The Mission Minyan: If Orthodox and Egalitarian were possible

We walked in during pisukei d’zimra and there was already a large crowd of people gathered. I took a seat all the way to the right of the room and looked around. A few people said “Good Shabbos“, asked me if I was a cohen or levi and then left me alone to observe.

I was seated in the men’s section. A table with Birnbaum siddurim acted as the mechitza between me and a bunch of women and men sitting together. A woman davened for the amud and I couldn’t help but wonder if they had picked her because of her manly voice (In San Francisco you can never be sure). Let’s put it this way: if I wouldn’t have looked up or around I would have mistaken the minyan for a traditional orthodox one, but it most certainly wasn’t.

Farther to the left, past the mechitza and the group of women in talesim that looked like scarves with the men pretty much looking the same, was another table separating another section of just women – most of whom were wearing skirts and not wearing talesim.

The woman finished her prayers at the amud and a man in white shirt and black pants took the helm for baruch hu. As he let out his first words of shochane ad, I couldn’t help but hear his distinct chassidish accent. He shuckeled mildly and sang beautifully, but his suf’s and oy’s were very blatant. I watched as I wondered if anyone else knew that they had a full fledged tuna beigel in their midst.

Based on my keen observational skills, I could pick up on the few men and women who were brought up orthodox, or were orthodox knowledgeable. I could tell who knew what they were doing instantly based on when people stood up and sat down, and what pose they held during the prayers. The chazzan picked an obscure Carlebach tune for kel adon and everyone sang so beautifully. I was really kind of amazed since most of the other shuls I had visited in the Bay Area were really lacking in their choral abilities, i.e. they sounded more like dead cows than anything else.

While the chazzan sang beautifully, he also paid attention to speediness. He didn’t drag things on and we weren’t standing for ages during kedusha. I wondered what his story was; We were a long way from KJ or Skvere or from wherever else he may have hailed, yet he looked like he could be the model be used for a modern orthodox yeshiva advertisement.

The person leading most of the show looked like he was straight out of the Upper West Side singles scene: good looking, decently dressed and eyes wandering over the women across the tables. (Editor’s Note: Heshy has lost his mind if he thinks one of the defining characteristics of a stereotypical guy out of the UWS is “good looking”) The mechitza situation reminded me of frummy concerts where you can sit separately or with your family. In this case, everyone appeared to be in their 20s and 30s, but still couples seemed to sit together. I wondered if the tables were placed there on purpose to act as mechitzas or it just happened that way.

The women did pesicha and paraded the torah around the room so everyone could kiss it. They set it down and started giving aliyahs out like any regular shul, except that one of the “bimah hocker mistake catcher people” (coined term, copyright pending) was a woman. She was the nicest mistake catcher I’d ever seen. Whenever someone would make a mistake she would whisper the correction very nicely, a strong departure from the traditional way of publicly embarrassing someone who makes a mistake during laining. It was also my first time seeing so many people lain. Every aliyah seemed like it was a different lainer, the men took the first 3 and the last 2 aliyos with women take those in between. Apparently there are sources that say back in the day there weren’t even middle aliyos, so women laining and getting middle aliyos may not actually be a problem – whatever the case may be, it did seem that they were trying to keep things as close to within the parameters of halacha as possible.

The Mission Minyan is known as a partnership minyan. This means that in order for a minyan to be called, they required 10 men and 10 women to be present – which is cool because that means we actually had a minyan. I was wondering what I would have done if they had no halachic minyan but started doing minyan type of stuff — would the brachos be considered livatalas, or taking Gods name in vein? I also wondered how I felt about shaking women’s hands yasher koach – I try not to shake women’s hands unless I have to, because if I am going to break negiah, I might as well save it for the good stuff.

I declined hagba, so I didn’t have to have any awkward shomer negiah moments. I did get to watch in horror as I realized that I was watching a first time gelilah by a woman who was having a heck of time getting the torah cover on the torah. This did nothing to change my longstanding belief that geililah is one of the most embarrassing shul jobs – but not the worst, the worst is when you get stuck holding the first torah.

When announced on various social networks and my website that I was moving to the Bay Area, the first thing that my friends and dedicated readers told me was to check out the Mission Minyan, because I would like it and get some good fodder.

Their Friday night davening attracts many more people, but I enjoyed the Shabbos morning prayers because I got to see the regulars, those who founded and run the minyan and who make it possible. And it’s really different from anything I had ever seen.

