Fluid Identification: San Francisco’s Mission Minyan

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December 1, 2011
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Tobin Belzer

The fluidity of Jewish identity — that is, widespread shifts in Jewish identification and practice — is revealed in a 2009 study, “Religious Switching among American Jews.” Describing significant rates of interdenominational switching, the study finds that “33 percent of those raised as Orthodox still follow that orientation; 45 percent of the Conservative remain Conservative; 69 percent of the Reform remain Reform; and 63 percent of Other remain Other.”1 In addition to the phenomenon of switching among denominations, research has also pointed to increasing rates of nondenominational affiliation, especially among Jewish young adults.2

The independent minyanim phenomenon has emerged as a tangible manifestation of the fluidity of Jewish identification and practice. Across the country, young adults are participating in roughly 100 independent minyanim: lay-led communities that, to varying degrees, combine traditional prayer with progressive values. These communities are providing thousands of individuals with opportunities to express their Jewish identities in ways unlike their prior experiences.

Through an ethnographic study of the Mission Minyan, an independent minyan in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, I had the opportunity to observe the fluidity of Jewish identification in situ. Participants have come together from diverse Jewish backgrounds and with varying levels of Jewish educational attainment. Some spent their childhood and teen years in Jewish day schools, while others had minimal Jewish education. Some grew up secular, celebrating Hanukkah and Passover as cultural holidays, and others grew up affiliated with Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist synagogues. Still others grew up in Modern Orthodox and Chabad communities. For some, their participation in the Mission Minyan was not their first experience of “religious switching.” A number of respondents described how their families’ Jewish observance changed during their childhoods: Some had increased their practice of religious rituals, while the observance of others had declined. A small number of participants had converted to Judaism.

The community includes individuals who approach religious observance from various perspectives. Some meticulously follow Jewish law, others less so, and still others do not observe Jewish law at all. What they share is respect for variations in personal observance. To illustrate this point, a number of respondents enthusiastically mentioned that their community “even has its own apikoros” (dissenter).

Diversity is both a strong value in the community and a necessity. In order to thrive, the community is dependent upon the participation of individuals from across a spectrum of religious observance and knowledge. The “What to Expect” section of the Mission Minyan Web site provides the following explanation:

“In the relatively small San Francisco Jewish community, it would be difficult to sustain — in East Coast fashion — a bunch of minyans [sic] that all have different traditions. Instead, we’ve worked very hard to create a community that makes creative compromises using our very best, most thoughtful understandings of Jewish law combined with a deep commitment to making people from various backgrounds comfortable in one space.”

One such compromise is the seating configuration on Saturday mornings. The community includes people who require separate men’s and women’s seating, as well as members who are uncomfortable with gender segregation. To address the conflicting needs within the community, the seating is arranged as a “trichitzah,” with a men’s section and a women’s section, separated by open seating for anyone.

Such decisions are the result of painstaking hours of discussion, research, and consultation with the rabbis who participate in the minyan. Consideration of halakhah is central to their decision-making processes, but the community’s choices are ultimately what sociologist Stephen Ellingson refers to as “post-traditional,” since the practices have been disembedded from any institutional context; participants locate the moral authority in themselves, rather than in the tradition or an institution.3 A number of respondents joked that rather than making people from various backgrounds comfortable, they make everyone who participates equally uncomfortable.

Mission Minyan participants are aware that several of their communal choices are beyond the scope of denominational boundaries. In fact, many were drawn to the community because of its lack of religious affiliation. One young man explained:

“I really dislike silo Judaism. It’s exclusionary: Reform Jews do this, Conservative do that. We’re Jews. There’s too few of us to be in our own worlds. What am I? I was Reconstructionist, and then Reform, and now I’m married to a Conservative Jew. I want to know all kinds of Jews. I want to hang out with, party, make kiddush and Shabbes with all kinds of Jews.”

Like many in the community, his openness to engaging with Jews who identify and practice in many different ways is connected to the diversity of his own experience over time.

While participants are deeply invested in the Mission Minyan, they value opportunities to express their Jewish identities in multiple ways and places. Many Mission Minyan members also attend services and events at Chabad of San Francisco and at the local Reform and Conservative synagogues. In fact, 84 percent of Mission Minyan survey respondents indicated that they had attended services in three or more places within the past year, and 20 percent of those had gone to seven or more places.4 Interview respondents explained that finding a single community (Jewish or otherwise) is not a goal. Instead, they value opportunities to express their diverse interests in multiple circles.

Like other independent minyanim, the Mission Minyan is a common stop for Jews on diverse paths. These communities have flourished because they are comprised of individuals who bring varied Jewish experiences; who do not necessarily identify with a single denomination; and who understand that engagement with one community is not necessarily a goal. Fluidity is so central to independent minyanim participants’ Jewish identification and practice that the future direction of their Jewish engagement remains unclear.

1 Tom W. Smith. 2009. “Religious Switching among American Jews.” New York: American Jewish Committee.

2 Bruce Phillips. 2005. “American Judaism in the Twenty-First Century,” The Cambridge Companion to Judaism, New York: Cambridge University Press.

3 Stephen Ellingson. 2007. The Megachurch and the Mainline: Remaking Religious Tradition in the Twenty-first Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

4 Steven M. Cohen, J. Shawn Landres, Elie Kaunfer, Michelle Shain, Jewish Communities and their Participants: Preliminary Findings from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study, Mechon Hadar, Synagogue 3000: November 2007, www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=2828.

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Tobin Belzer is a research associate at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California and the senior project director at Rosov Consulting. With Julie Pelc, she is co-editor of Joining the Sisterhood: Young Jewish Women Write Their Lives (SUNY Press, 2003). The Lilly Endowment, through the Congregational Studies Team’s Engaged Scholars Program, funded this research.

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