“Liberal Denominations Face Crisis”

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That’s not me, it’s The Forward. Jews are finding less reason to be part of liberal synagogues, while liberal synagogues are finding less reason to be part of a denominational body. The shteibl model may work for Orthodoxy, but apparently not so well outside it.

As one reader already noted, some aspects of this article jibe very well with the Baltimore data.

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25 Responses

  1. Evan Steele says:

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. Liberal Jews are forever predicting the collapse of Halachik Judaism in a generation, and Halachik Jews predict the same for their liberal bretherin. The predictions stand more as wish fulfillment than reality. I’m afraid we’ll just have to get used to difference and diversity amongst the Jewish people.

  2. L. Oberstein says:

    No city is without problems and Baltimore is presently suffering the closure of the Yeshivat Rambam High School, which is a tragedy. Interstingly though, unlike other cities, Baltimore’s rabbonim all sit together on the Vaad Harabbanim. At the last meeting there was a spirited debate on a communal issue between Rabbi Mitch Wohlberg and several other rabbis. It could have been decided by a majority vote, but the decision was to think about it and re-think the issue and Rabbi Wohlberg’s view prevailed. In how many other cities would the Rabbi of the Agudah,Rabbi Heinemann and the Rabbi of a MO shul joke with one another with obvious cammarderie. The meeting dealt with vital community issues, including Gay Marriage and racial harmony and came to a united action plan. It isn’t just unity in name, it is very real. Although the type of modern orthodoxy that exists in some other cities is much less prevelant in Baltimore, the Vaad’s leadership welcomed a graduate of Chovevei Torah to its membership. It was all done in a spirit of mutual respect that is special and not always found elsewhere.

  3. mycroft says:

    ““mycroft”
    is the brother of Sherlock Holmes.”

    You are correct-Sherlock Holmes brother is the source of my pseudonym.

    .
    “You are correct that Baltimore is somewhat of an anomaly .Historically, Philadelphia, with a larger Jewish population was a stronghold of the Conservative Movement and is the location of the Reconstructionist Seminary.”

    agreed

    “Boston once had many orthodox shuls, as did Chicago, why their orthodox communities withered is a good question.”
    Chicago may have suffered due to machlokes. Boston and its surroundings is an interesting case study-possibility-60-70 years ago the Boston area had many schuls with MO rabbonim. RYBS usedto speak in about 6 schuls each for about 2 Shabbosim. Rabbis tended not to be chareidi but MO. By 50 years ago Boston’s Jewish neighborhoods had largely changed to non Jewish-a couple of the schuls moved to other areas to much smaller edifices-example one schul who had a Rabbi who left Boston was eventually succeeded as Rabbi by the shamash.

    “However, looking to the future, Baltimore shows that if there is a solid core of observant Jews and really good rabbinic leadership with unity of purpose, orthodoxy can not only survive but thrive.”
    Baltimore is probably the gold standard for a thriving Orthodosx community-but don’t overplay the unity-there are those who follow Ner Israel , there are those who follow MO schuls/schools.

  4. Ori says:

    L. Oberstein: In other words, learn Torah but don’t have to believe in Divine origin and keep mitzvos as long as it works into your schedule and is meaningful to you.

    Ori: This is more likely to work in a society that is in general more religious. My conservative synagogue (Agudas Achim in Austin) is growing, and I understand it is one of the few who do. Austin is a bit weird, but Texas is a pretty religious state.

  5. L. Oberstein says:

    Ellen, your cogent comments are refreshing. So much of the internet blogosphere is slogan chanting .I think that the sociologists were correct, very little remains of the orthodoxy of the 1950’s. Most American Jews eat cheeseburgers, which to me is the ultimate rejection of our ethnic Jewish heritage.What is more, they don’t even know that Jews aren’t supposed to eat cheeseburgers. It is one thing to eat a treif hamburger or even an all meat hot dog that you don’t know what is in it and totally another thing to drink a glass of milk with a hamburger. I think you understand what I mean. Secondly, the lack of interest or inability of Jews in their 20’s to find a Jewish mate ( or any mate for that matter) is a dire sign of the decline of Jewish community.Thirdly, no one joins anything any more, so how can any synagogue exist.
    The glaring exception is the rebirth of a different kind of orthodoxy largely imported around WW II by a different strand of ortodox Jews. No one saw this coming and no one imagined the numeric explosion of what was an insignificant group in the 1950’s. So the sociologists were right based on what they saw at the time. We have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to figure out how orthodoxy became the wave of the future for a minority that is reproducing

