Leadership Roles: Religious and Spiritual Authority

By: Benjamin Maron

When starting a new havurah or minyan, salve or getting involved in Havurah Judaism for the first time, link many of us are asked by our peers – both synagogue members and unaffiliated Jews alike – how these communities can function without a professional leader, usually a rabbi, in charge.

There are several ways to explain this model, the most common being that with enough knowledge, resources, and support, any of us can lead a community in prayer, any of us can offer a thought-provoking d’var Torah (word of Torah) or text study, any of us can contribute to life-cycle events. In a paper [PDF] presented to a conference of rabbis, Mitch Chefitz framed the history of rabbis’ roles in Jewish communities as learners and teachers of the tradition through study of Talmud and later the Shulchan Aruch, the rise of mysticism, the broadening of religious authority, and the transition of communities led largely by rabbis to other forms of leadership. The paper also addresses the significant changes in religious and spiritual authority from changes such as the proliferation of siddurim (prayer books), the formations of “communities that are sustained by niggunim [songs without words],” JDate, and “Jewish leaders … being tacitly ordained from below rather than from above.” How does this apply to us in the Havurah world? What can we learn about how our members are resources for community leadership? What is, and what should be, our model of religious and spiritual authority? Where might we need leadership, knowledge, or resources not available within our communities, and where might we find people or information to guide us?

Read the paper “Religious and Spiritual Authority in the New Jewish Paradigm” [PDF] in full… and feel free to share thoughts, and any answers to the concluding questions, in the comments.

Benjamin Maron attended his first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2006. He is on the NHC Board of Directors. He is chairing the 2010 Chesapeake Retreat.

December 28, 2009   1 Comment

Havurah Guide

By: Benjamin Maron

Using the Havurah of South Florida as a model, store Mitch Chefitz published the Havurah Guide [PDF] in 1990. Twenty years later, the contents are still useful for those looking to start a havurah or minyan or wanting to find suggestions for improving an existing minyan or havurah.

The Havurah Guide provides a comprehensive introduction. Many topics are covered, from how a havurah or miyan could be run to guidelines for fostering a Jewish fellowship; from the role of text study and how to nurture learning to which holidays and life-cycle events can be observed; from how to incorporate social action to other resources for further programming.

While this is a case study of a specific havurah, we can all learn from each other’s communities across the country (and around the world). If you use part of this Havurah Guide, please let us know in the comments. If your havurah or minyan has practices that would complement this resource, please share them!

Benjamin Maron attended his first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2006. He is on the NHC Board of Directors. He is chairing the 2010 Chesapeake Retreat.

December 28, 2009   4 Comments

Further Reading: Havurot and Minyanim in the News

By: Benjamin Maron

The following is an incomplete, pharm and ever-growing, collection of articles about independent Jewish communities, havurot, and minyanim.

