Elie Kaunfer knows what's ailing American Jewry and he has the cure. Kaunfer, a dynamic young rabbi, named in 2009 to Newsweek's list of 50 most influential rabbis in the US, is cofounder of several successful ventures in Jewish living, beginning with Minyan Hadar in 2000. What he calls "Empowered Judaism," could also be termed engaged or serious Judaism, a Judaism whose practitioners are fluent in Hebrew and conversant in the Tanakh, the Talmud and the other sources of the Jewish tradition and are able to study them and draw upon them on a daily basis for their own personal growth and the benefit of their communities. The lack of such individuals has been a serious weakness of the non-Orthodox movements for generations and Kaunfer and his visionary cohort of teachers and rabbinic leaders have undertaken to address this deficiency in American Jewish life. The book under review begins with Kaunfer’s personal spiritual quest, but centers mainly on his involvement with Minyan Hadar and Yeshivat Hadar. Minyan Hadar is an extraordinarily successful independent minyan that meets weekly on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Totally egalitarian and featuring a full traditional davening, it has succeeded and runs services marked by spirited singing and a consistently high level of quality in prayer leading and Torah reading. Kaunfer offers an account of how this was achieved and his group’s experiences are instructive and worthy of study and emulation. There have been many spinoffs in the last decade and his latest venture is Yeshivat Hadar, the first fully egalitarian Yeshiva in North America. The yeshiva and its talented staff model Judaism at its best―dedicated to serious worship, study and social action, in an open, non-judgmental, environment dedicated to free enquiry and embracing the findings of academic scholarship in a fully egalitarian setting. Kaunfer’s book belongs in every Jewish synagogue, school and JCC library and should be read by every rabbi and Federation leader. Its message is timely and deserves to be widely disseminated.
(ASSOCIATION OF JEWISH LIBRARIES
Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities discusses why thousands of young Jews have started over sixty new prayer communities across the country, growing an independent minyan movement as a solution to Jewish problems and concerns. These approaches to enlightened spirituality embrace Jewish learning and technology as well as more effective leadership examples, making this a pick not only for Jewish collections, but for any serious spirituality collection.
I'm reading the short excerpt from Elie Kaunfer's book Empowered Judaism in the New York Jewish Week of April 9. The excerpt begins with this:
The false crisis―declining Jewish continuity, caused by assimilation and an intermarriage rate of 52 percent―has become the rallying cry of institutional Judaism. But fundamentally, it is a red herring. The real crisis is one of meaning and engagement. For the first time in centuries, two Jews can marry each other and have Jewish children without any connection to Jewish heritage, wisdom or tradition.
My first reaction to Kaunfer's argument that the key is peer engagement and intellectually rigorous study is "Right on!" After all, that's been my life in the Jewish world. Though I did train as a Jewish academic, my main Jewish experiences have been informal study in a havurah and in people's homes in Boston, Jerusalem and Cleveland. But then I realize that Kaunfer isn't speaking for all Jews. When he says "Even people who are in-married by and large have little connection to Torah, Jewish practice and values," I think that "even" is too much of a concession to the (strictly biological) continuity fallacy. I've seen in this work how many intermarried Jews and their partners become more engaged with Jewish life because they have to do something different in order to raise Jewish children. (Not that there's only one experience of interfaith marriage, of course.) I agree that who we marry isn't the sole determinant of what we have to pass down as Jewish religion and culture to our children―it's only one piece. That "even" sticks out, a little pebble in my shoe.
Further, though, for all of us who love a good group of people sitting around with texts and dictionaries arguing over what some words mean, there are people who aren't so interested in words. They want to bake bread, or dance, or do something with their hands. They like to sing or they like the gossip in the hallway or the kitchen of the synagogue. (Well, who doesn't? That's where you find out everything important.) I remember when my havurah did a lot of "movement midrash," dance interpretations of the Torah portion. I found it uncomfortable and felt silly trying to do it, but it drew in some people who became very committed Jews―because they liked to dance.
In essence, I agree with Kaunfer―we shouldn't dumb down Judaism, we need more empowered Jewish education and the best way to make sure that we have a very stimulating Jewish life is to take it into our own hands. I like Kaunfer's model of the do-in-yourself, small, modular minyan; that's how I've chosen to live. I'm just not ready to believe that everyone in the Jewish community has the same background, needs, learning style or tastes as I do.
