Manya’s minyan for all

Sometimes, when you do what's best for yourself, it helps others, too. 

Manya Treece, who lives in the West Town area, was looking for a nearby place to pray and, finding none that fit the bill, decided to create one for herself. Her quest caught the interest of many others, and now she could not have a shorter commute—her minyan (quorum of 10) meets in her basement.

It was "started by several of us," she said, including Amanda Hensley and Adam Peri, "who wanted more diversity in Jewish life." They, too, lived in West Town but were looking for more Jewish options and all believed that the West Town neighborhoods in Chicago should have thriving and diverse opportunities for the many Jews living in the area. 

They contacted the JCC Sidney N. Shure Kehilla. The program and its manager, Becky Adelberg, helped to support and nurture the concept. The minyan is sometimes sponsored by the JCC Makor program as well.

Treece is proud to help revive West Town as a Jewish neighborhood. As her minyan's website relates: "Once a thriving hub of Jewish life, Chicago's West Town neighborhoods have [had] a recent influx of boutiques, restaurants and exciting nightlife, and numerous Jews have once again begun to call West Town their home." (Where exactly is "West Town"? The site gives its basic perimeters: "Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, Bucktown, Logan Square, Humboldt Park and Noble Square.") 

Once a month, the congregation gathers for a "spirited, lively" Kabbalat Shabbat service, followed by a homemade dinner. The minyan's first service was held in February, and now expects some 30 people at each service.

Denominationally, the West Town Minyan is "Open Orthodox-style." As Treece explained, "if something is prohibited by Jewish law for women to do, we do not permit it. But if it is only a matter of custom, we do." Treece very much enjoyed the services she attended at Kol Sasson Congregation in Skokie, which she cites as inspiration.

The minyan has chosen the budding "Partnership Minyan" prayer style, its website says, "in an effort to meet the needs of as many Jews as possible. The Partnership Minyan service represents a progressive movement within traditional Jewish practice. This traditional style of Jewish practice enables both women and men to participate in Jewish ritual life while fully adhering to Jewish law."

Specifically, it continues, "women and men are both able and encouraged to lead different parts of the service. In keeping with Jewish law, men and women will stand separately, but there will be no physical mechitza, or divider, between them."

Treece's own overall goal is to create a "more egalitarian and affirming" worship environment, she said, that is "inclusive of women and queer people. We want everyone to feel warmly received." 

Hensley concurred. She feels the minyan is a place "where tradition is available," but the doors are open to those on "all levels" of affiliation, knowledge, and practice. Today, the attendees are "a diverse crowd of shul-hoppers," adding that, for some, it's "the only Jewish thing they do." 

While "observance and literacy are not key for participation," Treece said, "those who are literate and learned assume leadership roles."  She readily admits that she is not the most Jewishly literate member of her minyan. While she is the host, she laughs, "I need page calling!"

Treece's own religious experience was very wide-ranging. Her father was an Evangelical Christian, and her mother came from socialist, atheist Jews. "The only religious holiday I celebrated as a kid was Christmakkah," she laughs.

When she moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee after college, she began to explore her own spirituality, visiting churches, Bahai and Buddhist temples, and eventually a Reform congregation. By then, she felt so distant from Judaism, yet so drawn to it, that she told the rabbi that she wanted to convert (he explained to her that this was not necessary). These days, she considers herself Orthodox. But her history also explains why she says she has "never been in a leadership position" in a Jewish context before.

As for marketing the West Town Minyan, her efforts have been "100 percent social media." There are 200 in the minyan's Facebook group. Her husband made their simple, elegant website. Aside from that, news of their presence has spread through congregants' word of mouth.

And they are fine with that. The minyan is "still in infancy," notes Hensley, and they "would like it to grow organically." She's "very proud, very happy with how it's going." 

As for the future, they might need to fine a larger home, but for right now, Hensley said, the West Town Minyan will "keep doing what we're doing!"   

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