A Chronicle of the Shtibl Minyan

About This Essay

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 under the title “”With All My Limbs I Praise You”: A Short Chronicle of the Shtibl Minyan.”

Part I: Establishing the Shtibl Minyan

“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.

Part II: Shtibl Minyan’s Roots

In the fall of 1999 we were looking for a place to start a Neo Hasidic egalitarian Carlebach minyan, we looked and looked for places to rent and then Aryeh came up with the idea to meet at the Workmen’s Circle and why not since after almost a hundred years they were about to put up a mezuzah for first time ever. Okay, so they only put it on their back door, it’s a start. Why were we looking? Many of us attended the Library Minyan but that was well established and many of us newer younger members felt like there was a minyan and then a minyan watching the minyan.

We went to the bank to open an account to pay our rent which was 613 dollars a quarter. The bank said they would need company letterhead so on my computer at home I made the following letterhead: “Shtibl” and then to make it more authentic I added a line “A subsidiary of Klal Yisrael.”

We began meeting at Parashat Bo and I knew it was my minyan when they gave out the first Aliyot and I thought to myself: “What, he gets an Aliyah and I don’t? I’ve worked much harder for this minyan than he has!”

I only was an active member for six months before I moved to Jerusalem and it was there in Jerusalem the center of the world that a strange thing happened to me with each passing Shabbos I missed the Shtibl more and more. Finally I lowered my expectations for my prayer life and since then I’ve been much happier.

Yisrael Campbell, founding member of Shtibl

The Shtibl’s roots draw from several sources. The most obvious is the style of davening that was popularized by Reb Shlomo Carlebach. A number of the founders had davened with Carlebach minyanim either in Los Angeles or elsewhere and some of us had davened with Reb Shlomo when he was alive. We were attracted by the expansiveness of the singing and dancing, and wanted this to be part of our regular davening experience.

A less obvious but equally important spiritual source of the Shtibl is Havurat Shalom in Boston (Somerville). Havurat Shalom was the first of the Havurot which organized in the early seventies. It is also one of the longest lasting. The Hav (as it is called) is a consensus based radically egalitarian davening and learning community. They have written their own siddur which reflects their commitment to God-language that is consonant with their egalitarian beliefs. This goes far beyond the addition of the imahot (the matriarchs). The siddur of Havurat Shalom replaces militaristic images of God, alternates feminine forms of blessings with masculine forms and attempts to eliminate all forms of xenophobia in the prayers (for example, the Aleynu). At the same time the Hav is committed to joyous davening and serious learning together with political action. Two of the Shtibl founders had been part of the Havurat Shalom community and were attracted by the model of a consensus based egalitarian community committed to serious davening, learning and political action. The organizational structure of the Shtibl was consciously modeled on that of the Hav.

In certain ways, the short-lived neo-hassidic minyan organized at JTS in the late 90s by David Seidenberg was an antecedent of the Shtibl. It was an egalitarian Carlebach style minyan which met once a month for a number of years.

Part III: The First Year

Shtibl’s first year allowed us to put our ideas of community to the test of reality. We quickly realized that the most challenging part of a weekly minyan with a full kriyah was that full kriyah. While it took a while for us to get to a place where the Carlebach nusach was naturalized (tapes were made, melavei malkah were celebrated), each Shabbat ended with the knowledge that again next week we would need people to read seven aliyot. The leyning coordinator has always proved the most exhausting position. Burnout was a constant threat. (This situation has somewhat stabilized in the past few years, and we have had the same selfless leyning coordinator for a while now. bli ayin hara…[without the evil eye]) Some of us got to be very proficient at on the spot leyning when volunteers came up short.

On the other hand, the davening itself got better over time. The community was close and excited to be engaged in this new enterprise. We were quickly joined by new members who left other synagogues (Ohr Torah, Metivta), who just moved into town, and folks for whom we were the first minyan which felt like it was theirs. There was also, over the course of the first year, a serious attrition of the original group which met in the living room. By the end of the first year, perhaps half of the original group had left. However, we had achieved a stable size of around twenty people each Shabbat.

