Nefesh Minyan: Shabbat 2.0

by Jackie Menter

We Jews are a picky people. If we don’t find what we are looking for, or don’t like what we find, we either get up and leave, complain vociferously, or do it ourselves.

This persnickety character trait explains why the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations is so numerous, with many of them seemingly redundant. Also, it reveals why within Judaism there is a full panorama of religious movements to chose from; Orthodox, Ultra Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and the list continues evolving. When I was at Brandeis there were no less than two Conservative Shabbat services to chose from: Traditional Conservative and Egalitarian Conservative. Guess which one I chose.

The Jewish quality of knowing what you want and figuring out how to make it happen is a positive trait that has kept Judaism relevant and viable. Judaism has a long history of rebels, zealots and trendsetters. I won’t bore you with my limited knowledge of Jewish history, but suffice it to say that the Jewish religion has been adapting and modifying itself to meet the circumstances of the times since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. If the Jews had maintained sacrifices at the Temple Mount as a requirement that must be fulfilled, we’d have been out of business a long time ago.

In my community, with an estimated 100,000 Jews, there are over 33 synagogues. The number changes from year to year with both mergers of congregations and new ones opening up. Add to this number, Nefesh Minyan. Although not officially counted as a congregation, Nefesh Minyan is an independent minyan spearheaded by young adults in Orange County who were looking for an alternative means of celebrating Shabbat.

A 2009 CNN report, “New Jews Stake Claim to Faith, Culture” captures the essence of today’s young Jews who are not looking to fit in to the traditional offerings of existing Jewish institutions, but want to forge their own way in creating Jewish experiences more reflective of their own needs. As the piece succinctly notes

“[t]urns out the traditional synagogue model doesn’t have a lock on religious offerings. One alternative that’s sprouted up: independent prayer groups that invite the spiritually hungry to study text, as well as shape and lead their own services.”

Nefesh Minyan is one of about 60 independent prayer groups throughout the country. Nefesh has been holding Shabbat services and hosting Shabbat dinners immediately following the services for the past two years. Funding has been provided through grants from the local Jewish Community Foundation and Jewish Federation. The program is immensely popular, with this month’s Nefesh Minyan Shabbat filled to over capacity – literally standing room only.

The typical Nefesh Minyan attendee is in his / her twenties or thirties and does not belong to a local synagogue. The service is led by either a member of the group or the occasional visiting rabbi. The service always includes a live musician. A surprising number of the participants know the tunes and prayers and the singing and ruach at the service is spiritually uplifting. This month’s Nefesh Minyan took place shortly after wedding of two participants, so the Sheva Brachot were added to the Shabbat celebration. It was a truly festive occasion, demonstrating the community of friends and peers that Nefesh has built for itself. It also demonstrates how a group of Jews without professional clergy can conduct a complete service if motivated.

Jason Miller, ordained Conservative rabbi and blogger, writing in eJewish Philanthropy notes

“As a 30-something rabbi, I’ve noticed that denominational labels were much more important for our parents’ and grandparents’ generations than they are for us. Today’s 20- and 30-year-olds are searching for meaning in religion and are not very concerned with the names of movements or synagogues.”

Nefesh Minyan embodies all the best traits of the untraditional “New Jews” and post-denominational Judaism. It does not label itself as any particular “brand” or movement. The founders of Nefesh Minyan recognized a void and created a successful program that satisfies an unmet desire of the community.

Jewish religion and culture have a wealth of tradition and meaning that have sustained a nation – klal Israel – for over 3000 years. Since the Torah was written Jews have been described as a stiff-necked people. Both positive and negative, this characteristic has enabled the Jews to adapt and survive, thus keeping us around as one of the longest-surviving religions in existence.

Open-mindedness and progressive thinking have kept also kept us going for millenium, and will sustain us long into the future. Groups like Women of the Wall and Keshet Ga’ava will continue moving us forward in the direction of tolerance and understanding.

Meanwhile established Jewish institutions and foundations across the country, like JFNA and the Schusterman Foundation, are leading the way in supporting young Jews wanting to pave their own way to remaining connected Jewishly. Programs like Birthright NEXT, Moishe House and Nefesh Minyan are just a few examples of successful, sustainable programs that lead young Jews back to their Jewishness.

Young Jews know what they want, and given the right resources, will make it happen. Being picky isn’t always a bad thing.

Jackie Menter is Director of Professional Philanthropy at Jewish Federation Orange County and blogs at tachlis.