I would even venture to say that the Mission Minyan can be categorized as ‘orthodox egalitarian’. The prayers are all in Hebrew, the service is distinctly orthodox and the people who daven for the amud know their stuff. The singing is great and there is no preaching or kiruv going on. The Mission Minyan founders have built a new Jewish community from the ground up. If you attend without meal plans, someone is sure to invite you over. Guests are pounced upon with a friendliness that should be an example for other shuls. There is no rabbi, but the folks that grease the gears make sure to be as welcoming as possible and that combats what is my main pet peeve with regards to going to new shuls as a guest.

While many right wing orthodox folk may scoff at the idea of the Mission Minyan being orthodox, I would challenge them to show me that any of the progressive practices are against halacha, rather than just against the norm. Although I myself can’t relate to women who want a part of rituals they are not commanded to do, I don’t see a problem with it. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why women who don’t keep the rest of the mitzvos seem to want to just do things that the men do – I could understand it if they did all their requirements and then figured out that they want to do extra. Maybe it’s good that women want to do extra, beyond what they are commanded to do – something kinda like a male wearing tzitzis at night.

In my mind, Progressive Orthodoxy or Post Orthodoxy as Gil Student calls it, is changing the image that orthodoxy has for many people. It is opening the hearts of people who would have never stepped foot in an orthodox establishment, so while the Mission Minyan is not orthodox per se, their orthodox style combined with more Egalitarian inclusiveness really brightened up my day, and opened my mind.

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  • http://www.shtetlfab.blogspot.com Shtetl Fab

    Wish I would have known about this when I was in San Fran a few weeks ago. Also sorry not to see you Heshy. Regardless, sounds like an amazing place and it’s great to see Jews pushing the boundaries in a respectful manner. Really love the idea of a partership minyan. Hope it’s a practice that is adopted more widely since not counting in a traditional minyan is among the observances that keep me from attending Orthodox shuls. That and the dead cow singing.

  • Yakov

    I would challenge them to show me that any of the progressive practices are against halacha, rather than just against the norm
    off the top of my head i’d say “kol isha” but than again that is also a touchy subject.. and while on touchy subjects how about “looking at women while praying” and of course shomer negia…but like you said maybe its not against halacha perse!
    really interesting minyan i suddenly have the urge to go visit San Fransisco just to see that minyan besides the fact ive never been to northern california…

  • Yakov

    im trying to figure out how to indent only the first line of my comment

  • YY

    As to why otherwise non-observant women would want to observe only those things they’re not commanded to do, think about it this way. In this time in history, where discriminating against anyone on the basis of race or sex is illegal for all kinds of things (buying houses, getting jobs, etc..), but where discrimination used to be the norm, a lot of people can’t even conceive of the idea that any distinction between men and women at all is legitimate in a religion. Any difference in roles is seen as immoral discrimination, as bad as Jim Crow laws or segregation (just like according to most liberals nowadays you’re either for full gay marriage or a “bigot”). And laining and such is the most visible and public thing you can do, so people think that must be the most important thing — and if I’m going to observe anything, that’s it. So they don’t believe they weren’t commanded — the idea that G-d would command men but not women on a particular issue is just not something they can conceive as being correct. Maybe that’s why most Conservative congregations (I think) don’t even have access to a mikvah, much less actually use it. But who knows, this may not describe the way the egalitarian Orthodox women think. Regardless though I think recent American history and politics has a lot to do with it.

    I used to go to a Conservative shul, with mixed seating of course, where half the regular women shul-goers seemed to know how to lain. I don’t know how observant they were outside of shul but given the community in general, probably not very.

    • sabros

      A lot of this is probably true. We’re lucky in the northern suburbs of Chicago to have access to a Conservative-operated mikvah. I have a lot of hope that the younger generation in particular will reclaim this observance, because most middle-aged and older women I talk to couldn’t fathom it.

      • YY

        You may be right — in my area the Conservative shul seems to be planning to build a mikvah.

    • Chris_B

      The only mikve in Tokyo is associated with the Conservative shul here.

    • Anonymous

      nicely put

  • Anonymous

    I think it’s time to change the blog name to Jewish Satire. I haven’t see anything frum on here lately.

