Prayer groups bring new worship experience to ’Burgh for High Holidays
The latest group of worshippers to meet at the Labor Zionist House in Squirrel Hill have a priceless keepsake from a minyan that prayed there long ago — a Torah.
An Orthodox minyan met decades earlier at the old stone house on Forbes Avenue. In what used to be the dining room of the dwelling, the men would remove their Torah scroll from what used to be a breakfront, unroll it and read the weekly parsha.
Eventually, though, that minyan ceased to exist.
“They stopped coming here and the Torah was left here,” said Malke Frank, an organizer of the new minyan.
The scroll sat unused until Dor Hadash began holding its rabbi chavurah at the house. It hired a scribe to check out the scroll and replace its antiquated rollers; someone even donated a new cabinet to house it in.
“You could really say the Torah was resurrected,” Frank said.
And this month it will be read again as the High Holy Day Minyan marks its second year in existence.
That minyan consists of 30 to 40 men and women from very eclectic backgrounds who come together in an independent setting to create a High Holiday worship experience that speaks to their own spiritual needs.
And they represent a trend that is making inroads in Jewish communities across the nation, including — at last — Pittsburgh: Jews meeting for prayer in groups, or minyans, outside the traditional structure of a congregation.
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The High Holy Day Minyan incorporates elements from many movements in its services. The worshippers read from a Reconstructionist Machzur, but the members include Reconstructionist, Renewal, Reform and Conservative Jews, even Jews with no affiliation at all.
“A number of us just decided we wanted to have a more intimate prayer experience,” Frank said of the reason the minyan formed last year. “We wanted to include things that were important to us, and we wanted it to be open to everyone.”
That desire for intimacy — a do-it-yourself worship experience — perhaps best explains the growth of minyans nationwide.
Even in Pittsburgh, where Jewish worship follows more traditional lines, at least four new minyans have organized over the past two years.
These minyans resemble their counterparts in area congregations — like the Saturday morning minyans at Beth Shalom and Temple Sinai, which are run by the participants themselves — but differ in two significant ways: They are independent of the congregation structure and they can, though don’t always, meet on the High Holidays.
Another of those minyans, which calls itself Ohr Nistar (Mystical Light), observes the High Holidays this year in Tarentum. Rabbi Adalah (Adriane) Caplowe, the former hazzan of B’nai Abraham in Butler, is its leader.
The minyan, which started in August and meets in a remodeled school house in Tarentum, is trans-
denominational in nature, combining kabbalah and chanting with traditional service elements. So far, it’s drawing about 20 worshippers, though more people are on its mailing list.
Caplowe doesn’t believe that the worshippers — she calls them “spiritual seekers” — who comprise her minyan are necessarily rejecting the traditional synagogue model.
“I don’t think it’s a form of rejection of anything,” she said. “It’s for spiritual seekers — someone who wants to experience Judaism, but not in the traditional sense. They’re looking at it more from the sense of a worldview: how we interact with ourselves, and affect and change in the world.”
Tradition has its place in the High Holy Day Minyan as well.
“In one service we may have done Aleinu in the traditional way. In another, we may do it a different way,” said Janet Seltman, another organizer of the High Holy Day Minyan. “As we evolve as Jews, at different stages of our lives we need different things.”
Caplowe called tradition “the template” for independent worship experiences, such as hers.
“You can build on it and do so much with it,” she said.
She believes more Pittsburghers are reaching that conclusion as they discover independent minyans.
“I see a transition happening within the community,” Caplowe said. “I’ve been here for some years and I think more and more people are looking at things differently and want to be part of Judaism in a more mystical way — a deeper way.”
Perhaps the oldest minyan in the city is the Kehilat Sfarad Congregation, which, like the High Holy Day Minyan, meets only on the High Holidays.
Kehilat Sfarad, which provides a Sephardic High Holiday worship experience, expects as many as 60 people on Yom Kippur. It meets at Shaare Torah, which provides space to the assembly.
“Our chanting is much different and our prayer books are different,” said Abraham Anouchi, who founded Kehilat Sfarad. “Luckily, we have a good relationship with Shaare Torah, and they allow us to borrow their sefrei Torah.”
“It’s not like any other group,” he added. “It’s because we are Sephardic. I would like to have this experience and have other people explore the Sephardic experience.”
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The minyan phenomenon isn’t lost on congregations. Temple Sinai and Beth Shalom both have lay led minyans that meet independently of the formal Saturday Shabbat services, though neither meets by itself on the High Holidays.
Temple Sinai Rabbi James Gibson said his members — all his members — consider it a “core value” to come together as a community on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. He noted, though, that music offerings at one of the High Holiday services are tailored to appeal to members who might otherwise attend the lay-led minyan.
Beth Shalom also offers two services on the High Holidays: the main sanctuary service, and a ballroom sanctuary that is led by a visiting rabbi and lay leaders. It’s that second service that’s more likely to attract members of the Library Minyan, Rabbi Michael Werbow said.
One reason is the large number of b’nai mitzva that take place on Saturdays at many congregations. Some worshippers prefer not to pray at a service that is taken over by a bar or bat mitzva.
“This is an ongoing challenge in Reform and Conservative Judaism — to integrate the bar mitzva into the Shabbat minyan,” said Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, a worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism.
Still, congregations should not ignore the impact of independent minyans, Werbow said. “It’s a challenge for congregations to see what the people going to minyanim are looking for that they’re not finding in congregations. … It would be interesting to see how things shape up in Pittsburgh.”
And, he added, he’s even willing to add new minyans at Beth Shalom.
“I’m open to offering [other services] if there are groups of people looking for different things,” Werbow said, noting that a lay-led meditation service is already planned for the second day of Rosh Hashana.
Whatever influence independent minyans have in Jewish worship, experts say they will never replace the congregation.
“I am not worried about the future of synagogues,” Elwell said. “We need synagogues — we Jews need synagogues. I do not see synagogues closing their doors. I do see them restructuring themselves somewhat.”
Part of that restructuring could include attracting independent minyans to the congregation setting.
“If they sustain themselves over a number of years they realize they need more structure,” Elwell said. “At some point they decide they don’t want to be independent anymore. We have many congregations that have joined the URJ that began as independent minyanim.”
She said the energy it takes to start and sustain an independent minyan “can lead to burnout and dissipation of community. It’s not an accident that people form congregations that have more structure and long-term viability.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)