(Ruth Abrams Interfaithfamily.com
In the book, Empowered Judaism by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Rabbi Kaunfer posits that the real crisis is one of meaning and engagement. Jews and their family members, whether Jewish or not, often find it difficult to connect to the community, Torah, Jewish practice or values. As Kaunfer writes: "They are dependent on others to translate Judaism for them, and they trudge to High Holy Day services to receive the requisite "be good!" sermons, only to return to their lives unchallenged and unchanged. They have been sold a world in which Judaism is a bunch of platitudes, at best matching their existing modern liberal values (but adding nothing beyond what they already know), and at worst completely irrelevant to the struggles they experience day to day. Who can blame these Jews for disengaging with Judaism?" (p. 157)
Rabbi Kaunfer rightly points out that people want deep meaning and connection, “but they move through life thinking of Judaism's contribution to the world as Seinfeld and guilt. Many would be shocked to find out that Judaism has vigorous debates about the most central existential problems facing people today.” (p. 158)
Over the next months and years, our community (The Lake Norman Jewish Congregation) will make defining choices that will determine whether we will be a community that seeks to uncover the power and mystery of tradition firsthand, or one that embraces the superficial platitudes that dominate many liberal Jewish congregations.
When we refuse to undersell and water down our Judaism and instead reinvigorate it by building a more educated, more engaged, more inspired, we will recognize that a new Jewish world is possible. We will have the imagination and vision to move beyond a simplistic and anemic “survival” mentality to an Empowered Judaism.
(LAKE NORMAN RABBI BLOG
Empowered Judaism, the title of a new book by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, has become a generational watchword for those watching the growth of the Independent Minyan movement. I'm going to be discussing this book on Shabbat morning, reacting to some of its more challenging assertions. You can read an excerpt, entitled: "The Real Crisis In American Judaism." Also see: "Minyans, Synagogues In New Dynamic," "Get Serious About Your Jewish Life: An Interview with Elie Kaunfer," and Rabbi Gordon Tucker's Rebuke To Kaunfer (it is noteworthy that Rabbi Tucker's son Ethan is a partner of Kaunfer's in the Indie Minyan movement).
I take Kaunfer's challenges seriously, though, like Tucker, I find his critique of the traditional synagogue weak. There is no question that there is much that is good about synagogue life but also that there is much that should change. But having grown up Jewishly under the tutelage of Elie Kaunfer's parents (his mom was my all time favorite Hebrew School teacher), I take his words especially seriously. They challenge not only the ways of the large synagogue, but also those of the small havurah groups that have proliferated over the past generation. Having met last week with JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen and fellow rabbis of the Chancellor's Leadership Council, I know that there is much work to be done in revitalizing the synagogue.
I look forward to an interesting discussion of the topic at services this Shabbat.
(Joshua Hammerman On One Foot: Joshua Hammerman's Blog
Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities, by Elie Kaunfer. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2010. $18.99. 196 pp. ISBN 978-1-58023-412-2.
Thousands of young Jews, otherwise unengaged with formal Jewish life, have started more than sixty prayer communities across the United States. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer examines the independent minyan movement and its relevant lessons on prayer, community organizing and volunteer leadership and how they impact wider issues in American Judaism.
Probably when the first synagogue was established, which may have occurred sometime between 200 BCE and 70 CE, a sizable percentage of Jews who attended the services objected to something they saw or heard. This is human nature. Whenever a large group is involved in something, many will dislike what they see and hear. Thus, for example, the president of the United States is considered to be well liked if 60 percent of Americans favor him.
This disapproval of the synagogue services frequently happened for good reasons. Many people recognized that the way that the services were conducted failed to satisfy a large percentage of the attendees. As a result, the alienation from the synagogue and from Judaism is large, and the intermarriage rate among Jews is over fifty percent. Thus, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer's book about creating minyanim, prayer groups, that are relevant and that interest congregants is important.
Rabbi Kaunfer readily admits everyone will not agree with his concerns or his solutions; in fact different minyanim have different solutions. This is fine. What is significant is that the rabbi is trying to do something about this Jewish problem. Even if readers may disagree with some of his answers, they will still be stimulated by the concerns he raises and encouraged to act when they read his ideas.
