Religion & Beliefs

How to Kill a Minyan

My first real experience with a Jewish prayer services took place several years ago in someone’s living room where I, with little idea of what I was doing, davened and shared in a pot-luck dinner.  My then-boyfriend (who had suggested … Read More

By / December 17, 2008

My first real experience with a Jewish prayer services took place several years ago in someone’s living room where I, with little idea of what I was doing, davened and shared in a pot-luck dinner.  My then-boyfriend (who had suggested we attend) was of course late that evening, so I had to walk in alone to the small group of 20-and-30-somethings gathered for the biweekly independent egalitarian minyan – Kol haKfar. Of course, I survived that first Shabbat evening. In fact, over time, as I continued in my Jewish learning, I found myself drawn to the independent minyan scene. I generally liked the communities and felt far more comfortable in the casual nature of the davening in apartments, church basements, and parks (weather permitting) on various Friday nights.  Sure, I was utterly lost at first, but it wasn’t any better at shul.  At least at minyan some guy (after my boyfriend left for India) would more often than not lean over my shoulder to point out where we were in the service and usually ask for my number.   Being willing to travel on Shabbat opened me up to many communities (New York is great like that) which I made part of my weekly routine – Kol Zimrah, Hadar, Tikvat Yisrael, Romemu and even Altshul in Brooklyn.  Then by chance the minyan in closest proximity to my apartment, Techiyah of Harlem announced that its founders were leaving the city and the minyan was in need of administrative assistance.  Since I’m a total sucker for doing time-consuming thankless things for free, I volunteered to help out.

Minyanim typically start for a reason – people want to daven with a saxophone or do yoga before services or the founder wants to meet single women.  Minyanim fill a need in a community.  Techiyah was founded by a group of Jews living in Harlem who didn’t want to leave their neighborhood on Shabbat.  And in 2005, when the minyan began, there was small but active community in South Harlem.  The minyan thrived.  But over the years, rising real estate prices, growing families and other life changes saw a demographic shift that had a profound effect on the small minyan.  Although not lacking in people willing to attend the monthly services and potluck, the group became starved for members to volunteer and keep the minyan running. So maybe I’m Jewish enough by now to experience real Jewish guilt.  After all, I had agreed to take on a lot of the things the minyan needed to survive – and I did, without much complaint until my own life changes required me to pull back from my leadership position.  Yet there was no one to pass the reins to.  I made direct inquires to some of the more active members to see if they were willing to take on some more responsibilities without much luck.  I held a meeting and announced my withdrawal and some of the participants agreed to take on discrete tasks, but with no one to step into my organizing role thus began the awkward dance of how much I was willing to continue to do as I tried to leave.  I felt like a jerk, but taking care of other things in my life might mean I watch this minyan stumble and fall unless someone else decides to step up and keep it running.   Or perhaps the best thing is to let the minyan die out?  The lack of volunteers might be revealing not that our members are lazy, but the minyan is not fulfilling the needs of the people who attend.  As one member told me, “if I am willing to travel on Shabbat, why wouldn’t I just go somewhere else?”  Okay, maybe that is just lack of interest, but Techiyah really is a great community – babies running around, the randomness of the potluck, the intimacy of holding minyan in a home.  Yet with no one to host or lead services how can this community continue on?  It really only needs someone with a little extra time and at least a vague set of organizational skills to keep this thing limping along.  Besides, if I were kill to it – who would I tell?