  6. Ellen says:

    The only thing one can say to your statement, Mr. Oberstein, about “most Jews” not wanting this or that restriction on their libertarian lifestyles is that as time passes, consciousness changes. We can’t imagine what “most Jews” (however one defines that latter word) will believe or think 20 years from now. One only has to remember that every American Jewish sociologist in the 1950’s believed that “all Jews” would reject the intellectual and behavioral demands that Orthodox Judaism places, in such an open and nontraditional country like America. Without exception, they were all wrong because 60 years later “many Jews” do accept these demands to varying degrees.

    One of the valuable things we can learn from Marxism is the idea that one can change the consciousness of people through activism and education and by encouraging response to the unfolding events of history. Movements rise and fall mainly from this change in consciousness, and the rise of great leaders who either create this changed consciousness or exploit it to promote new ideas and agendas.

  7. L. Oberstein says:

    I have fantasized about an imaginary Reform congregation with a dynamic rabbi and cantor, lots of ruach, lots of text study and observance of rituals but without demands for belief in core dogma or requirements for specific levels of observance. In other words, learn Torah but don’t have to believe in Divine origin and keep mitzvos as long as it works into your schedule and is meaningful to you. In my fantasy world, this would appeal to a core of committed young people who would see how meaningful and rewarding it is but who would still not be committed to specific beliefs or observances. I call this a fantasy because I wonder if it is even possible, with the best rabbi, the most exciting services, a good summer camp and even a day school. If money were no problem, could such a Reform congregation thrive and if so, would it last for generations. In reality, I came to the conclusion when I was about 7 years old that onlly the orthodox will survive.

  8. L. Oberstein says:

    “when a few small shtiebls would have done a better job.”
    This is the crux of the dilema.Most Jews who are not orthodox would not be inspired or attracted to a service they can’t understand and a lifestyle so restrictive and different from everyone else. This is in addition to the demand to suspend belief in evolution ,for example as a sine qua non of joining a shtiebel.
    How then can we see any future for Judaism outside of the frum enclaves? Is there no reasonable accomadation with modernity that can work long term? Is left wing orthodoxy also a passing phase and only the true, true believers will remain? That is the real issue.

  9. One Christian's perspective says:

    L. Oberstein ,THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS COMMENT BY Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan of Congregation B’nai Israel in Albany, Ga. wrties in the Forward and explains from the “inside’ what the problem is:

    “What we believe has an impact on how we behave in religious communities. The sociologist Rodney Stark has popularized the thesis that religious groups need a strict theology in order to make serious demands on their adherents and that these demands, in turn, make a religion more compelling.

    Since a liberal theology leads to an emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, personal choice is inevitably promoted at the expense of the authority of G-d.”

    Might it also be possible to connect liberal theology with liberal philosophy and liberal political/religious views. What is happening in the more liberal churches, as Ellen previously mentioned, is God is not central but man is and so their membership is declining while,according to Pew Research, evangelical churches are increasing in number and membership above all others. The evangelical churches to which I am most familiar teach/preach the Word of God and worship of God as the centerpiece of all worship services and practices.

    Before I became a confessing/practicing Christian, my philosophical views were very liberal and I made fun of people who went to church and supported non-biblical view points. After meeting the living God, my views changed to be more and more God centered and less and less man centered (although, I sometimes get this wrong by my own sin). My political views started to be questioned as I became more discerning as my world view was changing. In my new beginning, I was only reading the Word of God (everywhere I was and went and all the time) and, weekly, attending church and Bible studies. Theology and doctrine came after being in church and learning snippets of it over the years. I have found that for me,it is the Spirit of God compelling me to do something and my love for God that makes me pleasantly unexpectedly desire to do what He wants…….and, that it very often is something I haven’t much thought about beforehand.

