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Growing in Inclusivity

October 28, 2010

My husband, Marc, is from a Reform background, and I am from a Conservative one. We often said that the only religious service where we would both be happy is the one that we would create together. Ilana, Johannah and Josh, three longtime friends, often said to each other that the only way they’d have a more exciting place to go to services on Shabbat mornings in Philadelphia was if they made it happen. It turns out we were all right. In the summer of 2009, those three friends, plus Marc and me, got together to make this imagined community, what would become Minyan Tikvah, real.

The five of us envisioned a traditional egalitarian Shabbat morning service that would be comfortable for us and for the people we care about. Each of us has close family or friends in diverse Jewish or interfaith relationships, and we prioritized creating an environment where everyone would feel included. We wanted to create a minyan that would be rigorous and specific in its ritual decisions, while still being accessible to anyone who walked in the door. From choosing our name, to the arrangement of chairs, to what we serve at Kiddush, all of our decisions have been made by looking inward at what works for the five of us personally and looking outward at how each decision will help our community to grow in size, kavannah and inclusivity.

We knew we wanted to call this community something that reflected our values. Because our focus was on creating services, the word "minyan" needed to be there. Minyan, meaning a prayer quorum, is defined for us in an egalitarian context as ten Jews over the age of 13, but minyan also more generally means a group of people coming together to pray. We wanted to use Hebrew words in a way that demonstrates a commitment to Judaism while still being straightforward to say and to write in English. Several names got rejected under the rationale of "I don’t think everyone in my family could pronounce that." Tikvah, which means hope, was just right, since we came together with the hope of actualizing our visions, with the hope of revitalizing the Shabbat day community in Philadelphia, and the hope of creating a vibrant and inclusive davening experience.

Just as we wanted the name to be recognizable and rooted in tradition, we felt the same way about our services. People entering the space need to know instantly that they’re in a Shabbat service, but they also need to be able to figure out what’s going on without feeling embarrassed or confused. As a way of being welcoming to people of all backgrounds, we created handouts that explain the structure of the service and provide guides for following along in six different siddurim. We also have someone sitting by the entrance greeting each person, handing out siddurim and page number sheets, and pointing people to the right part of the service. Once inside the door, we still need to make sure every person feels supported, so another member of the organizing committee sits in the front row and is the first person to stand up for the standing prayers and the first person to sit down afterwards. That way, we don’t leave people looking over their shoulders wondering if they’re doing the right thing.

We also provide a safe space for people to participate and to grow in their practice if that’s what they’re looking for. Members of the community mentor each other on how to leyn, lead services, and give divrei Torah, "words of Torah" about the week’s Torah portion. Everyone is invited to take an aliyah, and the cards that we use to delegate the honors have instructions on what to do. And for people who are passionate about social justice, there is an outlet for those values through our "Kiddush for Kiva" program, which uses Kiddush sponsorship to fund microloans in developing nations, with the money coming back to the minyan within a year.

Part of what makes lay-led minyanim exciting is the high level of participation, since involvement and ownership go hand in hand with inclusion. On any given week, between all of the Torah readers, service leaders, and aliyot, we have 22 people actively involved in the service. With our typical attendance around 30 people, that’s a pretty good percentage! Everyone is also invited to a communal Shabbat lunch following services, and though one person typically does the preparations, everyone pitches in to make lunch run smoothly. These lunches have often lasted all day, and they are one of the key ways that we’re making sure that the community we’re building translates outside of services as well.

Another noteworthy aspect of minyanim like Tikvah is that they are independent. We are not bound to denominational theology, and we can base everything we do on what is right for the people involved. “Egalitarian” is often used to mean that there are no distinctions between the roles that men and women can play in ritual; we expanded that terminology to take away distinctions between Kohanim and Leviim. We make no assumptions about the content of individuals’ beliefs or their level of observance. If someone accepts an honor, we trust that they are up to the task. Everyone is welcome and, we hope, made to feel welcome. We haven’t finished addressing what roles non-Jews might play in a service, though as we do, we approach the questions as we have everything else: with thoughtful consideration and an appreciation for our needs and the needs of the rest of the community.

In our first year of monthly Shabbat meetings, close to 100 individuals have attended Minyan Tikvah services, including Reconstructionist Rabbinical students and Conservative clergy, couples and singles both straight and queer, people over the age of 80 and people under the age of two, Jews by choice, people from interfaith families, Orthodox backgrounds, secular identities, and others still. Each one has helped make our community stronger and more vibrant.

A lot of energy has gone into creating this really amazing space for ourselves. The organizing committee devotes significant resources to running the minyan, and we have a lot of support from others as well. We received a Birthright NEXT Natan Grant for Social Entrepreneurs to help fund our monthly meetings. Lots of other individuals devote their time and money to see this community succeed. And every month that it does succeed, and every time someone has a positive Jewish experience because of Minyan Tikvah, I think back to my personal vision, and I delight in the reality in front of me.

One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. From the Yiddish word for "prayer," it's often used as a verb in English. ("I'm davening at services tonight.") Hebrew for "intention," referring to having the proper mindset necessary for carrying out rituals or the commandments. Plural form of "siddur," Hebrew for "prayer book." Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") The plural version of the Hebrew word "aliyah." Meaning "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Derived from the Yiddish word "leyenen," meaning "read," it refers to the act of reading (chanting) Torah.
Miriam Steinberg-Egeth

Miriam Steinberg-Egeth is the director of Hillel's Jewish Graduate Student Network in Philadelphia and offers online advice twice a week at Miriam's Advice Well.

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