JewSchool: Movement, Denominations, and Minyanim…oh my!

JewSchool: Movement, Denominations, and Minyanim…oh my!

A little while back, in addressing recent discussions of minyanim and reacting to Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, BZ posted:

Rabbi Kaunfer writes "New self-proclaimed movements sprung up — Reconstructionism, and the Renewal and Chavurah Movements." The "Chavurah movement" is not now and has never been a "self-proclaimed movement" parallel to the "big three" or the Reconstructionist movement. Rabbi Kaunfer himself has argued for why the latest wave of independent minyanim do not constitute a "movement" in that mold, and the same is true for earlier waves of havurot.

This has led me to think about the similarities and differences between what people tend to refer to as Chavura, Conservative, Independent Minyan, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Renewal. (note that I alphabetized them rather than forcing them into a spectrum that doesn't quite fit). Of course these labels have substantial overlap. Some are parallel. Some are not. They all come about because people want quick categories that they can use to label the Jewish approach of themselves and others.

–This next paragraph can be skipped, it defines a few terms and frames the issue, but some might find it needlessly semantic–Some of these labels are (what I'll call) institutional, ideological, and/or aesthetic. Insitutional groupings are based on a subset of Jews being unified based on connection to an institution(s). For instance, The Conservative movement is an institutional grouping since it's people are connected through camps, schools, youth groups, an other institutions. It is also an ideological grouping since it has positions on many questions that it endorses. Conservative Jews have tendencies to think about Israel in certain ways, egalitarianism, etc. Of course, some differ and there is some diversity, but certainly, you can see what I mean by ideological grouping. By aesthetic, I mean a preference for decision-making model, prayer approach, or something else which is not explicitly Ideological. In many cases these issues are deeply moral, so I don't mean to imply that this is in any sense superficial. Minyanim, for instance are united by a desire for lay-ledness and thus "Minyan" is an aesthetic grouping. This is a rather arbitrary nuance but there certainly is a nuance between how people think about the world (ideology) and how they prefer their prayer specifically (prayer aesthetic) that while influenced by the former is a slightly different issue.

Now I'll take a look at a few common groupings and examine what they are, where they come from, and which they are parallel too, and not.


This term is especially confusing since it refers to two substantially disparate kinds of communities. Some use it to refer to lay-led communities which don't employ professionals. For instance, this label is often is often associated with the groups that sought a more organic, spiritual, and culturally relevant Judaism in the 60s and 70s such as Havurat Shalom in Boston (which began as a seminary of sorts), the New York Havurah, and Farbrengen in DC. All these groups had major learning and political components in addition to davening and social retreats. The critical writing in this do-it-yourself movement was the Jewish Catalog (and its 2 sequels). Many of these early havurot where like communes. The collective living aspects soon diminished but many still had consensus-based decision-making, specific membership, and intense community.

At the same time that these pioneers of lay-led intimate communities were striking out to build new kinds of independent models the term was also being used to refer to synagogue-based sub-groups. Harold Schulweis helped create this model.

The 20th century use of chavurah originateds with fellowship who met to study the writings of Moredecai Kaplan. More of the relationship between Reconstructionism and havurot later…

This is largely an aesthetic group. There is wide variation on every ideological issue. Havurot tend to be egalitarian but aren't necessarily. Really it's two different aesthetic groups (the in-shul and is-a-shul). Both though seek intimacy and intensity in Jewish life and have members who are willing to put in more time and energy to achieve those goals than many big congregation Jews are willing to.


People often use "movement" and "denomination" interchangeably. In the case of the Conservative movement/denomination, this is reasonable. The Conservative denomination has institutional and ideological ties. It has a process for making movement-wide practice decisions (The Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards), its own seminaries (JTS, UJ, Schecter/Cons. Yeshiva), an organization of synagogues (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), and a pseudo-union for it's clergy (The Rabbinical Association).

Interestingly, the Conservative denomination has given rise to many of these other innovative groups (mostly unwillingly). Many of the early havurah-niks were former ramah campers/staff and Art Green, one of the main early leaders graduated from JTS. Mordecai Kaplan, founding thinker of the Recons, was a faculty member at JTS until his retirement. He influenced generations of Conservative rabbis and did not intend to start another denomination. Many of the current leaders of new minyanim have connections with the Conservative movement–specifically @ Hadar (of course, many minyanim have no connections to the Conservatives).

