Worship in Their Own Hands

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The best way to find this prayer service is to follow the sound of lute music coming from upstairs in this Westside Jewish community center. Sports trophies decorate the room, but they begin to look out of place after the strings warm up and Hebrew chanting begins.

Little things tell a visitor that this not a typical Sabbath gathering, and that the 20 people assembled here are as cozy together as old friends. There are hints of it all through their service. The man who is chosen to carry the Torah, the sacred scroll, is a new father. Just for a second, after the procession, he rocks the scroll like a baby.

Four women take turns reading scripture, helping each other with the difficult Hebrew words. A little boy burrows between them to see what they are doing, and no one seems to notice. Latecomers to the service drop off a casserole at the buffet table for a lunch after prayers.

And there isn't a rabbi in sight.

One recent Saturday morning, before the discussion of the day's Torah reading begins, people sit back to get comfortable. Conversation ranges from an older member's memory of '40s Germany, where men wore top hats to the synagogue, to a question of whether Jews ought to reinstate the order of priests, which existed in the days of Moses and Aaron.

Wandering eyes will notice how little grandeur it takes to create a sacred space. The lectern at this Sabbath service is a cafeteria table. The plywood stand for the Torah scrolls has a definite homemade look. Most people are wearing the turquoise yarmulkes they made one year at a family summer camp. No golden Ark for the scrolls or sterling menorah decorates the room. But it would be hard to find a group more attentive to their prayers than the people gathered here.

Minyan is the Hebrew term for the quorum of 10 men who must be present in order to conduct a prayer service. But from the beginning, 13 years ago, this group, called the Movable Minyan, has applied a looser definition. Ten people, men or women, fill their requirement. The only part of the term that fits them is their purpose: to gather for a Jewish prayer service.

Most Saturdays there is a rabbi present, but he is a member, not the leader. "We go because it is lay led," says Rabbi Moshe Ben Abner. He and his wife, Khulda Bat Sarah, joined the group last year. They heard about it from friends in Northern California before they moved to Los Angeles.

Though Abner recently founded his own synagogue and holds Friday night services in his home, they continue to attend the Movable Minyan on Saturday mornings, partly for practical reasons. "You have to have a Torah scroll as part of a Shabbat morning service," he says. "They cost about $10,000. We don't own one yet." There is another reason, too. "My wife and I like to pray with a small group," Abner says.

Seeking Smaller Prayer Groups

The longing for a more intimate religious gathering is not unique to those who've found their way to the Minyan. "It is a growing phenomenon in larger synagogues," says Janice Batzdorff, 53, who directs the children's religious-education program for the Movable Minyan and is a full-time home school teacher.

In most large synagogues, however, a rabbi leads the group and those who attend are members of the larger congregation. Batzdorff, for one, finds that too restrictive. "More people are becoming learned in their religion and they want to put their skills to work," she says.

She joined the Movable Minyan four years ago and gave up her affiliation with a synagogue. She wanted to read from the Torah and lead a discussion group from time to time, but rarely got the chance in her large congregation. And she was looking for a sense of community--"It's just not there in a large hall," she says.

At first glance, the Movable Minyan might appear to attract rebels who can't find their place in traditional congregations. But rebellion wasn't what prompted Edmon Rodman and his wife, Brenda, to start the Minyan in their Los Angeles living room. They weren't giving up on organized religion. They just wanted to make it more meaningful for themselves.

"I was stuck," Rodman says. "I was in my 30s but still at high school level in my religion." He belonged to a Conservative synagogue at the time, but never got a chance to read from the Torah at a service. And, he says, he felt as if no one was really listening when he joined in Torah discussions. He missed the sense of community he'd had in the congregation where he grew up in Anaheim. "My wife and I couldn't find any real connections in Los Angeles," he says. "We were looking for a place to feel we belonged." The Rodmans invited friends for a Sabbath service at Hanukkah 13 years ago and the meetings continued after the holiday. Pretty soon there was a crowd. "Sometimes we had 40 people," Rodman says. "For a lot of them it was a kick." It didn't take long for the core members to figure out they'd better get organized. They needed to plan liturgies, select a prayer book, set up a calendar. Somebody had to read from the Torah at every service; somebody else had to lead a discussion. There were announcements to mail, dues to collect, bills to pay, toddlers to watch over while the grown-ups prayed. So the work was divided among them. Everything gets done by volunteers.

