In the spring of 1978, a year after we were married, my wife and I were lucky enough to find an affordable house in Newton Centre. On the day we moved in, as I was schlepping a framed art print from the car to our new home, our across-the-street neighbor, whom I hadn’t yet met, ran over to greet me. He had recognized the print I was carrying, a colorful portrait of the biblical prophet Jonah by the Israel artist David Sharir, and assuming, correctly, that I was Jewish, he couldn’t wait to tell me about his congregation.
In this case, though, “congregation” may be too grand a word. When he described a small, informal, traditional but egalitarian group that met for occasional Shabbat morning services in the homes of its members, I knew exactly what he meant. I had spent my adult life in such groups, and had even written articles about them. A month or so later, I joined.
Sometimes known as havurot, non-Orthodox congregations without professional clergy began forming here and there in the 1970s, and although their numbers have grown in the years that followed, only a tiny fraction of American Jewry belong to them. Then, as now, the vast majority of affiliated Jews joined established, full-service synagogues. Some of us, though, found their services too formal, and were put off by their clear division between leaders and followers. We were also uncomfortable with the static constraints of fixed pews in an auditorium-like setting, which made the services feel even more like a performance for a passive audience than a participatory and engaging experience.
To be sure, the people forming these alternative congregations enjoyed a significant advantage: most of us had deep Jewish backgrounds and/or a strong religious education. Some were themselves rabbis, cantors, or teachers of Jewish texts, history, or philosophy; others, like me, were knowledgeable laypeople and/or eager learners. And all of us came in with eyes open, knowing that by joining a group with no professional staff, we were agreeing to take on the various volunteer duties that had to be done. These responsibilities ranged from leading services, preparing Torah readings, or giving a brief presentation about that day’s reading to arranging for a modest kiddush after services or simply setting up the chairs and cleaning up when services were over.
For the first few years, groups like ours emphasized the word egalitarian, which meant primarily that women were treated as equals and could lead services and take on the various ritual duties that, until recently, had been done only by men. But egalitarian had another connotation as well. It also meant that members with less Jewish learning counted just as much as the rabbis and scholars in our midst.
Within a year or two, our informal congregation would grow into the Newton Centre Egalitarian Minyan, although it wasn’t until 1983 that there were enough of us to hold services every week. Three years later, when we had outgrown even the largest of the available living rooms, we began renting a room, and then a larger room, at the First Baptist Church in Newton Centre, where we remained for some 16 years. At some point, the term egalitarian in our name was dropped because it no longer seemed necessary.
When the church started to feel cramped, we moved again, to Hebrew College, in its brand-new building at the top of Herrick Road, next to what was then the Andover Newton Theological School. That was in late 2002, and we remained there for 20 years, enjoying the spacious hallways and holding our services in the beautiful Hebrew College cafeteria, which featured not only a skylight, but floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on a small wooded area.
Never once during all these years did we ever have a serious conversation about buying or building a place of our own. We were afraid of becoming an institution, and almost nobody in our community was willing to get involved in fundraising. This strategic immaturity was one of our weaknesses, I think, and there were others. Although we were good at holding services and very good at showing up for one another when a member was ill, in mourning, or simply needed a ride, we were less successful when it came to organizing ancillary learning opportunities or cultural programs, although we did manage a few. Because most of our kids were enrolled in Jewish day schools, we never considered opening a Hebrew school. And we didn’t really imagine that our time at Hebrew College might be limited.
But nothing lasts forever, and in 2018 we learned that the college where we were happily ensconced would be moving in a year or two, which meant that we would again need a new home. Although we’ve never been big on committees, we quickly formed one to look for a suitable space that would be large enough to accommodate our membership, which by then numbered more than 200 families. Because some of our members don’t drive on Shabbat, the search was confined to a one-mile radius of the immediate neighborhood.
After a long and arduous process that failed to turn up a new venue that pleased everyone, it became clear that the only path forward was to embrace the stark reality that faced us: the Newton Centre Minyan, a community that over the decades had experienced only a handful of significant arguments, and where almost everything had been decided by consensus, was almost certainly headed for a split. One contingent quickly coalesced around Temple Emanuel’s offer to join their congregation and hold independent services in one of their social halls, while the rest of us continued to search for a suitable space for a group that was now about half its original size.
In 2021, after a process that wasn’t without acrimony, the members of the Newton Centre Minyan were asked to choose which group they wanted to be part of. It was widely expected that in the absence of any ideological or religious differences, many of us, who saw merits in both options, would likely go where the bulk of our friends were going, which was exactly what happened.
Each of the two tributaries ended up with almost the same number of members, and in a nice touch, a handful of members generously chose to join both groups. And some of the earlier bad feelings were assuaged when the two communities came back together for combined High Holiday services the following year.
The group that chose Temple Emanuel is now known as Minyan Ma’or. The group I’m part of, following some disappointments when more than one promising venue fell through, recently signed a 10-year lease on a small commercial building on Walnut Street near Beacon, and became the Walnut Street Minyan.
It was only after we had settled on our new location that we learned that back in the early 1970s, one of our members had occasionally attended Shabbat morning services in that very building. Ken Gould grew up in West Newton and attended Temple Emanuel, but as a teenager, when he became more observant and no longer wanted to drive on Shabbat, he sometimes took himself to the Orthodox Kehillath Jacob, formerly of Mattapan, that rented space on Walnut Street for about three years. Gould saw himself as the only young person among a group of old men. Half a century later, he says with a smile that these “old men” may well have been middle-aged.
We in the Walnut Street Minyan look forward to continuing as a self-run congregation that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And now that we have our own space, we’re eager to expand our activities well beyond our weekly Shabbat services. Whether that takes the form of study groups, social occasions, cultural programs, or all of the above and more, remains to be seen. There’s a good deal of optimism and excitement in the group, and however our future unfolds, we expect to be far more active in our new location simply because it’s ours. And we invite anyone who may be interested to check us out.
For more information about the Walnut Street Minyan, please contact [email protected].
William Novak is the co-editor, with Moshe Waldoks, of The Big Book of Jewish Humor. A longtime Newton resident, he is best known as the co-author of autobiographies by Lee Iacocca, Tip O’Neill, Nancy Reagan, Oliver North, Tim Russert, Magic Johnson and Natan Sharansky. He now writes privately commissioned family memoirs and biographies.
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