The return of Jewish prayer


As the perceptive people at the blog Jewschool note, the article in Wednesday’s Washington Post on alternative prayer services was smartly done but it did not advance the story much beyond a New York Times article on the same subject in 2007. Here is the lead of the Post story:

Gathering in group homes and college dormitories, in rural woods and apartment buildings, a growing number of young Jews are spurning traditional synagogues and forming worship communities that blend ancient traditions with modern values in ways that religion scholars say could redefine American Judaism.

The Times story had a slower lead but made much of the same point. Here is how it began:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 – There are no pews at Tikkun Leil Shabbat, no rabbis, no one with children or gray hair.

Instead, one rainy Friday night, the young worshipers sat in concentric circles in the basement of an office building, damp stragglers four deep against the walls. In the middle, Megan Brudney and Rob Levy played guitar, drums and sang, leading about 120 people through the full Shabbat liturgy in Hebrew.

Without a building and budget, Tikkun Leil Shabbat is one of the independent prayer groups, or minyanim, that Jews in their 20s and 30s have organized in the last five years in at least 27 cities around the country. They are challenging traditional Jewish notions of prayer, community and identity.

Jewschool points out that the Post story does include the new fact that the organized Jewish community is taking these groups more seriously and is even providing funding for some of their activities in the old logic of if-you-can’t-beat-’em-co-opt them.

I liked the Post story but was a bit uneasy with the occasional lack of attribution, like this claim: “Analysts estimate that about 20,000 Jews attend the unconventional services each week.” That’s a number that seems wildly inflated to me so I’d like to know who the analysts are.

On the plus side, it is always good to revisit these trends and give them a local angle. I’m not sure I agree with the Post that these independent prayer groups are poised to “redefine American Judaism” but they are certainly worth watching.

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  • Mark Byron

    It looks a lot like the emerging-church meme in evangelical circles, except Jewish. For instance, you could swap Jew and Judaism for Christian and Christianity in the first except and have a decent into to an emerging-church piece.

    The emerging-church touches on a post-modern vibe in modern culture among young adults, and this seems to hit a similar spot for young Jews or Jewish-friendly folks.

  • str1977

    “There are no pews at Tikkun Leil Shabbat, no rabbis, no one with children or gray hair.”

    If ever one needed proof that the NYT does not truly mean diversity when it cheers diversity.

  • Dave

    Reminds me of the moments in the Sixties when folks with guitars were going to change the meaning of Catholic.

  • KRG

    I think that this is a version of the “when Time prints it, it’s all over” phenom.

    I just wonder what will happen when some of us who love community, meaningful davening, and are committed to observance (meaning Jewish law, and not just showing up for shul once a week) actually start to get gray hair and have children. At Shtibl in LA< it was accommodated, but over time, it’s gotten more like a regular synagogue, and less like an indie one. Same with Sharon Brous’ project in LA – more synagogue like.

    Just sayin’