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A brief history of the Newton Centre Minyan

Drash on first night Rosh Hashanah 5750
by Richard J. Israel

Copyright © 1989 Richard J. Israel. All rights reserved. Do not distribute without this copyright notice.

Delivered: 9/21/89

A Brief History of the Newton Centre Minyan

As ephemeral an institution as this Minyan may be, we are in fact old enough for a history and so it seemed worth committing a few things to writing before everything is forgotten. As a way of reviewing where we are as a community this Rosh Hashanah, that is what I have done. I have written a partisan history because I think that is the only kind that could have been written. It is certainly the only kind I could have written. I have however submitted it to a number of other Minyan members who helped check the facts but who are not responsible for my interpretations of those facts.

When trying to date an historical phenomenon and establish when something first emerged, the question must always be asked, for whom? For example, when did the Renaissance come? Well, it came at a very much later date for women than it did for men. Some events just don't have one date. The same can be said about the Minyan. When did it start? That depends upon what you are looking at since the Minyan had several beginnings.

Our family arrived in Newton from New Haven in 1971. We were worshipping at Temple Emanuel (Conservative) and Beth El (Orthodox), floating between the two. (I have always been a little like the Polish Jew who kept traveling between Poland and Israel, never content in either place. When in exasperation, one of the immigration officials in Israel asked him when he was happy, he responded, "When I am traveling." )

During the summer of 1973, Herb Rosenblum and I (Herb was then the dean at Hebrew College and previously the rabbi of Temple Emunah.) began to commiserate about how drab Tisha B'Av was likely to be in our two local synagogues. Why not do a camp style Tisha B'Av in someone's home? We called around and found enough people who were interested. For the next four years Tisha B'av services were held in our living room.

At about the same time Albert Axelrad, the Hillel Director at Brandeis had put together what he referred to as an Egalitarian Service. In the early Havurot, egalitarian meant that no distinction was to be drawn between rabbinic and un-ordained members, between the Jewishly learned and the Jewishly innocent. As far as I know, it was Al who first applied the term egalitarian to the context of worship and the roles of the sexes. I think he even called it a Traditional Egalitarian Service, a term which always struck me as an oxymoron, even though I knew what he was trying to say. Al loves liturgy and singing and has a Yeshiva background which would not let him settle for a service that was too thin a soup. At the time, he was viewed as fairly radical on women's issues and insisted on women's equal participation in an otherwise fully traditional minyan with a complete Torah reading.

Through this minyan, which she had joined in 1972, Doris Shay had become very fond of davening. But she was not happy with the fact that come summertime, when the students went home, the gates of heaven closed, not to open again until fall. For two summers Doris kept the Brandeis service going by recruiting the adult population of that Minyan for summer davening but by the summer of 1977 she concluded that this was too much of a burden.

Since the Israel family had obviously been able to cope with a fairly large crowd for Tisha B'Av services, she urged us to share the responsibility and try to hold summer services at our house. Doris again recruited the adult families who participated in the Brandeis service and we also tried to add people from the Tisha B'Av group. I borrowed an MIT Hillel Torah from Dan Shevitz and we held services in the Brandeis style at our home every other week for the next two summers. The original families, insofar as I have been able to recall them were: Hausman, Hiller, Israel, Kolodny, Machtinger, and Shay. In the next wave came Abusch, both Bock families, Dreyer, Fein, Ivry, Lewis, Shapiro/Rosner, and Waldoks. There may have been more but it all gets to be something of a blur for me.

Since Sherry and I didn't travel on Shabbat, the Minyan stayed at our house and the others did not seem to mind. This practice established the principle that the Minyan would hold services in Newton Centre within range of the walkers. For us, it was a pleasure to roll out of bed and have a shul downstairs.

But it was not all as easy as rolling out of bed. I remember being annoyed frequently about the way it was going. Since it was in my house, I had to stay home for the Minyan and not daven anywhere else, but if it were a nice beach day, often ten people never arrived. You can't form a Minyan out of ten people. Folks are just not that reliable, a principle I should have known long since. They have emergencies, they oversleep, they don't want to carry a Minyan on their shoulders. The Abuschs report changing vacation plans so that they would not abandon the Minyan. That is too much to expect. Twenty people with very good intentions are the fewest who will do.

I also did not like opening the shop. During the thirteen years we had been at Yale, it had been my job every week to open the room where we held Shabbat morning services. The campus police would often forget to unlock the doors and always forget to turn on the lights in that dark Gothic hall. I had to be sure that everything was ready. When I left Yale, I vowed that I would never again be the first one to shul, a vow I had been quite frum about maintaining until my encounter with the summer Minyan.

There are a number of different styles of liturgical reform that we Jews use. The liberals change and shorten the text or fudge the translations. The traditionalists come late and sit in the back and talk. We were traditionalists. (Moshe Waldoks once proposed that we do P'sukay d'Zimrah at home on the honor system but it was too radical a suggestion to be taken seriously.) Though services began at 9:30, people generally did not begin to arrive until 10:00. Even though I was often the only one there, I used to start at 9:30. From this emerged my specialty as a Psukay d'Zimrah expert. Though I am still not reconciled to our having moved out of homes, for me the major virtue to our not being in our living room is that I can once again maintain my earlier vow and come late.

