January 12th, 2010


egalitarianism and minyan organizing

So as I've mentioned here a few times, I and some friends run a minyan (Jewish prayer group) that we've started. It meets once a month on Saturday mornings. We're fully participatory and egalitarian, which can be more complicated than you might think.

One of my roles with this minyan is to assign service leaders. (They chant a portion of the service in Hebrew, parts by themselves and parts along with the rest of the community, while standing up in the middle of everyone.) The way we divide things up, there are 3 service leaders every time we meet: two for prominent parts of the service and one for a less-prominent part (because it's the first part, before lots of people have arrived, and because it's both shorter and less important than the other two). This coming month, for our 6th meeting, I might have two men lead the two prominent parts for the first time.

In my mind, this is OK. To me, having an egalitarian and participatory service means the following things when it comes to picking service leaders:

(1) Ideally, pick service leaders without regard to or paying attention at all to gender (which in a 50/50 community would mean that two men lead these two parts of the service about 25% of the time), with the caveats that:

(2) More prominent meetings of the minyan should specifically divide up the gender of the leaders (for example, it was really important to me that one man and one woman lead these two services at our very first meeting; and for another example, Hadar divides up the 4 prominent Yom Kippur services such that men (actually one man) lead two and women (often one woman) lead two), and

(3) Long term, the organizers should make sure that the gender balance of the actual service leaders matches the gender balance of the capable service leaders in the community (for us, about 50/50), and

(4) Long term, the organizers should make sure that the gender balance of the capable service leaders matches the gender balance of the community as a whole (for us, about 60/40 or 65/35 with women in the majority), and

(5) Long term, the organizers should make sure that the gender balance of the community as a whole is as close to 50/50 as possible, plus of course people who do not identify with the gender binary. Actually, not this one. I think this is beyond the scope of organizers for one particular community. To the extent that this is a problem, I think it's a problem of the Jewish community at large, or the subset of the Jewish community that a particular minyan is in (for us, non-Orthodox, urban, Northeast United States; in which communities that skew younger and unmarried like ours are often 2-to-1 women or even more than that).

So I don't think our next meeting falls under (2), since we're somewhat established at this point and there's nothing remarkable about Shabbat 11 days from now such that more or different people would attend services than usual or that this meeting of ours would somehow be held up as a standard (more so than our other meetings). And we've definitely been succeeding at (3) so far. (It's important to check in about that, I think, because feminists like me can still be subject to accidental and subtle discrimination, slightly preferring men for leading or whatever.) We're not quite successful at (4) yet, because that's a slower fix that can take years to effect, because I personally don't have enough in the way of teaching skills to make that happen on my own, and because I don't know that there are many non-service-leaders in the community who want to learn.

Therefore, I don't think I can yet do (1), just ignore for the most part who I pick gender-wise. We're not quite there yet. But I think I'm close enough to that ideal that I can occasionally have two men leading. I just have to make sure that I only let it happen about 25% of the time.

My primary guiding principle in organizing this minyan, by the way, has been that details matter. That it's important to think about these little things, and that the fruit of that effort will be in the results, even if the minyan participants don't directly recognize the thought that went into these aspects of the planning. They'll recognize it anyway, in the form of a well-organized service that will hopefully continue leading toward a vibrant community.

Thoughts welcome. (And further reading is available.)