Part of the excitement came from the fact that everything was new, and, it seemed, everything was possible. We discussed doing some sort of social action work and Rachel Lawson found PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), a transitional home for homeless folks. We started serving dinners there twice a month. For a while we would serve dinner at PATH and then study Talmud at one of our homes.

It was the year of the Justice for Janitors campaign and Philip Shakhnis thought we should support the janitors, so we collected food and brought it to the Union offices.

Purim was the first holiday which we celebrated as a minyan. We wanted to make sure that we spent as much energy on matanot la’evyonim [gifts to the poor] as we did on hearing the Megillah, giving mishloah manot [exchanging food gifts] and making sure we couldn’t distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai (we spent a considerable amount of energy in these latter aspects). So we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches which we then distributed to needy, hungry street people up and down Pico Boulevard. This is a practice which we have continued; in recent years Shtiblers went to the Santa Monica boardwalk to distribute bag lunches on Purim before going home for a festive Purim seudah.

The summer of 2000 brought the Democratic National Convention to Los Angeles. With the help of the Boston based group United for a Fair Economy we organized a seminar on the wealth gap (co-sponsored by Workmen’s Circle). In discussions following this seminar a decision was made that Shtibl should take an active part in demonstrations against the wealth gap at the DNC. We called for a demonstration and placed a three quarter page ad in the Jewish Journal. As Sarah Lansill said: “The protest was a natural outgrowth of the concerns Shtibl has for a more just society.” (Jewish Journal August, 2000) The ad for the demonstration read in part:

Having just passed Tisha B’av—that time when the Jewish community reflects on that which makes a just society impossible—we cannot let the gathering of our nation’s political leaders at the Democratic convention pass in silence. We therefore must voice the outcry of the marginalized and the silenced.

It is immoral and unacceptable:

  • That the economic benefits of the current prosperity are enjoyed mainly by the richest parts of society, while the poorest are actually losing economic ground.
  • That women and children and people of color are disproportionately represented amongst the poor and underrepresented amongst the wealthy.
  • That in this age of prosperity there are many in this city who cannot support themselves by working a full time job at minimum wage.
  • That in this age of prosperity undocumented and documented workers toil in sweatshops.
  • That in this age of prosperity any adult or child does not have access to medical care and adequate educational opportunities.
  • That corporations pit workers in the developing world against workers in the developed world to the detriment of all workers and the advantage of the corporations.

Join us at a demonstration to protest the politics of Sodom and Amalek.

About twenty people—our members and others from the Jewish community—came to our demonstration (which, truth be told, was one of many, many demonstrations at Pershing Square that day). We said our piece, carried signs (“Minimum Wage does not Meet Minimum Need”) and marched with thousands of others to the Staples Center. Philip Shakhnis, another founding member explained to a reporter why this was so important for Shtibl: “It is important that issues which truly touch the lives of our immediate community are brought to light. We felt obligated to make our voices heard when the country’s attention is focused on a high profile forum where these issues, at least in theory, are meant to be aired. Moreover as a Jew, I felt compelled to be there to give voice to the Jewish tradition and how it directs us to create a just society.”

Part IV: The ShtiK (Shtibl Kids) Children’s Program

In general, I think the Shtibl children’s program (ShtiK, as we call it: Shtibl Kids) aspires to offer our kids a Jewish experience that is both meaningful & festive—qualities that reflect the Shtibl gestalt. True, we could use some help in general organization, but nonetheless, we have managed over the past couple of years to begin realizing a program that offers our kids real experiences of Torah, avodah, and gimilut chasadim.

Lesley Hyatt, ShtiK co-coordinator

From the start, kids were incorporated into Shtibl davening. This was much easier then since my three year old daughter Shachar was more or less the only child there for the first six months—until my son Oryah was born. We put toys in the corner and Shachar, and whomever else came, played while we davened.

For the first couple of years this worked fine. Shachar grew up at Shtibl without ever having to sit on a chair. She moved from lap to lap. It became obvious after a while, especially when we started having more kids around, that we needed to start thinking about kids programming. We wanted a program that would not be babysitting or Berenstein Bears, but would be Shtibl. We wanted our children to grow up into participating in davening and leyning, and so we wanted the children’s program to reflect Shtibl’s values and practices. Finally in October 2003 the new program was unveiled with an email from Melissa Fand:

Holy Hevre,

Join us for Parshat Noach – we start at 9:15 so please come on time and help us make a minyan.

