A Shabbat service at Segulah Minyan is a mixture of sounds: voices in worship, children at play, pages turning in the hodgepodge of prayer books held by the members.
Segulah, a lay-led prayer community, meets biweekly just steps away from the sanctuary of Tifereth Israel Congregation in the District of Columbia. Small, intimate and unaffiliated, independent minyanim meet throughout the Washington area each week, and what defines each of them more than anything else is the spirit of their members.
The prayer experience is created by everybody in the room,” said Ben Dreyfus, a District resident and a longtime member of Segulah. “It’s not a spectator experience. It’s something that everyone there has an active role in.”
Just like every synagogue is different, so is every minyan.
“There is a diversity among independent minyanim,” said Eliana Fishman, a Dupont Circle resident who attends several area minyanim. “They each have distinct flavors in terms of how they think about” Jewish issues.
Minyanim are as varied as the people who create them: some practice meditation, while others focus on social justice. Some follow a variation of liberal Judaism, but others are Orthodox. What they have in common is a desire to explore Judaism as a community outside the traditional institutions of Judaism.
Segulah Minyan was formed in 2009 by a group looking to organize Shabbat morning services that were egalitarian and participatory.
Dreyfus, a regular at Segulah since the beginning, started attending independent minyanim during the early 2000s when a wave of them formed in his native New York.
“For me, it’s always been the kind of community where I’ve felt that my Jewish identity could be” accepted without the label of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, he said.
For Fishman, the ability to take control of her Judaism keeps her coming back to Segulah and DC Minyan, an egalitarian minyan that meets at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.
One reason Fishman attends several minyanim is that most meet biweekly. She jokes that none of the Washington minyanim “have figured out Shabbat happens every week.”
Ethan Merlin, a Silver Spring resident and a founder of Segulah, said organizing services is time-consuming work for lay leaders. But Segulah is not a full-service institution like a synagogue, he said, it is a complement to traditional congregations.
At a minyan, “there’s [an expectation] that everyone is going to participate in the experience, and not be a passive observer of the service,” he said.
Nicole Bodner, a District resident and a DC Minyan steering committee member, said that member participation in decision-making helps to forge relationships within the community.
“These independent minyanim [are] dependent upon the people in them,” said Bodner. “You feel like you’re a stakeholder.”
Abigail Romirowsky has attended DC Minyan since 2007. The District resident is from a Modern Orthodox background and her husband grew up Conservative. The minyan, she said, helps her and her husband reconcile their denominational differences.
DC Minyan has gender-separate seating, like Orthodox synagogues do, but it has not erected a mechitzah, the physical barrier dividing the sexes found in Orthodox synagogues. Romirowsky said this similarity helped her acclimate to the minyan’s largely egalitarian practices.
“It is a hybrid and that allowed me to take a gradual path from Modern Orthodoxy to [associating with an] egalitarian community,” she said.
Romirowsky said that because independent minyanim generally do not have rabbis on staff, DC Minyan is often asked what members do when it’s time for a lifecycle event – a bar or bat mitzvah, wedding or circumcision. But most Jewish milestones can be crossed without a rabbi.
Couples about to be wed will often choose someone close to their family to officiate. For a newborn son, the family hires a mohel to perform the circumcision while the community celebrates.
While DC Minyan is Romirowsky’s sole Jewish home, Alexandria resident David Blumenstein belongs to both a minyan and a synagogue.
“I like a traditional service. It’s something that is comfortable for me,” said Blumenstein, a member of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria. “I grew up with that. But at the same time, it doesn’t meet all of my Jewish and spiritual needs.”
And so he turns to Fabrangen West, a chavurah in Vienna, Va., with its flexible services and intimate environment that is conducive to dialogue. Fabrangen West is the Northern Virginia counterpart to the Washington-based independent Fabrangen, founded in 1971.
For Blumenstein, neither place is necessarily better than the other. “I can feel comfortable in almost any [Jewish] setting if I have the right mindset when I’m there.”
As people drift in to a dimly lit room on a Saturday morning, Rabbi Mark Novak warms up on his guitar and greets each arrival.
This is Minyan Oneg Shabbat, which meets at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church. The gathering of 15 people starts with a song and a summary of the week’s Torah portion, followed by meditation and discussion.
These are followed by a mindfulness exercise, in a physical version of the children’s game Telephone. Gathered in a circle, each person watches a combination of arm movements and bowing, and then tries to demonstrate it to the next person. By the time the motion has gone around the entire group, it is almost unrecognizable. While it prompts laughter from many, it also leads to a discussion about of alertness.
Oneg Shabbat is an outlier among minyanim. Novak, a Jewish Renewal rabbi, started it in 2012, demonstrating how minyanim are connecting Jews to Judaism through means other than prayer.
“I have created, along with the people who are now devoted followers, a space in which an authentic Judaism can be practiced, but with more creativity,” he said.
Members see an advantage in the small-group setting.
“I think [Oneg Shabbat] allows for a more personal connection [with the minyan’s] community,” said Mary Meyerson, of Rockville, a longtime friend of Novak’s and frequent attendee. “We sit in a circle and look at each other face-to-face. The focus is on the community and what the community is going through.”
Meyerson, who retired from a career of Jewish education, and her husband, Neal, are also affiliated with Oseh Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in Laurel. She agrees with Blumenstein and Merlin that synagogues and minyanim each have their own roles and advantages. Now that their kids have grown up, the Meyersons enjoy the change of environment.
“One of the things that I find really attractive [about Oneg Shabbat] is that this is an adult community,” she said.
The atmosphere of each minyan is ultimately a product of what every participant contributes.
Said Fishman: “We as individuals are responsible for creating our own experience and attracting people to it.”