  • At a recent conference, there was a panel discussion on what role (if any) rabbis should have in an independent minyan or havurah, and a look at their impact.
  • JTA gives a general overview of independent minyanim.
  • Independent minyanim have become “the new darlings of the Jewish philanthropic establishment,” but the flow of money carries its own risks.
  • Joshua Avedon, looking at the new minyanim with regard to the non-Orthodox synagogues, warns: “If the mainstream Jewish community doesn’t get hip to what is driving the new start-ups soon, a whole parallel universe of Jewish communal life might just rise up and make the old structures irrelevant.”
  • Will the traditional, egalitarian, lay-led minyan become the wave of the future? Or will “those who create these community minyanim become a self-selected elite?”
  • A look at the “partnership minyan,” and some follow-up discussion: 1 [PDF], 2 [PDF], 3 [PDF], 4 [PDF], and 5.
  • A look at some havurot which have lasted for more than 20 years.
  • A specially commissioned Torah scroll is used by the Mesilat Yesharim Minyan which meets daily aboard a commuter train on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line.
  • As her minyan struggles with what the Prayer for the State of Israel should consist of, Sarah Margles observes, “the question became – How do we pray together even if we don’t pray the same?”
  • In a roundtable discussion, Elie Kaunfer (Kehilat Hadar), Rachel Milner-Gillers (Minyan Tehillah), Beth Tritter (DC Minyan), Sarah Lefton (Mission Minyan), Yehuda Kurtzer (Washington Square Minyan), and Ben Dreyfus (Kol Zimrah), discuss why their minyanim were started, how they do or do not characterize their minyanim and their religious services, setting forth policies (or not) on membership and leadership, and more.
  • Ilana Kurshan, a long-time organizer of an independent minyan, talks of taking up the task  again in Jerusalem: “my whole life becomes oriented towards Shabbat – which is indeed just what the rabbis mandate.”
  • Riv-Ellen Prell’s “Independent Minyanim and Prayer Groups of the 1970s: Historical and Sociological Perspectives” looks at the challenges these posed to the denominations structure of mainstream Judaism, and the dual focus on both prayer and the creation of alternative organizations within American Jewish life.
  • In “What Independent Minyanim Teach Us About the Next Generation of Jewish Communities,” Ethan Tucker looks at how such communities can accomplish critical goals: providing “a Jewish life of compelling and of excellent quality,” with a discourse “serious, honest, adaptable, deep and transparent” and the ability to empower, both at the individual and communal levels.
  • A self-described Jew, “who lived fully in the 1960s and have been searching for that lost Garden ever since,” finds himself, at age 67, making the “rounds of alternative synagogues, minyanim and havurot in Los Angeles, to see whether any spoke to me.” He finds a remarkably diverse group.
  • David Suissa describes the very unconventional “The Happy Minyan,” which has now found a home of its own in a neighborhood with several other Orthodox shuls.
  • The New York Times looks at non-synagogue based minyanim and havurot, including DC Minyan and Tikkun Leil Shabbat.
  • Another look at lay-led independent communities.
  • A synagogue agreed to create what becomes known as “The Library Minyan,” which eventually eclipsed the main sanctuary in attendance, drawing in some very well known Conservative Jews. But as it “gained a reputation as an intellectual sanctuary … some shul-shoppers have expressed concerns about the ‘cliquish’ feeling of the minyan. … For some, what once was spiritual innovation has now become rote.”
  • A havurah “community of learning, spirituality, experimentation, and political progressivism” reaches its 36th year, and is still going strong.
  • Shawn Landres analyzes the challenge to traditional shuls from “rabbi-led emergent communities and independent minyanimin” by borrowing language from different computer operating systems.
  • The Aquarian Minyan, the oldest Renewal congregation in the Bay Area, is not a rabbi-centered community, but now has a new “rabbi-chaver,” or “teacher among peers.”
  • The Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU has a large collection of articles on the subject of havurot.
  • This article, which appeared in CAJE Jewish Education News, discusses the NHC and the founding of Kol Zimrah.
  • DC-area minyanim in the Washington Post.
  • Hadassah Magazine on independent Jewish communities.
  • Independany minyanim in the Forward.
  • JTA on the use of the Internet by minyanim/havurot.
  • JTA article from 2006 about independent Jewish communities (the 1999 date at the top is an error).
  • Another JTA article from 2006 (not 1999), covering the NHC Summer Institute and the Havurah Movement.
  • For the 20th anniversary of their minyan, Dorshei Derekh of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia researched and created a Wikipedia entry.

For extra reading, you might also want to check out the following works in print (try your local library or bookstore):

Benjamin Maron attended his first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2006. He is on the NHC Board of Directors. He is chairing the 2010 Chesapeake Retreat.

December 26, 2009   5 Comments

Restructuring the Synagogue: the Creation of Havurot Within the Synagogue

By: Harold M. Schulweis [republished, sildenafil unedited, approved with permission]

It is now some 20 years since our teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, alav ha-shalom, addressed this assembly and spoke these strong words: “The modern temple suffers from a severe cold…the services are prim, the voice is dry, the temple is clean and tidy…no one will cry, the words are still born.” The criticism was directed against the metallic services, against the lugubrious tones of the ritual master of ceremonies intoning the Siddur pagination.

For us, it was neither a novel nor a pleasant criticism. The complaint has long entered the acerbity of folk humor. A penetrating Jewish anecdote tells of a nouveau riche young man who invited his European traditionalist father to his modern temple. The son was proud of the decorum and, indeed, when the rabbi informed the congregation that they were to rise for the silent meditative prayer, there was a silence. With pride the son whispered to his father, “What do you think about that?” Papa responded in Yiddish, “A mechayeh! Der rav steht un zogt gornisht un alle heren zich zu.”

What do they want of us rabbis? Are we not warm enough? The services are cold. Shall we raise the thermostat? The prayers lack relevance. Shall we experiment more? Should we add guitar or flute or harp to the organ? Should we gather new prayers from the liturgy of our Jewish theological trinity — Joan Baez, Rod McKuen and Kahlil Gibran?

Somehow the criticism and the apologia seem misdirected. The remedies fail. All the best intentioned creative efforts, liturgical innovations, and theological reconstruction fail to warm up the frozen pew.

Our creativity and experimentation, I shall argue, are premature. Criticism of the services deals only with symptoms, and symptomology is not etiology. The complaint about the “coldness” of the synagogue points only to the tip of the iceberg. No amount of pulpit charisma will thaw out the frigidity below. Heat rises from below.