Also, new this week, we are unveiling the Shtibl Children’s Program. Kids are invited to join us in the back room from the Shaharit Amidah until Returning the Torah to the Ark. The learning is focused around Avodah, Torah and Gmelut Hasadim all related to the Parsha. Since kid’s programming will be going on, we ask that adults congregate or practice their leyning someplace else (the kitchen, outside on the stoop, back parking lot…). Your cooperation is appreciated!

The program happened occasionally for a few months, organized and led by members—both parents and non-parents. In May 2004 Melissa (now Werbow) once again announced (via email):

Fellow Shtiblers,

We are making a renewed commitment to having a monthly kid’s program. Each program will begin in the back room during the Shaharit Amidah and end when we put the Torah away. The kids program will contain elements of thoughtful t’fillah, creative Torah study and conversation about g’milut hasadim. Our program is geared to 3-12 year olds, although other kids are welcome to try it out.

Our next program will be on June 12, Parshat Shelah and led by Aryeh Cohen and Dianne Winocour.

Now all we need is you!

In May of 2005, Leah Fishbane z”l, then the coordinator of Shtibl, was once again announcing the beginning of the children’s program:

Hi Everyone,

We had lots of fun this past sShabbat at the kids program for our youngest Shtiblers. We’re going to do it again this coming sShabbat, and we can use plenty of help. Here’s the info and what we need:

We’ll meet again in the back room after taking out the Torah (approx. 10:35). Since this is a kids program, and not childcare, we do ask that you designate an adult or older sibling to stay and enjoy the program with your child. We also are happy for anyone to come in back and help out. We’ll finish up with a special indoor picnic mini-kiddush for the kids, and then join the rest of the community for putting away the Torah and dancing.

In September of 2006, the program once again was reorganized and a decision was made to hire an outside person to help.

The consistent Shtiblness of the children’s program is that a. it is integrated into the service. The children are brought in to dance with everybody as the Torah is taken out and then, again, as the Torah is returned. b. While we have hired someone to run the program, Shtibl members are responsible for planning and oversight of the program. c. Special kids programs (i.e. kids’ hakafot, a children’s seder, etc.) are all run by members.

Part V: Davening, Dancing, and Joy

We had a meeting about Nusach. One person said I just want the words to fit in the melody.

Yisrael Campbell, founding member of Shtibl

In most shuls, if you chant a niggun for more than one round, it’s considered inappropriate. I wanted something where there would be freer emotional expression, where the real love of the melodies could be expressed without any sort of embarrassment.

Philip Shakhnis, founding member of Shtibl

Those who led services became more adept at leading, and everybody else became more adept at davening. When it was good, it was very, very good. We started some of our own minhagim. I always thought that the moment of taking the Torah out of the ark, was a reenactment of Israel’s marriage at Sinai to God or to Torah. So I suggested that we should be dancing with the Torah as if it was a wedding. So every Shabbes we had a mini Simchas Torah. We danced with the Torah for five to ten minutes as we took it out and also when we returned it to the Ark before Musaf.

Simchas Torah itself was the highest of the high. We danced and sang till after midnight—sometimes way after midnight. There were over a hundred people, at times, crowded into the Workmen’s Circle gallery singing niggunim for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. By the last hakafah, we sang pitchu li sha’arei tezedek for almost the whole hakafah. In between hakafot members gave short divrei Torah relating to the hakafah (based on the patriarchs and prophetesses who are connected with the seven kKabbalistic sfirot which are connected to the hakafot). There was real joy.

The Shtibl ethos influenced other celebrations too. As Lesley Hyatt explains:

In the first place, the whole Shtibl community was invited to attend the third birthday celebration for Aderet Fishbane one Shabbat afternoon in the late winter of 2006. Aderet’s parents [Leah z”l and Eitan who were also coordinators of the Shtibl then] treated the birthday as a kind welcoming into Jewish learning party. I remember that Aderet licked honey off Hebrew letters and even read a little prayer. She also recited Shema. It was, as I recall, a meaningful & festive afternoon.