    Granted theology and doctrine can provide structure and the reason for traditions and practices but, on their own, outside of the Word of God, they would never attract or hold my interest in my beginning. As a more mature believer, I would certainly check out the theology and doctrine of any church I might consider attending/joining in the future. It is in through their published and practiced theology/ doctrine, that I would have a picture of where God fits in their midst and lives. Some denominations or churches that put as much weight on theology/doctrine/traditions of the church as God’s Word are finding they are losing members to those who try to uphold the Word of God above all other things as Pew Research has shown.

  10. Ellen says:

    Mr. Oberstein,

    Your quote from Rabbi Kaplan is totally accurate, but his observation should not be news to anyone who uses their eyes and ears to understand the world around them. The apathy, ignorance and lack of involvement of the vast majority of Reform Jews has been known and obvious for decades. All you have to do is go to a Reform Bar/Bar Mitzvah and see that no one in the audience is a regular shul-goer to understand that they have essentially no committed population at all (or let’s say no more than 2-3% of their paper membership). This is a disease of both the Conservatives and Reform and in fact many of the dying Jewish secular organizations as well (like Hadassah and Bnai Brith). A large paper membership means very little in terms of sustainability for a movement. It generates good publicity and press releases where ignorant journalists will pronounce the Reform Movement the most important one in Jewish life because of its paper membership, etc.

    For years, the same nonsense was promoted with mainstream Protestantism, which was once viewed as the dominant religion in America because of its large paper membership, even though the Evangelicals were much more committed and were sustaining their faith more successfully. What happens to a large but noncommitted paper membership? Well, it disappears in our contemporary world, where people have plenty of other options (health clubs, Starbucks, etc). A wonderful columnist named Spengler who writes for Asia Times online describes this type of paper membership as “soon to be ex-Jews.” The mainstream Protestants of the 1950s, who were supposedly the dominant religion on America, turned out to be, “soon to be ex-Protestants.”

    One thing we can say though, is that all of these liberal Jewish movements did preserve some semblence of identity and community among essentially nonreligious Jews. Hence, some of their descendents will find their way back to Jewish life in a more meaningful way. These movements were exit ramps to secularism and cultural extinction for most East European Jews, but for some, they were a placeholder until a new generation would arise that would dust off the old books and give them another try. That’s still something, but it’s hardly anything to brag about for these movements with all the money they’ve raised and all the gargantuan suburban mausoleums they have constructed, when a few small shtiebls would have done a better job.

  11. L. Oberstein says:

    “mycroft”
    is the brother of Sherlock Holmes. It is good to know that he is still alive after over a century and takes an interest in Judaism.
    You are correct that Baltimore is somewhat of an anomaly .Historically, Philadelphia, with a larger Jewish population was a stronghold of the Conservative Movement and is the location of the Reconstructionist Seminary. Boston once had many orthodox shuls, as did Chicago, why their orthodox communities withered is a good question. However, looking to the future, Baltimore shows that if there is a solid core of observant Jews and really good rabbinic leadership with unity of purpose, orthodoxy can not only survive but thrive. The key to Baltimore’s success is “critical mass” and the legacy of Rabbi Herman Neuberger.

  12. mycroft says:

    Baltimore has been a strongpoint of American Orthodoxy-but just a simple Internet search shows the following Metro areas with much larger Jewish population than Baltimore-Los Angeles, Palm Beach County, Broward County, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago,San Francisco,Dade County and Washington. How many in those areas are Orthodox?

  13. L. Oberstein says:

    Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan of Congregation B’nai Israel in Albany, Ga. wrties in the Forward and explains from the “inside’ what the problem is:

    What we believe has an impact on how we behave in religious communities. The sociologist Rodney Stark has popularized the thesis that religious groups need a strict theology in order to make serious demands on their adherents and that these demands, in turn, make a religion more compelling.

    Since a liberal theology leads to an emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, personal choice is inevitably promoted at the expense of the authority of G-d. In the absence of a strong theological basis for making religious demands, the members lose interest and wander off. This is what has happened in American Reform Judaism and in other non-Orthodox movements as well.

    As the Reform movement has increasingly emphasized religious autonomy and the importance of choosing what each person finds spiritually meaningful, it has become impossible to compel members to come to services regularly, study Torah seriously and contribute to the vibrant well-being of their congregation. Instead, they are allowed to come twice a year and call on the rabbi whenever they need a life cycle ceremony.

