This essay, written by founding member Aryeh Cohen, originally appeared in a Festschrift that the Library Minyan published to commemorate its 36th (double-chai) anniversary in 2007.
“Hey Aryeh, can we use a tallis to cover the collage of penises hanging on the wall before we say the Barchu?”
Such was the common question posed in the early days of the Shtibl Minyan. We rented a space from the Workmen’s Circle which also served as a gallery for avant-garde “artists.” It wasn’t always a perfect fit, but at least we didn’t have a building fund.
In the beginning, there was simply a sense of, “let’s make this happen.” Who cares if no one really knows the nusach? Who cares that we only have 10 committed people? We are going to meet every week. We are going to do a full Torah reading and we are going to make this more than a minyan.
The Shtibl was going to be a community—a community that cared for each other and that reached out into the greater world to try and make a difference.
Okay, so we were all vegetarians and the folks at PATH were more your meat and potatoes types. Okay, so we had to shlep a Sefer Torah back and forth from a recovery home for Jewish addicts.
Eventually the homeless folks got used to our quiche. Eventually the nusach caught on and our potlucks grew beyond a few containers of bean salad.
I am currently a rabbi at a suburban synagogue with more than a thousand members. We have professional leyners, a dozen sifrei Torah and a full maintenance staff.
And oh, how I miss The Shtibl.
Rachel Lawson, founding member of Shtibl
The Shtibl Minyan was created in the fall of 1999 at a meeting at the home of Andrea Hodos and Aryeh Cohen. The ten or so people were brought together by a shared dissatisfaction with existing minyanim, The people gathered in the living room were variously affiliated with the Library Minyan at Temple Beth Am, the Happy Minyan at Beth Jacob, and Bnei David Judea. A couple of the people had no specific affiliation.
People were unhappy for different reasons. One of the participants had made an announcement about a political event at the Library Minyan—an announcement she thought relatively uncontroversial—and she had been hissed at. Another liked the davening at the Happy Minyan in general but could not abide the mechitzah any longer. Another felt frustrated about having been at the Library Minyan for a while and never having been invited to anybody’s house for a meal. I needed davening that was much more spirited and where singing (and even dancing) was not constricted by a strict time limit. I also wanted a place where davening and learning and social justice were on a continuum, and not separated into committees. Finally, we all wanted to own our davening community. We wanted a community which was our responsibility—that we would be the ones who set up the chairs and cleaned up after ourselves, that we would be responsible for opening the door in the morning and locking it when we left. We were all unhappy with the general edifice complex of the Jewish community. For this reason it was clear to us all that we needed our own space and that we didn’t want to be another choice on the menu at one of the many synagogues in the neighborhood.
A number of important decisions were made at that first meeting which reflected the character of the minyan to be. First we decided that the davening would be Carlebach style. That is, we would use the niggunim of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, though not exclusively, but we would also allow ourselves the freedom to sing and dance as the spirit moved us.
We decided that we would read the whole parshah (Torah portion) every week and not read according to the triennial cycle. This proved to be a serious challenge (as we knew it would) but one that we met.
We decided that we would neither say the Prayer for the State of Israel nor the Prayer for the United States, we would instead say the Prayer for Peace. This decision was revisited later by the membership.
We decided that membership would not be based on a dues structure. Everybody was agreed in their opposition to the pay to play model. While we recognized that we would have to pay rent and that we would have other expenses, we were adamant that membership should be based on different criteria such as service—davening or leyning or teaching or setting up or cleaning up. Whether we would actually have “members” and what exactly the criteria for membership should be would take a while to clarify—five years actually.
We decided that we would meet every Shabbat and not start on an every-other-Shabbat or once-a-month model. There was some disagreement about this. Ultimately, we agreed that in order to establish ourselves as a home and a community we would need to meet every Shabbat.
We also decided that as soon as we found an appropriate place to meet we would start davening together. (In short order we realized that we would need to rent a place just for Shabbat morning and that we would never be able to afford a monthly rental of a store-front, for example. Once we came to this realization we found the Workmen’s Circle pretty quickly. Our political outlooks were congenial and we all loved the irony (the tikkun?) of having a (neo-)chassidic minyan in the Workmen’s Circle.) Some of the original founders of the Workmen’s Circle might wonder how their spiritual heirs had sunk into such iniquity.
Finally, we decided to call ourselves the Shtibl. This name reflected the general atmosphere that we wanted in our minyan and also the simple and do-it-yourself culture of the one room storefront shuls. We signed a rental agreement with the Workmen’s Circle and started davening there on Parashat Bo, January 15, 2000.