"It's a huge commitment," says Rodman, 48, the group's first president. He served for five years, juggling his religious commitments with his work as a writer and illustrator of children's books. The group now meets every other Saturday morning, generally at the Westside Jewish Community Center on Olympic Boulevard but occasionally at other sites.

Presidents serve a four-year term. There are dues, now set at $230 per family, mainly to cover rent. (At a large synagogue, family dues can be well over $1,000 per year.) Eight men and eight women started this group, Rodman says; 30 families now belong. Every member is encouraged to help. Ten members recently spent months researching prayer books, for instance, and the group finally agreed on one that is more complete than what they were using.

Big decisions, such as this one, are not always easy to make. "Sometimes we've locked horns," Batzdorff says. How involved should the children be during services? That question led to some serious discussion. "Some people find it distracting to have children leading parts of the service, but the parents are glowing," she says. There are currently six children, ages 5 through 12, among the regulars on Saturday mornings. They meet separately for Torah study and arts and crafts.

"The word 'consensus' gets used a lot," says Batzdorff. "We resolve things through discussions, they can be heated. There is no clergy, no parent figure for us to defer to. That makes it more difficult at times."

A Personal Assignment

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, the whole community receives one main assignment. Apples and honey are symbols of the holiday, so a carved apple, filled with slips of paper, is passed among the members. Each person draws a slip of paper with a date written on it, the date he or she will lead the Torah discussion. It's a commitment everyone takes seriously.

"You can't slack off, you have to work," says Sara Goodman, a freelance writer in her 40s who joined the group 11 years ago. This summer she helped organize a bus tour through the mid-Wilshire district, a trip down memory lane celebrating the Minyan's birthday. Members went from one to another of the houses where they have met over the years, snacking on homemade kosher food at every stop. (Members come from every branch of Judaism, but they serve kosher food at their social events.)

Esther Hecht and her husband, Herbert, both in their 70s, joined the Minyan two years ago. "The adults in the group are the same age as our children," Esther Hecht says. "Our children get a little jealous because we're so involved in these people's lives." At a recent Saturday morning gathering, everyone knew the couple was leaving for a vacation, and the service ended with a blessing for them--"a travel blessing," she says. "We were on our way to New Guinea."

The Hechts spent months looking for a synagogue where they felt comfortable. "I was overwhelmed by all the ceremony and tradition," Esther says of the services she attended. "Religion has to be accessible and comfortable for people. It can't be static."

One of her favorite things is the way they sometimes meet in a public park, or a member's home.

Asked what a synagogue has to offer that the Movable Minyan does not, members answer by saying they do belong to synagogues. Some join so that their children can attend a religious school. Others want a rabbi and a temple available for weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs. But the Minyan is their home, the place where they regularly worship.

The Rodmans' twin boys will have their bar mitzvah next year, and Edmon and his family are still deciding where to hold the service. The teenagers want to do things the way their friends do--with a ceremony at an established synagogue--but the Rodmans' boys have grown up with the Movable Minyan as their congregation. A volunteer committee is developing standards for a service, just in case.

"It is not necessary to be affiliated with a synagogue," says Rabbi David Wolpe, a senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. "But I hope people do have a regular connection to one."

Wolpe, a Conservative rabbi, is known for his openness to creative ideas. He points out that rabbis aren't always required, but they do tend to know more than other people about their religion, and add to the life of a synagogue.

"There should be learning as part of a congregation's life," Wolpe says. "It should be led by someone who is more learned."

But it would be difficult to miss the learning that takes place within the Minyan. When the group formed, hardly anyone knew Hebrew.

Now, almost every one can read it well enough to take their turn before the Torah. Two young women from the community have gone on to be ordained rabbis. "People here care for each other, years on end," Goodman says. "It's a very stable community."

The feeling of intimacy they all seem to crave has taken on a distinctly religious core. At the end of the service, Howard Posner, the new father, invites everyone home for a bris . His baby boy will be circumcised, and he wants the infant's extended family to be there.

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