    • http://www.frumsatire.net Heshy Fried

      Did you even read the tagline? I would have called it Jewish Satire but that domain was taken already.

      • Anonymous

        Just because you make a disclaimer does not make it all good. I think Frie Satire is available.

        • sabros

          Some people should get a better sense of humor or to stop using the anonymity of the Internet to snipe people. I thought this was a sincere and informative “travelogue” type of post. Heshy’s a good storyteller, which is one of the reasons I keep reading this blog.

        • U avi

          Oh please

  • http://alarbean.wordpress.com/ DrumIntellect

    Partnership minyan sounds interesting. I wonder how many men show up just because they know they’ll be at least ten women there. ;) (Kind of like “Ladies Night” at bars.)

  • sabros

    This sounds like a cool place to visit. I’m pretty much at home in a Conservative egalitarian minyan, but it’s interesting and inspiring to see how different communities try to make this work. Thanks for doing all these reviews.

    You raised an interesting point: if women take on more and traditionally men’s mitzvot, it doesn’t exempt them from traditional women’s observances. In my admittedly limited experience, it seems like the rare woman that acknowledges this and is willing or able to practice it. It’s something I’ve been working on in my own observance, but I sometimes feel like I’m living in different worlds.

  • Phil

    I could see how ladies nights would attract a crown, best for of outreach especially if shomer negiah isn’t an issue.

    Orthodox egalitarian is an oxymoron. Can’t exist in Halacha, too many issues. To name a few:

    1) Counting a woman for a minyan.
    2) Kol Isha.
    3) Uncovered hair in shul for a married woman is completely illegal as it’s considered ervah so you can’t daven in that room.
    4) R. Moshe Feinstein ruled it forbidden to have a shul without a mechitza at least 5 feet high.

    • http://www.frumsatire.net Heshy Fried

      I hear Rav Moshe ruled you could daven in front of uncovered hair because it’s too rampant nowadays. The women aren’t technically counted in the minyan – they just wait fo ten of them to be nice.

      What if you don’t hold of Rav Moshe – what’s the halacha l’maysa when it comes to mechitzas?

      • Phil

        I never saw that ruling, as far as I know ervah is still ervah. You’re on a very slippery slope. What happens when eating pork becomes rampant?

        As for “not holding” of Rav Moshe, I challenge anyone calling themselves Orthodox or frum to find a more lenient, qualified FRUM authority.

        It’s easy for an everyday shmo to say “I don’t hold of so and so”, but who are you to argue with Rav Moshe unless you have a valid authority backing your argument?

        • Aruch Hashulchan

          Actually, that was me with the “hair no longer Ervah” about 150 years ago, let alone now.

        • http://2nd-son.blogspot.com/ G*3

          I don’t claim any authority, but my understanding is that ervah, unlike kachrus, is socially defined. In a society where most women don’t cover their hair, hair is not ervah.

          Then again, something magical happens after women get married to make their hair ervah, so I’m probably missing something here.

          • dave

            MO jews tend to interpret Kol Isha differently. They say
            1) Theres a general prohibition on hearing woman sing while reciting the Shema
            2)You can never listen to a woman sing if it is sexually enticing (ie shes wearing certain clothes and the subject matter)
            3)If the woman isn’t trying to be arousing (singing a religious song or sad song) and the man is being aroused, it is his responsibility to remove himself from the situation and/or avoid those situations or curb his desires. In the same way the Rambam said its not okay to look at the pinky of a woman to arouse himself it is not ok to listen to woman sing for the same purposes but we don’t force a woman to cover her pinky like some Muslim do.

            Theres a good article on this published on http://www.jewishideas.org/ (its run by marc angel)

            As for the hair, its not that its nakedness, but that it becomes reserved for the husband alone (idea of having things with your husband alone) Also a social signifier like a ring aka don’t hit on the woman with the scarf!

            • chevramaidel

              I’m sure you meant that when men are reciting the Sh’ma, they are forbidden to listen to a woman sing. At first it looks like the women are saying the Sh’ma and singing. If a man has a problem listening to women singing words of kedusha, (my opinion is) he needs to do a spiritual self-examination.

      • Steve

        Everyone is talking about ervah and mechitzas, but nobody is talking about kol isha, to which there is nothing to say.

