perceived as its imitation of Protestant, middle-class values. 

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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.

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