I propose that we turn from symptom analysis to character analysis. Whom are we addressing? What nexus is there between them and us? What fidelities to Jewish life and Jewish values have we as leaders the right to assume? [Read more →]

December 26, 2009   79 Comments

Institutional History: the National Havurah Committee

By: Joelle Novey

At Tikkun Leil Shabbat (TLS) in Washington, visit DC, more than 150 people, most in their 20’s and 30’s, gather regularly on Friday evenings for songful, soulful Shabbat services featuring a teaching about a social justice issue and followed by a potluck vegetarian dinner. We emphasize social justice at each of our Shabbat gatherings by ending services with a regular teaching called a d’var tikkun (a talk on a social justice issue).

We invite activists from organizations working in Washington on workers’ rights, domestic violence, environmental issues, LGBT equality, and more, and we place their message in our service in lieu of a d’var Torah (word of Torah). We ask each speaker to aim to speak for about eight minutes about their organization’s work and ways that TLS community members could get involved.

We’ve been delighted that in the more than three years since TLS began meeting, we’ve never had any trouble finding local nonprofit organizations that are happy to send speakers for free; in fact, we’ve only repeated organizations a couple times. Small local nonprofits seem eager to share their message and their work with TLS’s room full of potential volunteers and supporters. (While we do periodically have speakers from organizations that work nationally and internationally, our community has made a decision for now not to have any speakers from organizations working in the Middle East. While this blanket policy can feel a little blunt when we say no to groups doing environmental or anti-poverty work in Israel, the community’s organizers feel it would be too divisive for our community to venture into this area.)

When the person leading the service concludes Kaddish Yatom (the Mourner’s Kaddish at the end of Ma’ariv (evening service)), a member of the TLS community introduces each d’var tikkun by connecting a Jewish teaching and the theme of that night’s talk. Sometimes the introduction uses themes from the parasha (weekly Torah reading) or an upcoming holiday, but more often the speakers find a teaching in other Jewish texts. Even with that freedom, it can be a challenge to find a Jewish text that speaks to issues addressed by organizations doing very specific work in a modern context, such as the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (which is working to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in the US military). The congregation, though, seems to enjoy listening for the creative hook that he or she will use to make a Jewish connection to the organization’s work.

For example, some introductions have used the halachah (religious law) about feeding one’s own animals before eating one’s own meal in an introduction to a d’var tikkun by Pets DC, which provides pet care for people with AIDS. Another quoted a contemporary Jewish poem by Merle Feld in which an Israelite woman regrets that she could not record her experiences of receiving the Torah at Sinai because “I was always holding a baby” as an introduction to a d’var tikkun by the DC Childcare Collective, which provides free childcare for low-income women of color to enable their participation in activist organizations. We’ve heard the Talmudic story of Rabbi Hillel getting inadvertently excluded from the Beit Midrash (house of study) as an allegory for the exclusion of Washington DC citizens from full representation in the House and Senate; and we’ve heard a line from Psalm 130, “my soul waits for G-d more than those who keep watch wait for dawn” quoted in an introduction to a d’var tikkun from SEIU Local 32BJ, which fights for better wages and working conditions for security guards, who keep watch in area office buildings.

Since many of our d’var tikkun speakers are not Jewish or are not familiar with Jewish prayer communities, we’ve developed a fairly detailed email to help them know what to expect. We describe our demographics and assure them that people dress all kinds of ways for TLS; they don’t need to dress up on our account. We let them know that some folks in our community do not write on Shabbat, so we’d appreciate if they were mindful of that diversity of practice in their comments (“If you write on Shabbat, there’s a sign-up sheet on the table; otherwise, please help yourself to a brochure and contact our organization by email after Shabbat.”) We’ve also learned from experience that the speakers sometimes fish around for the right way to end their talks. So we suggest that it would be appropriate to conclude by saying, “Shabbat Shalom.” When our speakers are activists who are Jewish but are not involved in any Jewish prayer community, they seem to appreciate the recognition that TLS is providing to the moral importance of their work; sometimes Jewish activists who discover our community because they have been asked to speak return to pray with us at subsequent TLS services.

The organizations bring paper materials that are displayed at an information table throughout the evening and continue to be available on the information table at subsequent services. Attendees can also peruse a “voices of Tikkun Leil Shabbat” binder with information from each of the organizations that has given divrei tikkun (words of justice; sermons). After Shabbat, we send a “Leading to Action” email to our full email list with ways to support the group we learned about in that week’s d’var tikkun. This way, people who attended TLS receive another reminder about how to follow up with each organization through their website or by emailing the speaker, as well as sharing the d’var tikkun with the several hundred folks on the TLS email list who do not attend every TLS. (The email’s name quotes Talmud Kiddushin 40b, which asks, “Which is greater, study or action? … Study is greater, for it leads to action.” Each email opens with a reminder that “The learning we receive from our divrei tikkun on Shabbat can lead to action during the rest of the week.”)