  • FarFrumIt

    Interesting minyan. Kudos to them for davening with a minyan (Most people I know don’t).
    However, to add on to whta Phil said about halachah:
    1)Mishna Berurah clearly states women cannot hold a Torah (“Nidah”s cant and so as not to make “nidah”s feel bad, it was enacted that no women can hold one).
    2)Shulchan Aruch clearly states there the 7 aliyos for shabbos (and maftir) or for men.
    While for me such a minyan would be ridiculous, i cannot question their intent – just to point out that they are only wrong if they blatantly violate halachah – then their intent counts for shit.

    • sabros

      I thought the niddah avoiding the sefer Torah thing was custom and not law. Rambam says anyone may hold and read from a sefer torah, including a niddah, because a sefer Torah is not mekabel tum’ah. I’ve seen opinions go both ways on this.

  • http://hatthief.blogspot.com Meir

    The woman finished her prayers at the amud and a man in white shirt and black pants took the helm for baruch hu. As he let out his first words of shochane ad, I couldn’t help but hear his distinct chassidish accent. He shuckeled mildly and sang beautifully, but his suf’s and oy’s were very blatant. I watched as I wondered if anyone else knew that they had a full fledged tuna beigel in their midst.

    If it wasn’t so obvious in other ways, it’s just as likely he’s a BT who learned to read Hebrew from Chabad but got disenchanted with them.

    • http://www.frumsatire.net Heshy Fried

      Actually his father was a Satmar Chossid and he spent summers in Skvere.

  • Chris_B

    Even though I’m now davening at Chabad, at least with the non Orthodox egalitarian minyan, its alot easier to actually get a minyan for sure.

  • http://shilohmusings.blogspot.com Batya

    I enjoy my front seat in the gallery. I was raised in a Conservative shul and don’t miss it. In my day the Hebrew School prayers let the girls lead, but the shul dovening was like Orthodox with mixed seating.

  • Conservative scifi

    The editor’s note was the funniest part. Except for the singing, it sounds like a traditional conservative syagogue (since virtually no one will sing at most traditional conservative synagogues).

  • Editor

    Thanks! Appreciate the shoutout. (Couldn’t help myself)

  • David

    “I would challenge them to show me that any of the progressive practices are against halacha, rather than just against the norm”
    Heshy: having a mechitzah in shul is halacha, not just a societal custom.
    Also, a man can’t be yotzei a women leading davening becuase she does not have the same obligation since it is a time bound mitzvah that she does optionally while a man has to. Also there is kol isha, etc.

  • dave

    lookink for a partnership minyan in nyc or li progressive orthodoxy can any one help?

    • dave

      how about the 5 towns

      • Yakov

        dave are you looking for a partnership minyan or for “ladies will forsure be there” minyan? I’m relatively new to the five towns but im sure you could find something around here!

        • dave

          JUST ONE THAT MY WIFE AND CAN GO AND BE A PART OF IT

          • http://www.statsure.net Aliza

            I believe there is one called Darche Noam on the Upper West Side, modeled after Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem. I am only familiar with Shira Hadasah, which has no mixed seating. Also, women only lead the parts of tefilah where there is no issue of “being motzi” men — i.e., kabalat shabbat and taking out and returning the sefer torah. Of course, women have aliyot, read the torah, and act as gabbaiyot.

  • Ilana

    Isn’t the “mistake catcher” a gabbai?

    • Yakov

      not always… most orthodox shuls i daven at ppl just yell out mistakes as they hear them! its really annoying, the way they’re waiting to pounce on the poor guy if he makes a mistake! maybe annoying isnt the right word…. more like inconsiderate!

      • Ilana

        Yeah… I grew up in a reform synagogue (though as I’ve gotten older I realize it’s much more like a progressive, neo-hassidic, liberal atmosphere), and so I learned how to leyn (though we always called it chanting!)- the gabbais were always considerate, and practically no one not on the bimah ever said anything except amen during the chanting, unless somehow the gabbai missed a mistake… it seems so disrespectful to the person who’s up there trying so hard, to embarrass them like that…

  • SF

    The thing about Mission Minyan, is that it is not a “progressive orthodox minyan.” San Francisco is not a hub of Jewish life where we can all find our own niche community to daven with. Mission Minyan is a pluralistic community, every aspect of our traditions has been thought out, and made in a consensus with over 20 people with completely different Jewish backgrounds and beliefs. We didn’t make up the partnership minyan, we took the halachic leniencies from Shira Hashasha in Jerusalem. If we didn’t actually wait for there to be 10 men and 10 women, our community would not exist.
    Our community is one of compromises, and great intricacies, but with all that comes great beauty.

