Not your grandfather’s shtibl

As we walked back from shul on a recent Shabbat, my friend and neighbor David Myers asked me if I was “comfortable” with the service we had just attended.

He asked me that question, because I’d mentioned that I’m not used to a service where they don’t separate the men and the women. I have many non-Orthodox friends, and have occasionally visited their synagogues, but this was the first time I really got down and prayed with them.

So no, I was not too comfortable in these unfamiliar surroundings.

But I was fascinated.

While the Pico-Robertson neighborhood is clearly dominated by the Orthodox community, there is a whole other hood within the hood that is not Orthodox. And to be honest, I feel somewhat guilty that it’s taken me about 40 columns to finally get to them. I guess I was going where my comfort level was. Orthodox is what I was raised with, and it’s what I know. But when David invited me to an egalitarian minyan on Robertson Boulevard, I saw my chance.

The first thing that shook me up is the namethe Shtibl Minyan. Shtibl? Doesn’t that sound a little ultra-Orthodox, like something you might see in a shtetl?

Well, yes, but nothing about the Shtibl Minyan is too predictable. For one thing, everyone chips in on everything. And I mean everythingthey take turns leading the prayers, reading from the Torah, making commentaries on the Torah portion of the week and, of course, setting up and cleaning up after the Kiddush.

That’s why they call it egalitarian. There are no presidents, no rabbis and no chazzans. Everyone’s equal. It’s sort of a structured free-for-all. If a decision needs to be made, it must be by consensus. You wonder how they still talk to each other.

When I visited, there were maybe 25 or 30 people in a nondescript, medium-sized conference room, which they rent from the Workmen’s Circle. There are long tables facing each other, a perfect setting for, say, a city council meeting in a tiny Midwestern town. But you quickly realize that you are in a shul, a serious shul. No one talks, everyone prays.

And which melodies do they use when they pray? A Chasidic rabbi’s, of course: the late Shlomo Carlebach, the master of the joyful niggun. On the Shtibl’s Web site, they claim to bring the energy of Simchat Torah to their Shabbat services. That’s easier said than done, but these are clearly happy people who like being where they are.

I’ve been to many Chasidic minyans, and when the simcha hits a fever pitch, we usually clap our hands or bang on the tables. At the Shtibl minyan, they do something I hadn’t seen: they stamp their feet. Not in a loud way, but almost gently, to the rhythm of the prayer and the occasional circular dances that sprinkle the service.

In fact, everything about the Shtibl mynian has a certain gentleness. The dress is earthy casual, the facial expressions reverential but still laid back. If a liberal, musically inclined kibbutz had a minyan, this might be it.

There was one moment in the history of the shul, however, when gentleness took a back seat. This was about seven years ago, during the Democratic Convention in downtown Los Angeles. Arieh Cohen, a pony-tailed Talmud professor with the look of a beatnik hipster, decided to gather a little group of friends for a political demonstration. This show of passion so galvanized the group that it led to the creation of the Shtibl Minyan, which also became a home base for social activism.

This is not a shul that is Jew-centric. The membersa mix of progressive intellectualstake their tikkun olam very seriously. They interpret the Jewish mission broadly to care for the downtrodden of all races and religions. Their Judaism has the most meaning when it is taken out into the real world, like when they link up with groups such as American Jewish World Service, which fights worldwide poverty, and an anti-slavery group called iAbolish, which bills itself as the “world’s first e-abolish movement.”

While I admire these causes, I confess that in the past few years my priorities have shifted. I’ve become more Jew-centric. The Jews are my people, and since we are so tiny and have so few friends around the world, I don’t mind saying that they are my main agenda. When I asked Arieh if he felt a certain obligation to put his Jewish brethren first, he quoted Torah sources that speak to the importance of tikkun olam, and then he brought up a notion I had never heard beforewhat he calls “permeable boundaries.”

Permeable boundaries are Arieh’s way of reconciling the dual obligations of the Jewish faith. When it comes to helping God’s children, we don’t set boundaries that can’t be crossed. It’s a constant back and forth between helping our fellow Jews and helping our fellow humans, and it’s up to us to find the right balance. Personally, my balance skews toward other Jews, but I love knowing that there are Jews like Arieh who might have a different balance.

So when David asked me if my egalitarian experience had made me uncomfortable, it turned out to be a trick question. Because while the correct answer was yes, the more important answer was that it didn’t really matter.

What mattereda lot more than my comfortwas that I met Jews who love their Judaism, and who showed me different ways of expressing that love.

It’s true that there’s a lot to be said for the comfort of the familiar, but there’s also a lot to be said for those butterflies you feel when you discover the unfamiliar.

Especially when that unfamiliar happens to be family.

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David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at