We’ve tried to keep track of good stories about ways TLS participants have gotten involved in social action through hearing divrei tikkun. Our attendees have volunteered, donated, and attended rallies and other events after learning about local efforts at our services. Tikkun Leil Shabbat is also a program of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), and divrei tikkun have connected many attendees with opportunities for activism through JUFJ. When Tikkun Leil Shabbat organized our first Purim celebration last spring, laptops were set up so that attendees could donate to any of the organizations that had given divrei tikkun over the past year as matanot la’evyonim (gifts to the poor). In a very transient community, we feel that TLS’s divrei tikkun familiarize many transplanted young adults with some of the organizations doing good work in DC’s neighborhoods, weaving them into the life of the place where they live.

Through the practice of the d’var tikkun, our small congregation is making a powerful statement. Those who attend TLS hear a call to action at every gathering of our Jewish prayer community. We’ve quietly placed words of instruction for repairing the world in our services in place of a more conventional d’var Torah, and in the process, are shaking up what “counts” as a sacred teaching.

Joelle Novey attended her first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2000, and coordinated the Chesapeake Retreat in 2006.
By: Joseph G. Rosenstein [republished from November 9, health
2005 article for Encyclopedia Judaica, recipe with minor edits/updates]

The National Havurah Committee (NHC) was founded in 1980 to facilitate the activities of fellowships known as havurot and to spread havurah values and enthusiasm to the larger Jewish community, click
thereby serving as a model for revitalizing Jewish living and learning in North America.  The NHC was organized following a successful conference at Rutgers University in July 1979 that brought together different groups that shared the name “havurah.”  These included independent havurot that were formed as part of the counterculture of the 1960’s, synagogue havurot that were created within Reform and Conservative synagogues, and Reconstructionist congregations that considered themselves havurot.  Though differently organized, havurot, now as then, share the mission of creating small communities in which all members participate in creating authentic and meaningful Jewish experiences.  Independent havurot also tend to be non-denominational, egalitarian, and inclusive.  Havurah leadership is generally shared by the members; havurot typically do not have professional rabbinic or spiritual leaders.

The first NHC Summer Institute (at the University of Hartford in July 1980) was organized in order to help provide and empower havurah members with the knowledge to grow Jewishly and the skills to enable them to create and sustain such communities.  (The first institute was organized and co-chaired by Joseph G. Rosenstein and Michael Strassfeld who, with Elaine S. Cohen, coordinated the 1979 conference, were the first three chairs of the NHC.)  Annual week-long Summer Institutes have been conducted by the NHC each year since 1980 and have attracted an average of 300 adults (plus many children) of varying Jewish backgrounds and observance.  In 1984 a second Institute was held in Chicago, and the following summer (1985) three institutes were held, in the Northeast, in Chicago, and in Los Angeles.  Courses at the Summer Institute address the variety of Jewish texts, arts, culture, spirituality, issues, and practice from many different perspectives.  Institute teachers are expected to attend as well as to offer courses.  The NHC has inclusively recruited teachers from many backgrounds, and women instructors when that was considered radical, and served as a prominent forum for discussing feminist perspectives of Judaism in the 1980s.  The NHC model of summer programs for lay adults has been adapted by other organizations.  Both the longevity of the Institute and the replication of the model attest to its success.

Since 1993, an important feature of the Summer Institute is the participation of the Everett Fellows, a cohort of future leaders of the Jewish community who participate, often for the first time, in a heterogeneous community that manifests both excitement and commitment about Judaism and that embraces diverse ways of living Jewishly.  (This program is funded by the Everett Foundation, established by Edith and the late Henry Everett.)  Another unique annual feature (since 1995) is the celebratory completion (or siyyum) of a volume of EJ by study groups who have read a page a day (daf yomi) since the last Institute.

The NHC also sponsors regional weekend retreats, including an annual New England retreat (since 1986), an annual Canadian-American retreat (since 1993), and an annual Chesapeake Region retreat (since 2006); publishes newsletters, and maintains on its website a list of havurot.  In the 1990s it published in a number of newspapers a weekly D’var Torah (word of Torah) column that was written by a diverse group of writers representing all branches of Judaism, and that served as a prototype for subsequent d’var torah columns; it also published three issues of a journal with the appropriately oxymoronic title of “New Traditions.”

Although havurot and individuals participate in the NHC, it has not functioned as a membership organization; its programs have been organized by a volunteer board with modest staff assistance.  The NHC has created and sustained programs and promoted values – such as inclusiveness, lay leadership and teaching, involvement, egalitarianism, fellowship – that have had an impact on the wider Jewish community.

Joseph Rosenstein has attended numerous NHC Summer Institutes.

December 26, 2009   No Comments