Outside the Box: DIY Jewish

December 1, 2011
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Ben Dreyfus

I made history before I was born: I was the first fetus ever to be ordained as a rabbi. You see, back in the 1970s, women rabbis were still rare, and my mother happened to be the first to be pregnant at the time of ordination. Of course, no Jewish denomination actually accepts smikha in utero as valid credentials, and I never developed any interest in pursuing postnatal rabbinical training.

Growing up as the child of a congregational rabbi, I was never into the “rabbi’s kid” gig either. In an aging community with few other children around, it felt as if my siblings and I were on display. Fortunately, I had positive Jewish experiences elsewhere through my immediate and extended family and my summers at Jewish camp. I caught a glimpse of what an active Jewish life could look like, though it was limited in scope to isolated bubbles of time and space.

At college, it became clear my first weekend that I was the only freshman who had chosen to move in prior to Shabbat, but had not opted to live in a dorm that was accessible without an electronic keycard. I didn’t fit into any of the established boxes, and though confused about where I belonged, I also felt confident and resolute enough to know that I wasn’t going to try on one of the more established identities out of expediency. And so I set myself the task of learning what I needed to learn to make informed decisions about my own Jewish practice, a process that I hope has not abated fourteen years later. If I didn’t belong in any of the smaller boxes I saw, I was going to carve out my own niche in the larger pluralistic Jewish community. Eventually, I learned that the boxes may not have been as firm as I had assumed. Shockingly, I wasn’t the only 18-year-old who had questions about identity; the others may have appeared to my untrained eye to be conforming, but in fact we were all going through parallel struggles and finding our paths.

My cohort graduated and launched themselves into the adult world at exactly the right time. Moving first to Jerusalem and then to New York a decade ago, I was positioned to catch the wave of the independent minyan boom (about which much has already been written) and then to contribute to it, founding one minyan and participating actively in several others. Through my networks and communities, I have had the opportunity to live in an empowered Jewish culture, where if we think of something that isn’t happening, our first reaction is to make it happen ourselves. Institutions and labels are seen as means to an end, but not as inherently valuable.

One year, before Pesach, it was time to get rid of the chametz. Since I was leaving town for the whole week, I didn’t bother to switch my kitchen over to make it usable for Pesach. Instead, I decided to sell my chametz for the week, to rid myself of it. (There is an interesting discussion to be had about whether this popular practice is appropriate, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.) So I found a non-Jewish friend, wrote up a contract, and we both signed it and made the sale official. Meanwhile, other people were also selling their chametz, but instead of finding a buyer directly, they were going through a rabbi as their agent, either in person or over the Internet. Even some independent minyanim, that don’t employ any clergy during the year, were making arrangements with rabbis who offered to be agents for minyan participants’ chametz sales. When I saw this, I thought, “This is silly. When I was growing up, we never went to a rabbi to sell our chametz. My mother just sold it.… Oh — right!” And then the epiphany hit.

One could look at my Jewish life trajectory and conclude that my embrace of do-it-yourself Judaism is a rebellion against my upbringing. But the more accurate description is that it is a continuation and deepening of that upbringing. Just as the rabbi’s family (in a milieu where many people are dependent on the rabbi) does not defer to an external authority to be Jewish or to do Jewish for them, so do I as an adult seek to be self-reliant in my Jewish life.

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Ben Dreyfus is a doctoral candidate in physics education research at the University of Maryland. A founder of Kol Zimrah, an independent minyan in Manhattan, he is currently serving as an organizer of Segulah, an independent minyan on the D.C./Maryland border. He blogs at mahrabu.blogspot.com.

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