I have recently been hearing talk about the good old days and how the Minyan is no longer a homogeneous group. It is my view that there never were any good old days and the Minyan never was a homogeneous group. We do have some demographic commonalties. We are mostly professional, we tend to have better than average Jewish educations and we have very few members who are Boston area natives. Nevertheless, from the very beginning people were in the Minyan for very different reasons. Doris Shay and Sue Abusch on one side and I, on the other, in some sense represented polar opposites. We were good friends but they could only barely endure me ideologically. For Doris and Sue, egalitarianism was the salient feature of the Minyan. They liked its traditional cast but that would not have been sufficient. I, on the other hand, was rather indifferent to the egalitarian question. I was later joined in this by Aviva Bock whose attitude to the Minyan is almost as idiosyncratic and erratic as mine. If I had been asked, I would not have allowed sex discrimination in Judaism, but I was not asked and since I am of a "halachoid" temperament, inclined to accept traditional patterns, I was able to live with the old ways.

I do not sing well enough to serve as a Baal Tefilah or a Baal Koray, and so I could not quite experience a politically correct measure of outrage for women who also didn't do those things. As a result, I never got more than a C- for sensitivity to the problems of women's worship in a traditional setting. I understood about being angry at clubs that wouldn't let me in even though I wouldn't want to join them if they did, nevertheless, egalitarianism was not the set of issues which motivated me to help start the enterprise. I liked the Minyan because it was small, informal, communally directed and because it was a group of people I could both daven with and talk to. Even in a good shul you can do one or the other but rarely both.

But since we needed each other for the Minyan to happen, we opted for a fixed, predictable liturgy with a minimum of innovation (and therefore dissension) and for not intruding into unfriendly ideological space. As long as we were careful not to read one another's silent prayers, both Neanderthals and radicals seemed to be able to worship together. I personally think it would be unfortunate if we ever went for greater ideological clarity or an authentic "Minyandoxy." Though rigorous intellectual honesty is noble, it inevitably destroys community and among the two, I would opt for community. There is no guarantee that this current approach will work forever but the longer it does, the happier I, for one, will be.

Though I am getting ahead of my story, Moshe once wanted us to become a Tzedakah Collective in addition to our being a worship group. As I remember, the message he got from us all was that any Minyan members who wanted to become members of a Minyan Tzedakah Collective should certainly do just that but that there was no way a Minyan vote would be used to require reluctant members to become anything they didn't want to be. We did the same thing with Lisa Rosenfeld's Minyan baseball game and Bella Rosner's picnic/outing, which also got little support. The only exception that seems to have emerged (and it is not a small one) is that all members have to pull roughly equal amounts of weight in basic Minyan chores. Otherwise, members are free to promote any program or ideology they want and the rest are free to join or ignore them. The only no-no is interfering with others and the only communal activities to which we are jointly committed are Shabbat and holiday services. Everything else is up for grabs, no pressuring allowed.

I suspect that is why we still refer to ourselves as a Minyan rather than a shul. Shul implies a full service operation and we do not now offer that. We never called ourselves a Havurah for different reasons. To some that suggested a closed club rather than an open worship community. It also sounded a little too Sixties-ish, implying that we sit on cushions on the floor and hum or recite creative prayers by the ocean at sunrise. In truth, we are really a pretty straight and stuffy bunch. The only explicit discussion we ever had about our name took place at the meeting at which we incorporated. There, we decided that we wouldn't use the term Egalitarian in our title and used the name Newton Center Minyan because to do otherwise sounded too ideological for most of our tastes. By the fall of 1979, having concluded our second summer, we got brave enough to hold services first on a monthly, then a bi-weekly basis during the rest of the year. The Minyan floated among the larger homes of our Newton Centre members.

Al Axelrad become a little miffed that we had stolen his sheep. He liked the additional bodies, liked the positive effect grown-ups and their children had on the Brandeis students and he also liked it that some of his own peers were present at Brandeis services so that he didn't have to be the only adult in a congregation of students. But he was a victim of his own success and an illustration of the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished. His former adult congregants wanted to continue worshipping in a service like the one at Brandeis but they found that they preferred davening with an adult community and not feeling like guests at an essentially student service. Sorry, Al.

Services were held weekly starting in October, 1983, the year Alan Katzoff and Joan Legant took over the scheduling. Until that time, the Minyan members were either those who had multiple commitments and who did not want to daven only in the Minyan, and those for whom every other week was just about as much davening as they could handle. With the Katzoff/Legants came the participation of those people for whom the Minyan was neither an appetizer nor a dessert, but rather the main course The Minyan was their community and they wanted it to happen weekly. The limiting factor was the Torah reading. People who were previously willing to read for our occasional services, were also willing to read large chunks of text. But once we were meeting weekly, the only way to get volunteers was to break the text reading down into individual aliyot.