Earlier this year I attended the BJE Early Childhood Education conference. The first workshop I joined was lead by an inspiring teacher from Seattle named Rivy Poupko Keltenik. Called “The Breath of School Children,” Rivy proceeded to outline a beautiful children’s ritual traditionally held at dawn on Shavuot. It involved the children’s recitation of some torah verses; licking honey from the letters; eating honeycake & a boiled egg. Also, the children are brought to this “lesson” wrapped in talit. –There were a few other aspects to the lesson—but what I loved was the multi-sensory, sweet, meaningfulness of it: a serious ritual for very young children.

Bernie and I had been planning an upsherin for our son Nathaniel, but I was so taken with this ritual that Rivy described, I pitched it to Deena—thinking back to Aderet’s birthday and wondering if something like this ritual would befit the 3-year-old Shtiblers. Around this time Rachel Kobrin started talking about a community upsherin. And somehow—from the two ideas—we three got together, along with Sarah Pottebaum, and found we were all on the same page (how amazing is that!) Instead of all-out haircuts, we agreed on just a little snip. In this way, our “upshiren” became more of a welcoming into Jewish learning ceremony. I.e., something which would affect our children memorably and serve as a simple foundation for more and more concerted study.

I can’t remember who was responsible for what—it really was a profoundly collaborative effort. I’d wanted to find some way to host Shtibl at our house, which is how we ended up here. Someone—maybe Sarah—brought over the placemats, which we honeyed. Someone thought of the alef-bet song and having the kids lead it. We all got together a few times to teach the children the alef-bet and Shema and to “rehearse.” Sharon asked to participate just before the upshiren (though Eva was invited all along) and she brought the talit and offered those lovely words of torah. Deena and Rachel asked Zack and Sara and Jonathan to bring their instruments. And voila!

Part VI: Staking a Claim to Community

The first time I went to the Shtibl was the Shabbat after my wedding. If we had just been given an aliyah, dayeinu. If they had just sang in celebration, dayeinu. But the community also did sheva brachot for us at the potluck following services. It was this overwhelming sense of community and personal intensity that really drew me in.

When I go to the Shtibl I feel a sense of obligation and responsibility to those with whom I daven. If I go to a bigger shul, I’m just any member of the kahal, but at Shtibl there is significance to my mere attendance. It feels meaningful to create a davening and familial community working towards a shared vision.

The “Shtiblers” are who I spend my Shabbatot and holidays with. It becomes more than a minyan, more than people to daven with. As a lay-led congregation, everyone does something. I have watched how over the past three years more and more people are learning to participate in more ways.

It is about so much more than the individual people. When people’s feet are stomping, hands clapping, and kids dancing, there is a deep feeling that the whole is greater than any of the parts could ever be. As you close your eyes, you get absorbed in the moment-that is what the Shtibl is all about.

Rachel Lerner, current Shtibl coordinator

As much as anything else, the Shtibl is an idea and a claim about what it means to belong to a Jewish community. While one of the first things we decided was that membership at Shtibl would not be dues based, but, rather, based on fulfilling tasks that were necessary for the running of the Shtibl, we didn’t vote to have membership until March 2003. That is, for three years we were a community without membership criteria. We davened every Shabbat and, starting in 2002, every holiday including the High Holidays; we served meals at PATH every other week (We were the first religious organization, church or synagogue to do that at the Westside PATH and we were recognized by PATH for our groundbreaking service. Many others followed in our path, as it were.); we had a long and excruciating discussion about whether we should say a prayer for the State of Israel and what that prayer should be; we had the rockingest hakafot in Pico-Robertson and a Purim spiel written by Emmy Award winning writers (and non-Emmy award winning writers…); we bought and put up a sukkah; one of our members donated two sifrei torah (and that member is one of two members who regularly opens up Shtibl and sets up the chairs); we acquired theIKEA synagogue set and more.

The community was of two minds about membership. Having membership would, on the one hand, let us know who we were. When “we” spoke about “us” or made decisions about “us” it was hard to know who “us” was. This was complicated by the fact that we were operating under the rule that anybody who showed up at Shtibl was a de facto member, and that anybody who showed up at a Shtibl general meeting could vote at that meeting. At the same time all decisions were made by consensus—of the people who showed up to the meeting. Decisions reached at one meeting could be overturned at the next meeting. People who did not have a long term stake in Shtibl could come to a few meetings with a pet peeve and then leave the community.

