A little over 12 years ago, Elie Kaunfer was a corporate securities fraud investigator for a major law firm in New York City. Before that, he had worked for the city government as an investigator of school corruption. And before that, he had worked as a reporter for the Boston Globe, but that as they say in the trade, is another story.
But in 2001, Kaunfer walked away from what he described in his new book, "Empowered Judaism" as a "dream job," to go into something else entirely.
It was a process he never expected to undergo, despite tentative earlier attempts, he writes in his book, which coincidentally, was published in Woodstock, Vt.
"For years I had struggled with my place in the Jewish community," he writes. "I felt deep down there must be a real power and mystery to prayer and tradition, but every time I tried to connect to Jewish life, I stumbled.... The search became too painful, so I dropped out of Jewish communal life."
It turns out Kaunfer wasn't alone, and there were many others like himself seeking the foundation the faith structure had to offer to those who wanted it. His book is an account of how many Jews have connected and found each other, often through modern day social networks and the Internet, and are creating their own communities.
This weekend, on Aug. 9-10, Rabbi Kaunfer will be speaking on three occasions at the Israel Congregation in Manchester; Friday evening, and then Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening.
Friday evening, starting at 6:30 p.m., Rabbi Kaunfer will speak about "Innovation and Prayer: A New Way to Read the Siddur (prayerbook)." During the communal Shabbat Dinner following the service, he will expand on the subject and have an opportunity to dialogue with the community.
During lunch on Saturday at noon Rabbi Kaunfer's topic is "Innovation and Community: The Future of Synagogue Life."
On Saturday evening at 6:30 p.m. he will address "Innovative Aesthetics: Praying with the Senses." The service of Separation at the end of Shabbat, havdalah, will take place at sundown.
Food will be served at all three programs. His visit to Israel Congregation is sponsored by Israel Congregation members Carol and Paul Miller.
He will bring his perspectives as the founder and builder of Mechon Hadar in New York City, said Rabbi David Novak of the Israel Congregation.
"When Carol and Paul Miller asked us to find innovators in Jewish life, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer's name was at the top of my list," Rabbi Novak said. "Well-known among those creating innovative experiences in Jewish worship, learning, and community, Rabbi Kaunfer was a natural choice. As founder of Mechon Hadar, a pluralistic institute for Jewish learning in New York City and Kehillat Hadar, an independent minyan (prayer community) in New York, he is a fount of creativity. He has many ideas, which he will share over the course of Shabbat, to make Jewish worship more meaningful."
After a year or so of helping to build the minyan or community that triggered his re-entry into embracing his Jewish heritage, Kaunfer decided to make this form of community building his career.
The term "minyan" literally means a "counting," to determine if there were enough men, in traditional times, to form a public prayer group; 10 were the minimum.
Today, the minyan he works with try to combine three aspects, he said in a recent interview; a traditional Jewish liturgy, men and women counting equally in the prayer service, and a widely engaging service.
"Younger people are not necesarily expressing their Jewish identity by joining synagogues," he said. "We found that there were a lot of young Jews who wanted to engage with other young Jews in an intensive, meaningful experience in prayer."
"Empowered Judaism," the title of Rabbi Kaunfer's book, details the vision of a faith where members take responsibility for building their communities rather than waiting for something to happen. It speaks to a more confident faith structure moving from survival to meaningfulness, and that there are many people of Jewish background eager to embrace their faith, without gimmickry, he states in his book.
"Each of his encounters with our congregation will focus on different modalities - of a new way for encountering the Jewish prayerbook; on the future of synagogue life and 'Innovative Aesthetics: Praying with the Senses,'" Rabbi Novak said. "I expect that our congregants will find Rabbi Kaunfer highly stimulating with his ideas prompting new ways of thinking about what we do at ICM."
More information about Rabbi Kaunfer is available online at www.mechonhadar.org. Israel Congregation is located at 6025 Main Street in Manchester Center, located between the SVMC Northshire Medical building and Manchester Town Hall. For more information about Israel congregation, visit www.icmvt.org.