In my neighborhood, there used to be four large Orthodox congregations: Heights Jewish Center, Young Israel, Green Rd. Synagogue, and Chabad. There was also an ad hoc congregation that had begun in a home, called “Zichron Chaim.” It was commonly referred to as “the shteeble,” which is a Yiddish word for “little house” and refers to a small, organic, grass roots congregation, loosely formed and typically without a rabbi, that meets in a home and then sometimes, if it grows, migrates to a more spacious space.
When we first moved to our neighborhood, a new minyan had begun, also without a rabbi, which was quickly followed by other like-minded mini-congregations. Each started for a reason: they wanted to pray faster. They didn’t want any chatter. They wanted to start earlier, then have time for Torah study before lunch. They wanted to have singing and dancing. Each filled a certain niche and need, yet each leeched off the others. So each minyan is very small and niche-marketed.
Each time a new minyan began, I cringed. Critical voices rang in my head, saying things like, “Why can’t we all just get along?” “Look at all those big, beautiful, empty sanctuaries!” “Does there need to be a different shul for every ten people?? Have we gotten so hyper-niched that we can’t even bend our preferences to have a congregation that’s busy, pulsing, and active? With young children, millennials, adults, and the elderly??”
But then I started thinking about what these men (because Orthodox men, obligated to pray with a minyan three times a day, have strong opinions about what that experience will look like) were really saying. Maybe they were saying that prayer was really important to them. So important, in fact, that they wanted to optimize the experience as best as they could. Maybe some people don’t like large congregations and lots of action. Maybe a small minyan fosters responsibility and brotherhood in new ways. Maybe?
I rarely go to services in our Orthodox congregation, mainly because they don’t have babysitting and because we are building our own JFX services. So I don’t really have much to say about that, as a participant. But some might wonder why JFX needs a minyan. Aren’t there enough congregations? Yet we feel we are filling a niche that others haven’t found elsewhere. Community, inspiration, small feel. To me that sounds normal.
So why does it bother me when others do it?