    There is a devil’s bargain being made between an often self-satisfied leadership and a mostly apathetic laity. Many Reform synagogues have large numbers on the books but few active participants. This unhealthy situation cannot continue indefinitely. We are now seeing the consequences of the benign neglect that has been plaguing Reform Judaism for many years.

  14. L. Oberstein says:

    Ellen’s observations are very enlightening. I am sorry to see the demise of the Conservative Movement because it gave Jewish identity and some connection to tradition to the vast majority of the children and grandchildren of the Eastern European immigrants. Ellen is correct in writing “Conservative Judaism was largely an ethnic tent with religion tacked on as pro forma or lip service, but not the real purpose for several generations of East European Jews. They preserved their ethnicity well and even created a very popular subculture out of it “. What keeps the grandchildren of these people Jews?

    I also feel that the comment: “But, the liberal wing of Orthodoxy today does a much better job doing what the Conservative Movement was supposed to have been doing ” points to a merger of the more traditional Masortis and the more egalitarian Orthodox. As “mainstream orthodoxy’ is more and more chareidi and less and less tolerant of diversity, it can lead to a schism. The one thing that the right wing of orthodoxy has is passion and committment based on a very solid basis of learning and observance. It also creates self perpetuating communities that prescribe certain norms. Much of the growth is due to a high birth rate and very effective religious guides, whose words are followed. I do not see that pardigm in the less frum part of orthodoxy and certainly not in the traditional Conservative groups, it is much more hefker, each person can do what he or she feels is meaningful. While that model in the short term much better fits in with contemporary norms, it lacks the fire and committment that eminates from the yeshiva world and the chassidic world. Unfortunately, most American Jews are just not willing or able to subjugate their minds and their behavior in such a restrictive way. They may like dati-lite but can it last? That is the question that the future will answer.

  15. Bob Miller says:

    Small, independent religious groupings depend a lot on the religious expertise of their members. On the whole, rank and file Orthodox Jews have a lot more grounding in the basics and details of Judaism than other Jews do.

  16. Ellen says:

    The independent minyanim may not disappear, although they did indeed change their names. The Havurah in Somerville Massachusetts, which I believe was one of the original ones from the 1960’s counterculture, is still alive and well, and probably calls itself a minyan nowadays. The issue, though, is whether they will become the dominant religious expression of American Judaism, as Ismar Schorsch – former chancellor of JTS – once predicted. This indulgence in wishful thinking only shows how desperate the Conservative Movement to deny the success of the Orthodox in being able to revive what looked like an almost dead movement in the 1960’s to the dominant Jewish movement today. In my NJ county, which used to be a bastion of Conservative Judaism in the 1960’s, the Orthodox are now by far the largest and growing, while the others are declining.

    This is an embarrassment for all the beautiful people (yefei nefesh, in Hebrew) who have made up the bulk of the Jewish commentariat in the last 50 years. Every Jewish sociologist, bar none, predicted the demise of Orthodox Judaism, based on the 1950’s-1960’s social and demographic trends. They were all very divorced from Jewish religious life themselves, and had no finger on the real pulse that could have informed them better in their predictions. The JTS faculty spent way too much time consorting with our academic elites who have little use for religion, while overusing the false constructs of Marxist analysis, etc. These people brainwashed themselves into believing the Marxist paradigm that class and economics determine everything and religion and culture are false phenomena, when now they have discovered that the correlation works exactly in the opposite direction.

    I remember JTS of the late 1970’s, when my best friend went there. It was an oasis of Yiddishkeit in a sea of Jewish atheism, Marxism, countercultural deconstruction, and other ideologies too fatuous to even remember. It is truly sad what happened to the Seminary and the Movement. But, the liberal wing of Orthodoxy today does a much better job doing what the Conservative Movement was supposed to have been doing for the past 130 years. Hence, truly, they have no remaining raison d’etre. They should bow out gracefully, and with their liquidation assets fund the independent minyans that will survive as a challenge to the Orthodox not to be too arrogant in their attitudes. Their track record in modern times is not exactly brilliant either. They could leave a very nice and meaningful legacy. That’s about all they can really aim for at this point.