Rabbi Kaunfer notes that "more than sixty independent minyanim have been started in the past ten years" and more than 20,000 Jews in their twenties and early thirties are involved. He describes how the groups differ from each other in their approaches to the community, to prayer and to Jewish life. Each seeks its own way to find meaning, how to answer critical life questions, and how to increase the engagement of Jews in the services.
Should a synagogue have a cantor? Are peer-led services better than having a rabbi? Should congregants rush through prayers? How much English makes the services relevant? Does too much English make the prayers non-Jewish? How do people add spiritual meaning to a service? How do we define "spiritual"? How do we create a sense of community? How can a congregation increase the number and percentage of satisfied attendees? How are boundaries set while, at the same time, being open?
Rabbi Kaunfer describes how the minyanim used volunteers, including people who read from the Torah scroll. He tells how they balanced tradition and creativity in their egalitarian services, including adding prayers about women, and how the group taught melodies to people who did not know them so that they would participate in the services, and how the sermon is limited to five minutes.
One chapter of the book describes seven minyanim in the US and in Israel, their concerns and how they resolved them. Another addresses Rabbi Kaunfer's key interest, the creation of "a meaningful, spiritual prayer experience, and offers a couple of dozen ways that minyan attendees can reach this goal. Still another describes Yeshivat Hadar, an egalitarian school that he and others established to teach Judaism in 2006.
(Israel Drazin The Jewish Eye
It is suprising that a book by a recently ordained rabbi on how to create a davening community should have had such an impact in so short a time. Rabbi Kaunfer, ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary; a founder of Kehilat Hadar, arguably the most popular informal minyan on Manhattan's Upper West Side; and more recently of Yeshivat Hadar, a full-time egalitarian study program, has become the guru for a widespread community of (mostly) young Jews who are in search of a meaningful davening experience. This is a practical guide on how to navigate the tensions inevitably created by the formation of what Kaunfer calls "independent" minyanim―independent in the sense that they have no affiliation with any of the established movements. Organized and led by volunteers, they were founded within the past 10 years (which distinguishes them from the chavurah movement) and meet at least once a month.
Kaunfer is well aware of the controversial nature of his proposals but he argues forcefully that these minyanim ultimately will strengthen the more conventional communal institutions. One thing is clear: For far too long, these conventional institutions fostered a sense of infantilization on the part of their membership. Kaunfer's plea for an empowered laity should be heeded. (See Rabbi Kaunfer’s discussion of empowered Judaism on page 39).
(Conservative Judaism Journal
Most work days, I don't leave my office. There are some days, however, when I need an extra boost of energy, so I'll head out mid-day for a brisk walk or a fresh salad. Last week, that boost came in the form of The Wexner Foundation's Lunch & Learn with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer.
Wow, what a refreshing and invigorating lunch break! The Wexner conference room was bustling with fellows and alumni from the Graduate Fellowship and Heritage programs―many new faces alongside some I hadn’t seen in a while. We went around the room and conference line with introductions and I was reminded, yet again, what an amazing privilege and blessing it is to be part of the Wexner community.
Discussing his new book, Empowered Judaism, Elie traced the history and evolution of the Hadar Minyan and Yeshivat Hadar, and shared broader lessons for engaging young people in education, prayer, and community. Two lessons that particularly resonated with me: young people gravitate towards opportunities in which they can create or shape their own experiences, and our core commitment must be to the success and growth of people rather than institutions.
As with any provocative presentation, I left with more questions than answers. And as with any Wexner-sponsored gathering, I left recharged and eager to contribute my ideas and energy to building a strong, sustainable (and now that I have the language for it, empowered) Jewish community.
(The Wexner Foundation
Unity is a powerful tool for faith. Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities discusses how scattered Jews across the United States have formed their own prayer circles away from traditional synagogues. Rabbi Elie Kaunfer discusses how the faith has adapted to these groups, and how they affect American Judaism as a whole. Empowered Judaism is a highly fascinating addition to any Judaic studies collection.
"Rabbi Elie Kaunfer has emerged as an insistent and compelling voice for enhanced Jewish life in the twenty-first century. The minyanim of which he speaks are symbolic of a deeper vision: an entire community that is empowered, knowledgeable and committed to the richness of the Jewish tradition. Nothing short of a manifesto for the next generation, a challenge to the Jewish community about what we are likely to fall into by default if we do not take Kaunfer's book seriously."
―Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, professor of liturgy, worship and ritual, Hebrew Union College; cofounder, Synagogue 3000; editor, My People's Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries series
"Taps into the spiritual yearning of a generation that hungers for a Jewish religious practice that is rich, meaningful and unapologetic. Captures the remarkable phenomenon of a newly emergent movement to reclaim vibrancy and vitality in Jewish life. [An] important and valuable contribution to the Jewish future."
―Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder, IKAR
“Remarkable.… A 'must read’ for people trying to understand this vital new phenomenon as well as for individuals seeking to connect to Judaism in a new way―be they lay people, scholars or leaders of the American Jewish community.”
―Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, founding president, Jewish Life Network; founding president, CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership
“This is no ordinary book. This is a call to revolution … a passionate and brilliant manifesto [that] sets out a new course for Jewish life in America…. For an American Jewish community despairing of its future, this book is a prophecy of hope and new vision.”
―Rabbi Edward Feinstein, editor, Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century: Human Responsibility, the Presence of God and the Future of the Covenant
“This moving book reveals a critical new development in the lives of younger American Jews. Not often does one have the opportunity to read such an inside story on dramatically positive Jewish history in the making. Elie Kaunfer’s vivid account of participating in the creation of Mechon Hadar, an 'Independent Congregation’ community that fosters Jewish liturgical and intellectual rigor, egalitarian ethics and group responsibility, and spirituality at the same time is compelling. His analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of conventional American Jewish congregations is spot-on, and will surely provoke lively and important conversations within and outside those congregations. Equally gripping is Kaunfer’s own story of initial resistance to encounters with the Divine, and his eventual immersion into a passionately religious path of Jewishness.”
―Sylvia Barack Fishman, chair, Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and professor of contemporary Jewish life, Brandeis University; author, The Way Into the Varieties of Jewishness
“A roadmap to the future. His incisive understanding of the mindset of early twenty-first-century Jews (especially young ones) informs this accessible and eloquent treatise on building resonant, inspired communities. Kaunfer argues persuasively that transformations in contemporary culture mandate changes in Jewish communal and spiritual structures―and that such innovations have always been integral to the evolution of the Jewish people.”
―Felicia Herman, executive director, The Natan Fund
“Accessible yet sophisticated…. The practical suggestions about worship are valuable not only to the world of independent minyanim but to synagogue minyanim and sanctuary services as well…. Will challenge both those who want to follow in Kaunfer’s footsteps and those who disagree with him.”
―Rabbi David A. Teutsch, Wiener Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; editor, Kol Haneshamah Prayerbook series; author, Spiritual Community: The Power to Restore Hope, Commitment and Joy
“Practical, highly readable…. Read this book to understand the spiritual impulses of a generation of seekers who are not ready to give up tradition and not ready to give up on their own empowerment within Judaism either.”
―Dr. Erica Brown, author, Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism and Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities
“Takes us on an inspiring insiders’ guided tour of the new independent minyan phenomenon, which is rejuvenating the Jewish landscape. Egalitarian, joyous, upbeat, participatory, spiritually alive―no wonder young people find a home in the minyanim! Enjoy this testimony to the vitality of Jewish life and the enthusiasm of young people to make it their own.”
―Rabbi Marcia Prager, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal; author, The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine
“Essential reading for anyone interested in twenty-first-century life of Jewish prayer, study and community…. A great read and a wonderful contribution to the Jewish bookshelf.”
―Riv-Ellen Prell, professor of American studies, University of Minnesota; author, Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism
About the Author
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, named one of the top fifty Jewish leaders by The Forward, and one of Newsweek's top fifty rabbis, is cofounder and executive director of Mechon Hadar (www.mechonhadar.org), an institute that empowers Jews to build vibrant Jewish communities. Mechon Hadar has launched the first full-time egalitarian yeshiva program in North America, Yeshivat Hadar (www.yeshivathadar.org), where Rabbi Kaunfer teaches Talmud. A Dorot Fellow and Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Kaunfer cofounded Kehilat Hadar (www.kehilathadar.org), an independent minyan in Manhattan committed to spirited traditional prayer, study and social action. He was selected as an inaugural Avi Chai Fellow, known as "The Jewish Genius Award."
Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and director of its Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. He is author of American Judaism: A History, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, among other books.