Grassroots minyan in East Bay celebrates first year

Every week someone in the car pool made the same comment: “We should have a minyan in the East Bay.”

The remark always came during the drive back to the East Bay from San Francisco following Friday night services at the Mission Minyan.

After hearing the comment over and over, “We finally decided to get serious and really do this,” said Roger Studley, one of the founders of the East Bay Minyan.

Now the independent minyan is celebrating its one-year anniversary.

A quasi spin-off of the Mission Minyan, the East Bay Minyan meets the first Friday of every month at various sites in Oakland and Berkeley. The group will be celebrating its anniversary with a Shabbat service and potluck dinner on Friday, May 7 at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley.

Sixty people attended the East Bay Minyan’s Lag B’Omer bonfire at the Berkeley Marina. photo/shira andron

Like its Mission brethren, the East Bay Minyan gathers for “spirited, traditional davening,” Studley said. The prayers are all in Hebrew, and a Kiddush always follows the service.

Traditionally, a minyan is 10 men, or in many Reform and Conservative synagogues, 10 people of any gender. At the East Bay Minyan, a minyan means 10 women and 10 men.

A woman always leads the first part of the service, known as Kabbalat Shabbat, while a man leads the second part, known as Ma’ariv. People sit in a trichitza setting, in which there are three seating sections: males on one side, females on the other and mixed seating in between.

“They’ve really done their best to accommodate everyone’s beliefs,” said Ben Lepow of Oakland.

Lepow and his wife, Stephanie, moved to the Bay Area four years ago, but after a bit of shul shopping didn’t find anything that fit their needs or comfort level; nor were they ready to make the financial commitment of joining a synagogue.

The East Bay Minyan popped up just in time. Days before its first service in 2009, Ben’s grandmother died. He needed a place to say Kaddish.

“People are there to daven and enjoy, to have a wonderful Friday night,” Lepow said. “The spirit and energy in the room are great. We’ve met some really good people and it’s always a warm and welcoming environment.”

Like the Mission Minyan, the “sweet spot,” Studley said, of the East Bay Minyan is young couples or singles, often those ranging in age from 25 to 40, though college students and retired individuals also have attended.

Forty people came to the minyan’s first service. Since then, between 40 and 55 people usually attend Friday night services, and 60 people showed up for a May 1 Lag B’Omer bonfire at the Berkeley Marina.

“This has really been an if-you-build-it-they-will-come situation,” said Greg Newmark, a U.C. Berkeley graduate student who helped start the minyan with Studley and Oakland residents Rabbi David Kasher and Jacob Heitler.

Newmark’s biggest goal for the East Bay Minyan is to inspire unaffiliated Jews in the East Bay to get involved and help build a Jewish community in their own backyard.

“I haven’t felt a part of the community in the East Bay [very] much,” Newmark said. “And I wanted to, so I felt like I needed to create that for myself.”

One problem the minyan currently is facing is that some of its Shabbat service leaders “with strong davening skills have moved [away] … so our davening bullpen is a little bit thin right now,” Newmark said. To help, minyan leaders are planning to have a class or two so that more people will be competent and comfortable leading services.

But the minyan plans to stick around. The group increasingly is gathering for holidays (Chanukah, Sukkot and Lag B’Omer, for example) and it recently set up fiscal sponsorship, which enables the minyan to accept tax-deductible donations. It costs about $2,000 annually to operate the minyan, Newmark said.

Organizers want to expand the minyan’s  schedule to twice a month, perhaps by adding a Friday night service somewhere in Oakland.

“What I like most about our minyan is that it tries to bridge the community, to extend the boundaries of community,” Studley said. “We are a place where people with different practices can make a community together.”

The East Bay Minyan meets the first Friday of every month at the JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Information: info@eastbayminyan.org or www.eastbayminyan.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.