  • http://www.oy-bay.org Oyster

    We at the Mission Minyan rarely take the good L-rd’s name “in vein”, mainly out of respect for kashrut. :-p

  • Pingback: The Mission Minyan gets Frum Satirized « Oy Bay!

  • FrumGer

    Mistake Catcher is called a Gabbai, Hesh… So you declined Hagbah, man to be completly honest, i love it when i am called for hagbah, secretly even more than aliyot, i know its my pride, but i do a kick ass hagbah, at least 7 blot showing and i hate to see these wormy yidden get up there fumble around and almost drop the Torah. there is a small section of our shul we’re all good at hagbah, and if someone does a bad one you here the scoffing and puffing form our section definatly….. side note- Our rabbi does this thing on Simchas Torah where he crosses his hands and as he lifts the Torah he turns its around mid air so the congregation can see it. its like the x games of hagbah

    also that shul will soon take a vote, and in a couple years and will join the USCJ then give it 10 more years it will be a Refom Shul, then a few more years after that it will be a messianic shul then couple more years after that it will be a pentecostal church.

    • Eppy Chorus

      Most pentecostal churches that used to be shuls were Orthodox shuls. The change came not because of doctrinal evolution but because of the combination of Orthodox attrition as younger generations decided to partake of society at large instead of staying in the ghetto AND as Jews moved out of “the old neighborhood” to fancier houses in fancier neighborhoods.

      It happens less with Reform shuls because what they may lack in halachic observance they atone for with a much better sense of real estate.

  • http://www.oy-bay.org Oyster

    FrumGer:

    The MM has no intention of affiliating with any Jewish organization or denomination. In fact, there’s no membership, so there can’t be a vote at all!

    Does your shul belong to some American Jewish denomination? Do you have to pay membership fees at your shul?

    I wouldn’t get too excited by the fact that your shul is not independent (which you seem to imply; correct me if I’m wrong). It’s not exactly a long-standing tradition. You know, I heard that Moshe Rabbeinu himself was the head of the Rabbinical Council of America back in the day. :-)

  • Beverly

    “For the life of me, I can’t figure out why women who don’t keep the rest of the mitzvos seem to want to just do things that the men do – I could understand it if they did all their requirements and then figured out that they want to do extra. ”

    For the record, I’m a completely shomer mitzvot MO woman (I’m not saying I don’t slip a little here and there, who doesn’t, but I daven daily, keep strict kosher, dress tzniusly, shomeret shabbat, etc) , and I am much more comfortable davening in partnership minyanim than in regular orthodox minyanim.

    For all the men bashing women’s desires to be part of the services, I dare you to stand in the women’s section just once during torah reading [Depending on the setup of the shul, if you stand in the back, no one will probably notice you. Or they'll think you're trying to convey a message your wife/daughter/girlfriend/whatever]. Try to pay attention though the thick wall. Try to figure out what’s going on when people suddenly stop services because they’re confused about a certain word. Try to not let your head wander. I understand men also get bored during services, but it’s infinitely worse when you aren’t actually able to see anything [and don't say that your mechitza that has little holes in the wood or a gap at the top allows for better viewing. Just try it]. And when you aren’t getting snapped back into reality because you or the person sitting next to you is getting tapped for the next aliya. And when you don’t participate in the “good ole boys club” of yasher koaching. You get the picture.

    And the truth is, all these arguments hold up regardless of whether or not one keeps other mitzvot. People have numerous non-halachic reasons for wanting to go to shul [community, sense of spirituality, they really like the herring]. Orthodox shuls do tend to have a better sense of community. It’s one of the plusses of being strictly obligated to “do jewish”. Once you’ve already made the decision to go to shul, why not go to one where you can be part of the action?

  • Fizzy

    I’ve been to three partnership minyanim, and none of them had a mixed seating section. I’m surprised that the Mission Minyan had one. It should be noted that most partnership minyanim do not have women get the cohen and levi aliyot or be chazzan(it) for shema or shemone esrei. I’ve very much enjoyed partnership minyanim whenever I’ve went. The minyanim are usually friendly, the people want to be there so there’s not much talking, and I like the concept as a whole. I’m also glad that they seem to be run halachically. :)