After a long, difficult Friday, the young professionals of Orange County get treated to a Shabbat service with comforting melodies, spiritual enlightenment, a delicious dinner, and no announcements regarding the men’s club’s bagel brunch on Sunday.
The Nefesh Minyan is one of the more than 60 independent minyanim offered throughout the United States. The Orange County prayer group is designed to serve the young adult community in their 20s and 30s, married or single, who are not affiliated with a synagogue but still are looking to have a connection to the spiritual side of their Judaism.
“Our age group no longer belongs to our parents’ shul, and we aren’t paying dues to belong to our own shul,” Stacey Gitten, who heads up Nefesh Minyan for Orange County’s Young Leadership Division (YLD), said. “We are in a no-man’s-land of Jewish spirituality.”
Jeffrey Katz, immediate past chair of YLD who sometimes leads the religious side of Nefesh Minyan, agreed with Gitten’s sentiments about the community, adding that many synagogues have a stronger emphasis on getting families with children involved versus young professionals — many of whom not be taking advantage of temple offerings and may feel aloof at being in a synagogue without their peers.
“It’s honestly my favorite part of YLD,” Katz said. “It works on not only getting a community, but also to develop leaders for our Jewish community in the future.”
Independent minyanim have been popping up all over the country for the past several years, with some of them, such as IKAR in Los Angeles, obtaining national recognition and importance. According to a recent CNN article regarding the new generation of Jews, many younger Jews are not joining synagogues, but are still looking for a form of spirituality. It was through this idea that Nefesh Minyan was born.
Originally the brainchild of Rabbi Jocee Hudson, who at the time served as director of religious education at Temple Beth Sholom, a grant was provided by Orange County Jewish Community Foundation for two years to create a new type of Jewish spiritual community. The goal was to provide a song leader and/or guest rabbi, a location to hold the services within Orange County, and a Shabbat dinner. Although it wasn’t originally a part of YLD, it was supported by many members of the organization.
After Hudson left in 2009, Gitten took charge of maintaining the community and keeping it alive. After two years of success, Nefesh Minyan became a cluster of YLD and received funding through Jewish Federation.
When the group started in 2008 at the Portola Springs Clubhouse, there were approximately 25 to 30 people. In October 2010, there were 75 people there, and it was standing room only.
“The last one really exemplifies how far we’ve come,” said Jackie Menter, director of professional philanthropy at Jewish Federation and Family Services of Orange County, as well as the leader of YLD.
At the Nefesh Minyan in October, there was a sheva brachot, or blessing for two newly married members of the community, and welcoming new members of Nefesh Minyan with a d’var Torah and a shot of vodka – a tradition that Katz brought in from his past experiences in Israel during Shabbat. The goal is to make everyone feel that he or she has a place, something that the community is happy to provide to new members.
“The experience is so unintimidating and so warm,” said Katz. “It’s a nice welcome to the Orange County Jewish team.”
Unlike many synagogues, there is no definitive movement in Judaism with which Nefesh Minyan identifies. With Reform and Conservative melodies and prayers and a twist of tradition, the community has developed a strong sense of identity without the structure of the traditional congregation. According to Menter, it’s a “pareve” service, slightly abbreviated and not intimidating – in fact, many attendees know the melodies.
However, “You don’t need to know the service or the prayers. Anyone should come and feel comfortable,” Menter said.
The organization has changed over the years, including a short relocation to Park Newport’s clubhouse before returning to the Portola Springs clubhouse a year ago. The song leaders change, and there have been shifts in leadership. However, there is a group of consistent members who mix with newer ones; according to Gitten, 50 percent of the people who come to Nefesh Minyan are new, so there is a constant mix.
The services currently are funded to happen every other month, with a dairy dinner catered by Parties by Panache, a catering company based in Brea. For Gitten, there is a lot of pride in having an organization that’s not only community-led, but community funded and supported.
“It’s not like you have to belong, not like you’re paying dues,” she said. “It’s not like if you didn’t come before, you’re not welcome. It’s an easy place to pick up.”
Currently, YLD is looking for grant money and community donations to sustain Nefesh Minyan through 2011, as well as looking for additional organizers. However, the goal is to keep things rolling with the warm and welcoming community that it has and bring in all of the new community members looking for a home.
“I think it attracts people who have a little spark in them, a desire to taste Shabbat,” said Katz. “They know Shabbat; they need a safe, welcoming environment for singles or young couples to experience Shabbat. We created a family of singles and young couples. Everyone who goes there feels like he or she is a part of a family.”
For more information or to donate to Nefesh Minyan, contact Jackie Menter at (949) 435-3484.