    Independent Minyan

It seems that "Independent Minyanim" is the chic term for lay-led communities not based in synagogues. These groups have much in common with the kind of havurot discussed earlier. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s most of the leaders in the network of lay-led communities used "minyan" to mean prayer groups and "havurah" to mean a member-based group which was social, political, religious, cultural, and often residential or semi-residential. More on the nuances between havurot and minyanim here and here. It is a sad when words which formerly conveyed nuance cease to, since their usage blends. In contemporary terms the nuance between "havurah" and "minyan" is less well-known and that's a shame.

Back to the main point. Independent minyanim are categorized by their lay-ledness. This category contains havurot and minyanim (with the possible exception of those based in synagogues). It is an aesthetic category. There are a few institutions, the National Havurah Committee and Mechon Hadar for example, which help independent community members connect with folks from other communities both socially, for learning, and for mentoring each other on the mechanics of running minyanim.

I put "independent" in scare quotes since I think it is a silly term that doesn't do a good job describing what makes these communities different. More on why here.


Though Orthodoxy is frequently thought of as one of the "big three" along with the Conservative and Reform movements it isn't really analogous. The Orthodox world has many denominations. It is an umbrella containing a variety of ideologies with aligned institutions. For instance, Lubovitch, has its own seminaries, schools, places of worship, etc, and is parallel to C and R. Modern orthodoxy has some institutions (YU, Maimonides etc) and is somewhat parallel. This is a world linked by ideology (though the spread between Soloveichik, Salanter, and Schneerson is enormous). Many orthodox communities, as it happens, don't have paid clergy lead prayers and are, in this regard, lay-led making some orthodox prayer groups minyanim or even (ack!) havurot.


Reconstructionism is somewhat like Cons. and Ref. It has a seminary, Rabbinical Association, synagogue coordinating organization, youth group, and camp. It is somewhat different in that it has a commitment to local community process to create policy and construct ideology. it has a similarly wide spread to the havurot. Though it has just a smidge over 100 congregations some use a (the?) hechsher system for koshrut, others use an eco-koshrut approach, yet others are vegetarian as a means of making food match their values. Some have clergy-oriented services and others are chavurot or minyanim.

Reconstructionism differs from Reform and Conservative in that it was started primarily in a US context. As a result it prioritizes democracy at the national and local level to a very large degree. This may be part of why communal process is prioritized in the movements ideology. Recons have major aesthetic diversity but tend to be somewhat similar ideologically though the movement doesn't have positions quite the way the Conservative movement does.

Lastly, it's useful to not that in the early years of Reconstructionism (RRC and Havurat Shalom were both founded in 1968), there was a lot of cross-pollination. Many early Recon rabbis were Conservative-trained and had been part of the community-learning model in the Kaplanian Havurot. The NHC was originally located at the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot (FRCH was the USCJ equivalent). The director of FRCH was a member of a minyan. In the years since, the Recons became more focused on growth in suburban synagogues though there are major exceptions.


Like the Conservative grouping, Reform is an ideological, aesthetic, and organization grouping. There is diversity on all points.


Renewal is an interesting case. It is somewhat similar to the Con., Rec., Ref. set since it has institutional, ideological, and aesthetic connections but is much smaller and has a different model for Rabbinic training. I understand that it is decentralized. In some sense, Renewal is more like an "independent" synagogue. It tends to have employed clergy but limited institutional frameworks. Of course the main nuance between havurah and Renewal is that the former is lay-led and the latter tends to be focused around charismatic leaders (rebbes).

It is useful to have labels that give us shortcuts in understanding the practices, preferences, and beliefs of others. These heuristics can help a lot but haven't kept pace with the times. We now have many which overlap. What kind of Jew are you? Well I prefer the structure of a havurah, the basic ideology of Reconstructionism, and pluralistic institutions. If you happen to go to a Conservative synagogue, send your kids to USY and Ramah, and like the prayer book/Rabbi's sermons you have a much easier answer than I do. As the years have gone by, and America has changed, people increasingly want embrace complicated identities. I talk a lot more, here, about how institutional decoupling will happen over time. Increasingly people will want to separate the organizations for Israeli politics, American politics, worship, camp, etc since our placement of one slides (israel, etc) doesn't strongly correlate with others, hence the interest in having several sliders rather than just one (Reform, Ortho, etc). More and more people will want to separate their Institutional, Ideological, and Aesthetic affiliations. This is why the old denominations are changing and most young people are looking for different solutions. The labels are changing because Jewish life is changing. We'll need to develop better organizations and better labels to keep up.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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