At a synagogue in Charleston, S.C., more than 20 years ago, teenager Rachel Nussbaum began wrapping tefillin — two black boxes attached to leather straps that Jewish men wear as they pray.
To the older Jewish men gathered for morning prayers, the sight of a woman decked out like a man at prayer was shocking. Many didn’t know what to make of Nussbaum’s brazen willingness to break with tradition.
Now 38, and a rabbi, Nussbaum leads The Kavana Cooperative, a growing Jewish prayer community in Seattle that has much in common with a synagogue but doesn’t call itself one. Like the tefillin-wrapping teenage Nussbaum, Kavana prides itself on a reputation for doing Judaism its own way.
It is known, as are about 10 other like-minded “indie synagogues,” for its exuberant prayer, willingness to experiment and welcoming attitude toward those whose comfort zone lies outside the traditional Reform, Conservative and Orthodox denominations. Another commonality: Women lead most of them.
And it makes sense that women lead so many of these communities, because “women were historically left out of the institutional structure,” Diner continued. If a whole body of feminist psychology is right, “women tend to be more interested in reaching out and building consensus than issuing fiats from the top down.”
The rabbi’s gender is not necessarily the key factor in the creation or success of these alternative congregations, but it likely plays a role, said Nussbaum.
“Perhaps it’s because women understand, by definition, what it means to feel on the boundaries in some sense, and to cross those boundaries,” she said. […]
Also unlike mainstream Jewish congregations, these independent alternatives tend to meet in rented or public spaces — churches, old factories, city parks. […]
Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella group for the second-largest movement of Judaism in the U.S., said he takes pride in these non-synagogues, and the fact that many of their leaders were trained in Conservative rabbinical schools.
“Whether people are card-carrying members of a particular denomination,” Wernick said, is not important.
“The goal of Judaism is to live a life that matters.” These communities are engaging young people, he added, “in a Judaism that is relevant and helps people transform their lives.”