That same year we began charging dues, $25, primarily to cover the cost of mailings to our thirty one member families. Until that time, starting in 1981, our only expense was $5 per family for insurance on the Sefer Torah. High Holiday services were first held in 1982. They were at the Shays with Nancy Kolodny as the organizer. As we continued to grow, our quarters became rather tight. We tentatively and informally offered ourselves to Temple Emanuel a few times. Just as tentatively and informally they indicated that they were not interested. They were worried that we would skim off the cream of the congregation and their main service would be left with the Bar Mitzvah crowd.

By 1986 it came to be the general view that we no longer fit in each other's homes and had to find larger quarters. Having looked at a number of places in the area, we moved to Newton's First Baptist Church, initially experimentally and then on a regular basis, though still subject to the vagaries of the Church rummage sales and those times when Jewish holidays fall on Sunday and the Church needs the whole building.

In 1987, we finally celebrated the complete holiday cycle. That was the first year we did Simchat Torah, a holiday that had previously intimidated us. I think 1987 was also the first time we did both of the first and last days of Pesach. No longer do we cancel services on long holiday weekends. We go straight through.

In 1988 we obtained access to a cemetery and alas, have already had to use it three times. With the arrival of Michael Grodin, we have a Minyan mohel available. We seem to be getting closer than ever to a one stop enterprise.

Among the other changes that I note, people do not seem to be as eager to acquire synagogue skills as they once did. Though we continue to be governed by town meetings, an ever diminishing percentage of the membership participates. In that too, we are becoming more like everyone else. We even applied for membership in the Synagogue Council this year and there wasn't a peep of objection. That could never have happened in the past. (Not to worry. They haven't accepted us yet in any event.)

Perhaps the most important Minyan change of all is one that cannot possibly be dated because it did not happen at any single date. I am referring here to the baby boom. It was the founders' view that the service were intended for adults. They weren't quite X rated but neither were they intended to be wholesome entertainment for the entire family. We wanted a place for ourselves to daven that might be able to inspire us but at least would not make us angry. Our kids were all at Schechter and so we had no need for a synagogue that provided schooling. We did not intend the Minyan to be our children's major Jewish resource. There were some small children who were welcome to come if they played quietly near their parents. Doris' view in particular was that children should be allowed to come but only if they begged permission and vowed to be docile and agreeable. We assumed that they would gradually come to learn the service through a combination of their Schechter experiences and the Muzak effect that would come drifting into their ears. The Minyan did not spend a lot of time or effort edifying them. That was not its role.

The old ideology of children being rarely seen and not at all heard did not work any more when you couldn't walk from one side of the room to another without stepping on someone's child. (Kayn yirbu!) The early parents were not of much help in trying to figure out what to do. Their children were mostly grown. They had served their time and once way enough. Child care was provided at our initial High Holiday series. Rena Fein, first alone and then with help, attempted to provide something more substantial at our regular Shabbat services. We may or may not be getting nearer to a solution.

So we continue to grow toward something that will never finally get nailed down. Everything changes, including the Minyan and every institution that intends to continue to live must also continue to adapt and respond to new situations. Our neighbors, the Swedenborgians, whose World Center is in Newton Corner, down near the entrance to the turnpike, is often used by the Sociologists of religion as a model of a religious institution which remained fixed and which therefore died or is about to.

It is because of my conviction about institutional change that I never wanted us to spell out our principles in a fixed document. I hoped this Minyan would always be the property, not of its founders or a sacred text or a movement philosophy, but of its users --- those who are active, involved and committed to it. And if there is dissension about the direction in which it is going, one group or another, in good Minyan tradition, can always break off and form another Minyan and go meet in people's houses. To me, when a shul breaks up, even in rancor, it is always a sign of communal life. (If you come in after the event, you can always tell which one broke away because that is always the group that calls itself Rodef Shalom.) There are no arguments in moribund religions, except over who owns the property. Mergers and hyphenated institutions with lots of names are a far more ominous sign than splits.

If I had to predict what issues will vex us in the future, I would mention some old problems and some new ones. Where will we go when we get thrown out of the Church for some currently unanticipated reason? Having solved the problem of the large group of little children, what are we going to do with what will then be a large group of adolescents? How can we continue to be open and welcoming without becoming a cheap way for those with minimum commitments to find High Holiday seats or Bar Mitzvah accommodations? Our suggested dues of $190 are still a bargain. As the Minyan becomes a conventional and accepted fact rather than a new creation, will it retain that spark of energy which has always been a lot of the fun?

I am told by some of the newer members that this is a hard crowd to break into, that it takes about two years and a lot of volunteering for Minyan tasks until people come to feel at home. In getting larger, it is natural and important to develop sub-groups. Can we do that in a non-exclusive way, or at least kindly? Will we be able to continue to be of help to each other at times of pain and sadness and share in each other's simchas? That too gets harder with size. We are now over seventy families.

So now we have an institution that has an unauthorized but at least semi-official past. It is my hope that this Minyan will have a long and healthy future as well. The only phenomena that bode ill for that future are that we have no debts, which are the most precious assets of most religious institutions and have never had a building campaign. Otherwise, we have every reason to be optimistic.

Tue, March 26 2019 19 Adar II 5779