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Shul Hopping: A DIY Prayer Party

For so long I hoped to find where people my age prayed. I have slowly begun to find some pieces of the answer. Much of the answer depends on demographics, both of age, but more importantly, of personality, though not necessarily level of religiosity (something which, in general, eludes easy categorization.) Many people, in a discussion about this specific question of perceived lower attendance of synagogue, explain that they want to attend synagogue for reasons of communal connection, and for the most part, too many synagogues do not offer the type of communal experience they seek. Now this might seem shallow, and largely antithetical to the ambitious poetic vision of the purpose of prayer from the bard of our penitential, supplicatory hymns, Rabbi Joshua Heschel: “Prayer must never be a citadel for selfish concerns, but rather a place for deepening concern over other people’s plight.”

However, as many sociologists point out, and we as all know intuitively, prayer matters so much because it serves as a consistent social experience centered on this more poetic vision of prayer. The ultimate goal of prayer might rest in the heart of our deepest selves, but it is through engaging our social aspects that we create an environment, a community of prayer. However, in the transition from generation to generation, we need to relearn how to create communities. The methods and the goals of the past do not necessarily translate into the proper methods and goals for this generation, and in this gap, we find creativity.

Many of my generation, feeling aloof from the classical shul experience, seek to create their own services, so a DIY (do it yourself) minyan provides the next logical step. Furthermore, weaned on an era of independence, initiative, and individuality, certain components of the classic shul experience appear outdated. The idea of a leader, of a Rabbi, feels slightly offensive to our sensibilities, or simply to our taste. We would rather listen to a peer speak about the Torah portion, or some idea, than some austere, learned, member of the clergy. In our litigious times, we barely understand the concept of authority, or feel swayed by the power of charisma. For too long, we’ve been taught to doubt, to question authority, and repeatedly we’ve been let down by politicians, by their self aggrandizement that we do not even react in shock anymore at abuse, or even proper usage of power. Similarly, as we empower the next generation in every area of life, in college, in their career, in their choices, we can expect that servility to the traditions of a older community seem less appealing than the allure of a do it yourself service.

Though not a new phenomenon, the DIY minyan serves numerous purposes. This week’s shul hop, a young DIY service of over 100 people, signified less a minyan of convenience, less a service of a statement, and more a fun environment to try on the clothes of prayer, while looking fantastic with many other attractive young people in an almost party-like environment. It’s actually quite a beautiful experience, almost a prayer party, if that makes sense.

The prayer itself in no way veers from a normal, Orthodox, Friday night experience, rather, it’s the ambiance and people that distinguishes this minyan. The service, a monthly one, takes place in the apartment of one kind family.

The home itself, a stunning, large apartment (the kitchen itself the size of my actual apartment,) with a modern décor that evinces a strong belief in spirituality, or perhaps feng shui: Kabbalistic paintings, a plethora of yoga mats and meditation pillows, the color scheme, a variation on a the theme of a deep rich red or maroon, books like the Secret or something written by Paulo Coelho, and an oddly ironic, but endearing sign in a home that relates that “home is where you are.” Also, a pink Hannah Montana acoustic guitar that truly ties the room together. Praying in a home, because of its complexities, creates a unique prayer experience.

I cannot gloss over the inherent tension in praying in a personal home. The house saps formality, perhaps purposefully so, invites distractions, and belies the idea of a synagogue as a house, specially designed and used for God. And yet, in actuality, despite all the aforementioned possible tensions, in many ways a person can feel a greater intimacy with the prayer because of the loving, home environment, which fosters the idea that we Jews love to claim as our own unique idea: that no distinction exists between the house of God and our homes.

Part of this DIY minyan entails a more explicit embrace of the butcher shop phenomenon. Many lament, as I have in the past, that certain shul experiences feels less like a service, and more like an undesired stage show in which you must wear the right clothing, talk and walk the right way, and generally please, in order to secure your dating prospects. Ironically, though some experience this feeling as claustrophobic, and hope to excise it from services, this minyan, it appears, amps it up, transcends it through explicit acceptance of its important role in our changing definition of community. I find it too easy to criticize the idea of shul as a meat market, especially when everyone is on sale, and everyone wants to be on the seller’s block. In fact, something felt downright electric about the lack of any pretenses otherwise, about the honesty in which this created community embraced the sexual electricity pulsating throughout the night.

For example, walking to the bathroom, which requires a walk through the narrow space in the front of the women’s section, in my beat up corduroys, wearing a 3 year old Old Navy sweatshirt, sweating just a bit, hair mussed and not gelled in any important way, felt like some odd Kafkaesque experience of a cat walk. Yet, I enjoyed it. Not because of my confidence in my looks, especially given my relative unkempt appearance, but because how often do we get looked at in that way these days; even if seen simply as a prospect for dating, it still counts as an acknowledgment of our existence.

Adding to this ambiance, the Carlebach style minyan, a service based on the songs and style of the controversial Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, one whose music evokes and elicits the range of emotions, including arousal (No one would think of his songs as sexy, but they are certainly emotionally liberating.) I can’t fully explain it, but something about the whole neo-Hasidic, musical, spiritual, mystical new agey feel of these services, even under the most orthodox of standards elicits a strange sexuality. Perhaps the encouragement of dancing, or perhaps its stems from the associations of new age practices like yoga, or meditation, with a more liberal sense of the body, but these type of “spiritual” minyans, ones that look to unlock something withering within us, unlock the spectrum of emotions, not just those of divinity or transcendence.

Let’s also not forget the few rounds of Smirnoff vodka for some pre and post service Kiddush, a flimsy, symbolic mechitzah in the shape of a low couch, and about 120 mostly single Upper West siders, so you can expect constant glances to the left or right, heightened levels of self-consciousness, those who get caught staring, those practiced enough almost to see through the prayer books to the cute guy or girl in the back left corner, “no, not that one, I mean, they’re cute too, but the other one, yea, that one, what’s his name and deal?” All questions that the hostess receives often and answers obligingly, with a twinge of excitement (though apparently, this service was created and is run by numerous people, not just one hostess.) Never underestimate the power felt in playing matchmaker.

Of course, I cannot speak for the motivations of each person there, nor, obviously, does the sexuality define the whole experience. People come to this minyan to feel freer, unfettered by the bounds of shul traditions like the rabbi’s speech, or the prudish divide of wooden boards; free from the glare and stares and questions of adults (“So, you married, going out with anyone, ready to date? What type of person you looking for, modern? OK, but how modern? Do you wear pants, yes, but would you ever wear skirts?” Or the kiss of death, “One day, with God’s help, by you…” or, “Do you know my grandson/daughter?”) and they come to feel uplifted, moved, empowered by the warmth of the sonic womb of harmonic, emotional singing, led by an attractive cantor with a soothing, flirtatious voice. None of these aspects clash with the more club style feel to the whole service; they cohere into a balanced whole.

Overall, despite my purposeful focus of the sexuality of the service, what stays with me is the strong desire on the part of such a devoted group of young adults, looking to create their own warm community, full of care, devotion, and kindness. In my search for the prayer services of my age, experiencing a service run completely by my peers, especially an uplifting minyan, softened my hardened heart. We are young, good (looking) people, still attached, still searching, and if we find a date, spirituality, and a bit of a party along the way, who can feel begrudged by our playfulness?

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