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Worship in Their Own Hands

Members, not a rabbi, lead a personalized prayer experience at Movable Minyan.


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.

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