On the other hand, there was a competing argument that membership criteria would exclude people. We wanted to be as inclusive as possible and having any manner of membership criteria would (by definition) exclude some people—or force people to decide if they were in or out.

This was an ongoing topic of conversation at pot-lucks, kiddishes and meetings. Finally in September 2005 a membership form was written (mainly by Mike Werbow who had been coordinator in 2003-2005, based on some earlier versions and with input from everybody). Reflecting a pervasive anxiety, the document starts off with an apologetic tone:

As has always been the case we welcome everyone to Shtibl services, activities and meetings. However, after a long process the Shtibl “members” have decided that an official membership is necessary and desired. In the past “membership” was defined as anyone who had any connection to Shtibl. One would be a member if one attended a service or if one put his/her email on the Shtibl mailing list. This low threshold has sometimes led to low expectations of the Shtibl as well as low expectations of what each individual needed to “contribute.”

Somewhere along the discussion about membership the question was posed, “Why?” Why do we need membership? We have been doing okay without it in the past, why do we need it now? What will having a membership structure do for us? Some of the responses to these questions were:

  • Membership will define the body of people who are “The Shtibl”
  • Membership will convey a stronger sense of ownership
  • Membership will enhance the sense of community
  • Membership will expand and identify the core
  • Membership will ensure that Shtibl needs are being met and that responsibilities are being shared amongst those that benefit from it and are stakeholders in it
  • Membership will allow for 501c3, non-profit, status
  • Membership will clarify our decision making process

Shtibl membership forcefully articulates the claim that to be a member of a Jewish community it is necessary to contribute to what the community is. This includes everything from reading Torah to teaching a class to serving meals at a homeless shelter to cleaning up Shtibl to organizing a social justice event. This is in direct opposition to the consumerist model which has pervaded American Jewish culture. We see ourselves as a Jewish community which is deeply embedded in the larger community. Being a member of the Shtibl is a vote for a service model of community. Each person brings her talents to the community and benefits from everybody else’s talents. There is also a commitment to learning. One of the ways to fulfill one’s membership obligations is by learning Torah, or learning a new ritual skill.

The Shtibl also makes a claim to how a community should be organized. We are an egalitarian, consensus based community. This means that all decisions (including halakhic decisions) must be approved by every member, since any member can block the consensus. The consensus model means that all issues have to be discussed and all opinions need be heard. An issue cannot be closed prematurely since the community doesn’t move ahead without the agreement of all. For this reason it took us seven years to submit the papers for 501(c)3 non-profit status. Many members were uncomfortable with the hierarchical structure which the government demanded of non-profits. We were finally able to come up with an elegant solution in which there is a board and the consensus based process is preserved. Only then, in June 2007, did the community approve a charter which allowed the process to go forward. (We voted to apply for 501(c)3 status in our August 2001 meeting.)

Part VII: Final Thoughts

Well, yes, … nothing about the Shtibl Minyan is too predictable.

David Suissa, Jewish Journal

More than anything else, Shtibl is home for me. It is the community in which both my children are growing up and learning that shul is a place of joy and friendships. It is the community in which I am able to daven and dance and learn together with friends with whom I have very deep bonds of affection and care. There are people from whom I can learn all kinds of Torah and there are also opportunities to teach people who are never indifferent; there are times to be leading and times to be sweeping the floor. There have been moments of great pain for me in this community and tremendous joy. My participation in Shtibl has forced me to be far more intentional in my practice, and has enabled me to walk far more humbly with God, and given me the space for the transcendent joy of holy song.

A Final Note

This is, by definition, my account of Shtibl. I am not a historian nor am I claiming to be. There are many other accounts of the Shtibl that should be written. I used the minutes of meetings and emails and personal correspondence to jog my memory. I asked a number of members to write about their experience so that this would not only be my voice, and I have quoted them verbatim. I thank them. I ask forgiveness of those whom I should have mentioned in the essay and for forgetting events which deserve mention.