  17. Yaakov Menken says:

    Thank you to all those who pointed out the lack of clarity in this note… in my defense, it was posted at a late hour. What I intended to say, expressed more precisely, is that the shteibl model isn’t good for the denominations (and the denominational bodies) outside Orthodoxy. These independent minyanim are drawing active people away; if not reversed, this will hasten the collapse of these movements.

    Orthodoxy has a much less formal hierarchy. I am not sure that even synagogues called “Agudath Israel of X” pay dues to the Agudah, much less the thousands of independent synagogues and shteibls whose members would most closely affiliate with it. The Young Israel is perhaps the most right-wing of the synagogue bodies — Agudah members are individuals, so whether they pay membership in a shul with 500 others or to a tiny shteibl is irrelevant.

    I think liberal “independent minyanim” will prove to be a fad (a generation ago, small minyanim were called chavurot), but that’s not what I intended to address, and indeed at present they are growing. Reb Yid, Ellen and others have sparked a fascinating discussion here…

  18. Ellen says:

    Thanks Reb Yid and Bob Miller, for insightful comments.

    Reb Yid, I have written a number of books on American ethnic groups published in the late 1990’s, which I couldn’t even write anymore today because the European ethnic groups have all disappeared as the result of assimilation and intermarriage, except one group – the Jews. The one thing preventing total disappearance for the Jews is religious life and identification, which sets them apart from all other groups in America. You are right that Conservative Judaism was largely an ethnic tent with religion tacked on as pro forma or lip service, but not the real purpose for several generations of East European Jews. They preserved their ethnicity well and even created a very popular subculture out of it (eg, the Borsht Belt, Mel Brooks/Woody Allen movies, JAP jokes, a distinctive cuisine and intellectual life, etc). How many other groups in America of comparable size created such a widely recognized ethnic culture?

    But alas, it wasn’t enough to preserve Jewishness or Yiddishkeit. You don’t need to be Jewish to eat Levy’s Rye bread as the old commercial reminded us, and you certainly don’t need to be Jewish to appreciate any Borsht or Borscht Belt comedy. All of that, however interesting, amusing and lovely, was largely trivial and not enough to save the Jewish people. This is the existential dilemma which the Conservative Movement should have addressed 40 years ago when the social barriers came down, thus allowing Jews to intermarry and assimilate.

    Instead of addressing this issue seriously, the Conservative leadership gave us the gender issue for rabbis and now the gay issue, and a whole host of other “distractions” from the real problem. It won’t help you to have gay, pregnant, female rabbis if no one wants to attend your synagogue because they don’t believe in the fundamental purpose of a synagogue. Bob Miller’s last sentence has it right, therefore. Substance is what counts and whether people believe that your substance has any truth to it. Conservative and Reform are both lacking in substance and lacking in any credibility to be messengers of that substance. No amount of gimmicks can hide that truth anymore.

    That isn’t to say the Orthodox are perfect either. They clearly are not. But as Ben Gurion said, in a different context, they form the ‘Chomer Enoshi” of the future Jewish people and its communal life and culture.

  19. Ori says:

    Bob Miller, you might find it relevant that my synagogue, Agudas Achim in Austin TX, is one of the few Conservative synagogues that are growing. Maybe it’s because religious indifference isn’t such a big part of the culture in Texas – although Austin sometimes feel like it should be in California.

  20. Bob Miller says:

    What happens to these liberal movements when no product they can devise will attract their target audience? As assimilation and religious indifference ramp up among that audience, such movements may be approaching that point, where their packaging, size, format, and choice of personnel become irrelevant.

  21. Reb Yid says:

    Ellen’s analysis is interesting, but incomplete.

    Earlier in the 20th century, synagogues in general, but particularly in the suburbs and particularly Conservative ones, served as ethnic centers that happened to take on a “religious” form (like the other churches nearby). Jews wanted and needed to be with other Jews, and the synagogue was one of the only places to do that in post WWII suburbia.

    The ethnic dimension of Judaism has since been much less salient for many American Jews, due to a variety of factors, i.e., society is now essentially open to Jews at all levels and ethnicity as a basis of cohesion is frowned upon by most Americans.

    Conservative Judaism can no longer occupy the niche of the large ethnic tent–that era has come and gone; its leaders recognize this…it needs to find a way to fuse ritual with moral, progressive values (chok and musar, if you will)…that has a chance of succeeding…the Hecksher Tzedek idea is on the right track, since institutional Orthodoxy is too caught up in chok at the expense of musar, while Reform has the opposite problem …CJ needs to look at 5-10 additional rituals that it can infuse with “value-added” musar, then maybe it will have a chance of attracting serious, contemporary American Jews.

