One of the most dynamic movements currently coming up across the North American Jewish community is the independent minyan movement. These are grassroots, generally lay-led Jewish communities where people come to daven, eat, and socialize, often on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis. The thing that excites many about these minyanim is the way they are bringing innovation into the Jewish religious experience; for many young Jews, they provide an experimental space where they can explore their spiritual identities without having too many strings attached. When they move to new cities, for instance, the indie minyanim often become important focal points for the building of social relationships, meeting of religious needs, and fostering spiritual growth as young Jewish adults.
So, don’t fall off your chair when I tell you that Jewish day school graduates are disproportionately overrepresented among the attendees and leadership of these minyanim. According to the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Survey, out of the Synagogue 3000 Institute and Mechon Hadar, day school graduates, who only represent 15% of synagogue members in the United States, represent an “astounding” 40% of participants in the independent minyanim. This figure is similar to that given by Jack Wertheimer in his Generation of Change, which shows that 40% of younger leaders in “non-establishment” Jewish institutions—the startup-style communities like indie minyanim, Moishe Houses, volunteer corps, etc.—likewise attended day school.
What’s behind this trend of day school graduates getting involved in these grassroots religious communities?
According to Wertheimer, “[w]e might surmise that day school education was one factor that gave these younger leaders the self-confidence to assume leadership roles.” Rachie Lewis, who attended both Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia and Akiva Academy, now Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, and has been involved in a number of indie minyan communities, agrees. “If you have opportunities to lead services at school, and to have those communal roles, you gain an ability to lead that you can’t get just by going to shul every week.”
On a more basic level, day school develops young people with what Steven Cohen at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion describes as the “cultural wherewithal to create their own institutions.” Day school graduates are not only more inclined to consume Jewish experiences as young adults, but they are more able, and driven, to be “prosumers,” that is, to co-create the experiences that they are having. “A huge part of it is literacy,” Lewis says. “Indie Minyanim don’t have a rabbi, so you better well have people who understand the ritual, and those are often going to be people from day school.” Talia Engelhart, who attended Hillel Torah and Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago and has taken on leadership roles at two Boston area indie minyanim (Washington Square Minyan and Minyan Kol Rinah), says, “it makes sense [that day school alums would be leaders in these communities] because it’s a DIY model—it requires a lot more active engagement from your participants.”
But it’s not just that these spaces require educated participants; they also create experiences that many young day school alums seek. Benjamin Levy, an alum of the Jewish Day School in Bellevue, WA, and Northwest Yeshiva High School, who currently teaches at Denver Jewish Day School and is involved at Denver’s Minyan Na’aleh, says that the religious independence of day school alums is well suited to the indie minyan atmosphere. “In my family, when my parents had Judaic questions, they wouldn’t ask the rabbi, they’d ask their 11 year old son.” Day school graduates gain deep Jewish knowledge to the point that as adults, “they like to be the ones making the decisions, not being told what they should believe.” Indie minyanim provide that highly fluid and self-driven religious environment for day school alums to continue developing their spiritual identities as young adults.
So why does this matter to those of us in the day school community today? Because it represents something about the value of day school; it says that Jewish day schools create the type of young adults who know that Jewish connection is important to them, and have the skills and desire to go out and build the types of communities they seek. In our contemporary Jewish community, we’re looking for new ways to engage people, especially young adults and other marginalized populations, and day school builds the type of leadership with substance that will help engage broader cross-sections of our community in Jewish life in the future.