Putting their heads together

Thoughtful Jews: Alyssa Schwartz, left and Johanna Ostrich are part of Minyan of Learners, a group that comes together to study texts. Photo by David Holzel
Thoughtful Jews: Alyssa Schwartz, left and Johanna Ostrich are part of Minyan of Learners, a group that comes together to study texts. Photo by David Holzel

It’s a cold Sunday afternoon and eight people have gathered in a chilly Washington meeting room to take the temperature of the Jewish community.

“How many of you identify as a Jew by religion?” asks Cheryl Pruce. All hands go up. “How many of you identify as Jews by some other way?” Again, all hands.

“Jew by religion” is a term used in the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”  Group members in the chilly meeting room at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, calling themselves “Minyan of Thinkers,” have the study in front of them and are busy picking it apart.

“I thought it was interesting that some people who identified as Jews of no religion also identified with a denomination,” says Pruce, 28, who founded the group in 2012. “It’s not entirely clear.”


Using Pew as their text, the thinkers are dedicating themselves to the traditional Jewish pursuit of study and analysis. Instead of Torah or Talmud, group members pit their intellects against what Pruce calls “secular Jewish texts.”

What Pruce, who works as an education policy researcher, conceived as “a quorum of thoughtful Jews” has begun its second full year. “This is a minyan for Jews whose journeys are intellectual,” she says.

Minyan of Thinkers is aimed at Jews in their 20s and 30s, a cohort that has been busy creating entrepreneurial Jewish groups but at the same time is the subject of hand wringing by older Jews who find this generation wanting in Jewish commitment.

Pruce isn’t having it. “It feels like we’re operating on a doom-and-gloom paradigm,” she says. “I hear a lot of alarm [from the Jewish establishment] and not ‘tell me about your venture and how can I help you.’

“In many ways I think older generations of Jews think that this new generation is cause for concern, and is part of the problem of Jewish continuity. [But] we are a part of the solution,” she says. “We are deep thinkers who can push our community forward on many of our major contentious Jewish topics.”

Participants sign up for one year. Last year’s topics were intermarriage and conversion. Texts included the National Jewish Population Survey.

In May, in time for Shavuot, the group plans what it is calling a “dissemination event” to share with the Jewish community of the reflection pieces the group has written.  A minyan retreat is scheduled for September.

Through discussions on hot-button issues, Pruce aims to forge ties between participants. “In D.C. we have a phenomenon where we see the same people 10 times at various happy hours or social events but we don’t actually get to know each other. You come monthly [to the minyan], we have these cool debates, and we write and share with the community.”

The minyan is not institutional, but Pruce nevertheless has pursued her idea with support from the organized Jewish community. She developed her concept as a ConnectGens fellow, sponsored by PresenTense and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Rabbis and other prominent Jews act as “minyan scholars” to help create the group’s curriculum and to offer feedback. And “minyan stakeholders” offer networking and funding support and are the “first ring of the larger Jewish community that the minyan strives to reach with its innovative ideas,” she says.

Moishe House without Walls provides funding for supplies and sandwiches.

The minyan is an “opportunity to think critically about the Jewish community,” says Rafi Glazer, 28, who led the group in an ice-breaking exercise.

Glazer, who works for the American Jewish Society for Service, says the group  is a contemporary approach to Jewish community.

“More and more organizations are popping up that are niche organizations. Minyan of Thinkers is one of those popping up to create their own niche within the Jewish community,” he says.

David Miller, 30, says he was drawn to the group because of the presence of people of varying backgrounds and because he was attracted to its data-heavy approach.

“I’m analytical and everything for me is linear,” says Miller, a project manager and data analyst. “I really like the topics and the conversation and because there isn’t a heavy religious aspect. I don’t consider myself uber-religious.”

Says Pruce, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” adding, “This is about feeling empowered as our generation.”

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