    On Ori’s question:

    Like the Chavurah and countercultural folks of the late 1960s, the indy minyan folks are largely in their 20s or early 30s and, if married at all, do not (yet) have children, or many, at any rate. Many of those countercultural leaders today have leadership positions within the general Jewish community, denominational and otherwise.

    That is why there’s an opportunity for other synagogues to coopt them, as it is likely that many will want to move to houses and suburbia as their families grow. And their minyanim will need to institutionalize and develop more structure to reflect their shifting family structures as well.

    And it’s not just an opportunity for Conservative shuls, by the way…studies of these indy folks show that they come from a variety of backgrounds, including Orthodox.

  22. Ori says:

    Anybody knows how independent minyanim work with education? My synagogue (Agudas Achim in Austin) runs a religious school two times a week, but I can’t see how a small minyan would have the resources for education.

  23. Ellen says:

    Actually, the shtiebl model for Jewish congregational life is the only thing that can possibly save what remains of the Conservative Movement. This is the real Jewish contribution, if I might say so, to American religious life – smaller, and more personal is better. Not for everybody, necessarily. The Evangelical Christians have done very well with their megachurches in the South, but that is a region where they are the dominant religious group and an actual majority of the population in many places.

    For Jews, who are a small minority everywhere (even in the NY area), the shtiebl model of community is what keeps people connected and makes them want to be connected, because there is nothing comparable that can be offered by the secular culture.

    Among the many mistakes that the Conservative Movement made back in the 1950’s, one of their worst was when they decided to opt for large buildings with large paper memberships but few committed members. A committed core of 10-20% of the families in a large 1000 family congregation is going to be powerless to influence the culture and ethos of that community. They will be outvoted on every issue and their financial contributions will never compare to those of the apathetic majority of the membership. Thus, the apathy crowd who never come to Shabbat services or care about the religious life of the shul, end up dominating the culture and spirit of the synagogue. We can easily see the results of this system by looking at the huge decline in membership in these once large shuls.

    On the other hand, if you had 4 smaller synagogues comprising those same 1000 families, one would attract the committed people and the other 3 would attract the apathetic majority. It would quickly become obvious to everyone that the 3 apathetic congregations would not be viable, since they would barely be able to muster a minyan for services every week. This would make it crystal clear, what the real issues are in Conservative Judaism. Instead of having a small minority sustain religious life for the apathetic majority, you would force people to ask themselves, why am I joining a Conservative synagogue in the first place if I have no interest in Judaism.

    Thus, the Conservative Movement would have faced this existential crisis 40 years ago, when it had far more financial support and general identification than it has today. In today’s world, in my county of New Jersey, the demise of Conservative synagogues that progresses year by year, hardly elicits a sigh from anyone (other than the unemployed rabbi and a few loyalists). New Orthodox minyans open up each year and absorb the Conservadox refugees fleeing a disintegrating movement. The rest of the former membership has long since disappeared into the category of “disaffiliated.”

    The suburban temple 1950’s model was truly a disaster for liberal Judaism. They should have stuck closer to their East European roots rather than imitating the mainline Protestant denominations, as they did. Mainline Protestantism has largely disappeared in most of the Northeast, except some beautiful old church buildings that will be preserved as museums. Will anyone bother to do that for the Reform and Conservative synagogues?

  24. Reb Yid says:

    “The shteibl model may work for Orthodoxy, but apparently not so well outside it.”

    Actually, this is the model for many of the best and brightest in this world. Independent minyanim or versions thereof are flourishing, and the institutional denominational bodies know it.

    Note, for example, the new strategic plan just issued this month by the USCJ, which basically recognizes that it needs to incorporate these folks (or at least try to) if it is to be viable in the future.

  25. Ori says:

    The shteibl model may work for Orthodoxy, but apparently not so well outside it.

    Do you have evidence for that? The article claims that independent minyanim exist, they just don’t join denominations.

    The plan describes an effort to reach out to the so-called independent minyanim, small unaffiliated congregations with mostly younger members.