At Mission Minyan, come for the singing, stay for the gender-osity

Mission Minyan is a Jewish community that loves to sing. Much of the service, especially on Saturday mornings, is high-speed mumbling in the Orthodox style — but when the singing breaks out, it’s seriously good stuff: soulfully slowed renditions of familiar melodies belted out at full force.

Last week, I spent Shabbat at Mission Minyan, in San Francisco’s Mission District (where else?), at both the Friday evening and Saturday morning services. Adherents gather in the Women’s Building, in a multipurpose room named for radical feminist Audre Lorde.

Beyond the wonderful singing, the independent, lay-led group comes across as extremely conscientious, committed to carefully finding a way to be as comfortable as possible for the wide range of Jews who make this their spiritual home — from Orthodox-identified folks who keep Shabbat strictly to the couple I ran into right after services eating dinner at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

One of the keys to this welcoming spirit is a lesser-known approach to seating — uncommon but not unique — that involves slightly different arrangements depending on whether it’s Friday or Saturday.

It all hinges on a ritual device called a “trichitza.” An adjusted form of the traditional mechitzah (men on one side, women on the other), this system utilizes three seating areas: one for men, one for women and a mixed section in the middle.

On the Saturday morning I attended, the chairs in the room were set up in three areas of equal size, easily accommodating the 30 attendees, about half the total there Friday night.

Used by several indie minyans in the United States and Israel, this setup makes it possible for committed egalitarians and those who don’t fit a traditional gender binary to find a place just as easily as anyone else.

On Friday nights, the seating is arrangement is less clear-cut, with two sections for sitting and one for standing. The largest section, for mixed-gender seating, takes up the middle of the room, divided by an aisle where the service leader stands.

To the left, there is a small women’s section with placards on the seats that read “for self-identified women.” On the night I was there, only three women were in it. On the right side of the room, several men stood behind or around a counter, sometimes banging on it in time with the music.

With no formal signage to mark it as such, this counter (or bar?) constitutes an informal men’s section — or so Mission Minyan co-founder David Henkin told me. Others however, were adamant that this is a formal men’s section that requires no signage because it is so obvious.

The Women’s Building in San Francisco’s Mission District — home of Mission Minyan (Photo/file)

But how obvious is it? I spoke with two people who had been to Mission Minyan on multiple Friday nights yet never noticed that there were any separate gender-specific areas at all.

Another hallmark is the commitment to the 10-plus-10 minyan, which counts a minyan only when 10 men and 10 women are present. Used by other alternative Jewish communities, this system also helps accommodate the needs and ethics of the wide swath of Jews who constitute the Mission Minyan community; it satisfies  those who believe only men count in a minyan, as well as those who count any Jewish adult.

However, this approach can create its own difficulties.

Imagine, for example, that there are 11 men and nine women. According to just about everyone, a minyan is present, whether you believe it requires 10 men or just 10 adult Jews. Nevertheless, at Mission Minyan, the commitment to this inclusive model is such that they would proceed in this case as if there is no quorum —meaning no Torah reading, no Kaddish, no rituals that require a formal minyan.

Henkin recalled the first time that such a situation (also 11-9) came up, just as the congregation was about to start the Torah reading. “The davening committee had a vote on the spot. By a momentous 3-2 vote, we affirmed the policy and behaved as if there was no minyan,” he said. “I think this was an important moment for us, because otherwise the policy would’ve slid entirely.”

David Henkin

As for Mission Minyan’s siddur, it’s Orthodox, but services are led by both men and women, with clear-cut rules for who leads what: A woman always leads Kabbalat Shabbat, the introductory Friday night psalms; this is halachically permissible because this section of the service is not formally considered prayer. Meanwhile, a man always leads Ma’ariv, the main section of the evening service, which Orthodox Jews say must be led by a male. Similar gender arrangements are in place for every part of the service.

Given all of this intricate maneuvering around gender roles and seating, Mission Minyan seems to fit the term “partnership minyan.” Coined in the early 2000s, this describes Jewish prayer communities that strive to create space for women to participate in and lead as much of the service as possible under a liberal Orthodox understanding of Jewish law. (The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance explains things in greater detail at www.tinyurl.com/jofapartnership.)

But nothing is so simple with this group.

Henkin told me that Mission Minyan is not a partnership minyan, largely for historical reasons and because of general discomfort with labels.

Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel

Yet one regular attendee gladly told me in no uncertain terms that indeed it is a partnership minyan. “If the shoe fits,” she seemed to say.

So that’s one aye and one nay. And when I asked Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel, another Mission Minyan regular, if it’s a partnership minyan, she shrugged and replied, “-ish.”

“We toss around the concept that it’s all built on compromise — it’s no one’s ideal,” she said, referring to the fact that the service is neither completely egalitarian nor completely Orthodox. “But it makes for a strong community of people who might not otherwise be able to come together from diverse practices.”

For about 10 minutes after services Friday night, I tried to determine, once and for all, if Mission Minyan is a partnership minyan, but quickly began to fear I was missing the point. This non-argument is yet another example of how labels are messier and far less clear-cut than they often appear from the outside.

Whether you call it a partnership minyan or not, it’s clear that Mission Minyan did not construct itself as such because of an ideological adherence to the concept, but because the system it has ended up with is the one that works for most of the people who have become part of this community.

To me, a committed egalitarian, there’s an absurd complexity to the whole enterprise.

But the care with which they’ve constructed the norms for this singular community — and the delight with which regulars discussed with me what others might consider picayune points of the meeting between halachah and modernity — say a lot about Mission Minyan and the people who have built this community through consensus and caring. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much.

Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send tips about religious, ritual and spiritual goings-on to david@jweekly.com.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.