At Milwaukee’s most frequent egalitarian minyan, women count

No disrespect to others intended, minyan attendees find comfort, obligation

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GLENDALE – It’s 7:18 a.m. and the first car pulls up, soon followed by a second sedan. The birds are chirping as a bright Wisconsin morning shines down on the otherwise empty synagogue parking lot.

The drivers sit in their respective cars a bit, waiting for the cantor to walk from his nearby home and open up.

It’s a Tuesday, time for daily minyan at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid. Traditional Judaism has held since time immemorial that 10 men are required to make a minyan, a Jewish quorum for religious obligations.

As Hazzan Jeremy Stein unlocks the shul’s door, Edie Pump gets out of her car, ready to make a difference. She’s a woman, but here, at what is the most frequently held daily egalitarian minyan in the Milwaukee area, she counts just as a man does.


How to go:

Egalitarian minyan

The egalitarian minyan at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid in Glendale is held twice daily. Weekdays 7:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. On holidays and Shabbat at 9 a.m. Every day except Saturday at 6 p.m. The minyan is about 40 minutes in the morning, followed by 15 minutes in the evening. Community members may simply show up or they may contact Rabbi Joel Alter or Hazzan Jeremy Stein in advance. Contact and location info: CbintMilwaukee.org.


Congregation Shalom daily egalitarian minyan

Congregation Shalom of Fox Point also offers a daily egalitarian minyan Monday though Thursday at 5:45 p.m., in addition to other services. Shalom is a large Reform congregation. Cong-Shalom.org.

“That’s the reason I come,” she said, interviewing after the 40-minute service. “To make sure there’s a minyan.”

She also comes for her husband, Harry, who died April 14. The minyan is the place to recite kaddish.

Why egalitarian?

An egalitarian minyan represents a clash of values − traditional thinking among many in the Torah-observant community versus a more secular American perspective. In fact, this summer marks 100 years since Congress passed the 20th Amendment, a first step in granting women the right to vote (ratification came a year later in 1920). Today’s “me too” era has sought to sharpen the point.

Bud Siegel reenacts leading prayer at the daily egalitarian minyan of CBINT.

Yet traditional Judaism can speak to us of, well, hundreds or even thousands of years of tradition. And some among the Torah-observant will relay the notion that too much mixing of genders is a distraction from prayer.

“In this house, the question of egalitarianism is long settled,” said Rabbi Joel Alter, spiritual leader for CBINT. “As a formal matter, as a halachic matter, what it means to be egalitarian is that men and women participate equally.”

His congregation is Conservative, though the egalitarian minyan attracts people from various congregations and streams of Judaism. All in the community are welcome.

“For a long time the question of whether a community should be egalitarian was framed as a matter of women’s rights,” Alter said. “It was framed either as a matter of equality or it was framed Jewishly as a leniency.”

But Alter said there’s now recognition that egalitarianism is not about leniency but “astringency.” The entire population has this obligation, he said.

For attendee Audrie Berman, it’s not just about obligation. It’s also about parity.

“At an egalitarian minyan I can participate fully in the Torah service. And I’m counted in the minyan,” she said.

At a morning egalitarian minyan in June 2019 at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, Hazzan Jeremy Stein is in front to the left. In the second row from left to right is Rabbi Alter, Myles Hadashi, Neil Zimmerman, Audrie Berman, Edith Pump, Ed Blumberg, and Bud Siegel. In the back row from left to right is Beverly Gruber, Richard Bensman, Gerry Rosen, and Anita Bensman.

She doesn’t fault those who attend other minyanim. “What’s great is that there are choices in this community,” she said, adding though that “when I’m in a minyan where I am not counted I feel invisible and irrelevant.”

In fact, part of the minyan experience is that kind of numbers game. It’s the experience of wondering if you’re going to make your 10, of some saying if you need me, call me and I’ll come in.

Typically around 10-15 people attend the daily minyan on weekdays (it gets far larger for Shabbat). Weekday attendance can swell to 20 or 25 depending on the calendar and other factors. If there’s ever a time when it can be hard to pull together the 10, it’s typically during those Wisconsin winter months.

“For a woman to walk in and know that she’s among the 10 is a very different experience than to patiently wait for 10 men to come in,” Alter said.

Beverly Gruber serves as one of the gabbai, or volunteer administrators, for the egalitarian minyan. She remembers when the synagogue transitioned its minyan to egalitarian, about 18 years ago, and has observed how change can be difficult.

“We are such creatures of custom,” she said, referring to people in general. She has no objection to minyans that are not egalitarian.

“I just think it’s all so personal,” she said. “It’s not worth being offended.”

The experience

Some Jewish experiences are mainly about having fun and building community. Or fundraising for good causes. Or tikkun olam. Not so much here.

The CBINT minyan is nearly still. It’s fixed like a windless pond, a sequestration from the hustle outside. On the morning of June 11, 2019, when Edie Pump was first at the door, several of the 15 or so attendees donned tefillin and tallit, their attention hyper-focused on their siddurim and their hushed or silent prayers. Stand up. Sit down. Pray.

The weekday minyan is typically nestled in a small, intimate prayer space with the trappings of a historic Conservative shul. Before the volunteer leader are those iconic Conservative-movement highbacked chairs with carved Stars of David in the finished wood. Cherrywood-hued pillars frame the ark.

Here, the mourner’s kaddish is intoned, the sh’ma gently recited. This is a spot for contemplation. It’s for speaking with God.

“I would describe it as a traditional davening experience; parts that are quiet,” Stein said. “We throw in some congregational melodies to help everyone participate together.”

It’s an obligation for mourners to recite kaddish for 11 months for a parent and one month for other direct relatives (spouse, sibling, child). Many times attendees are people who join for that purpose, then sometimes return intermittently or stick around for good.

“Then there are people who come who are not mourners,” Alter said. “They come because others are mourners and they want to make a minyan for them.”

Before or after a day of work or other responsibilities, the minyan, he said, can offer “the quiet and the intimacy, the caring, the opportunity to be in a meditative space, to be in a loving space …”

“Minyan is a place in people’s lives,” Alter said. “It becomes a real location in a person’s life.”