Creating Community through Minyan: Havurot in Jewish Day Schools

by Cynthia Peterman

“Hurry up, hospital
Mom. I don’t want to miss Minyan!” “Best part of my morning!” How many Jewish day school educators would love to hear our students talk about t’filah this way? These were comments I often heard from my students during the more than 15 years I led the Havurah minyan at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, dosage
MD. What factors account for its ongoing success? These are primarily three: engaging students in community-building; meeting adolescents’ spiritual needs; and, providing opportunities for experimentation and leadership.

The havurah in America serves as a model for this student-centered minyan with its strong emphasis on community. Havurot are by definition non-hierarchical and egalitarian, often run without rabbinical guidance or with rabbis as equal members of the community. Decisions are made by consensus of the community in a democratic process. More informal than typical synagogue services, the havurah service often emphasizes joyous singing, discussion, and alternative paths to spirituality in the form of meditation, guided imagery, and drumming. Individuals come together for important moments in their lives (spiritual, life cycle) into a community that is both voluntary and has a shared purpose (often with a strong social action component). Often havurot experiment with creating new rituals or developing new approaches to existing life cycle rituals.

For teens, creating a sense of belonging to something with a higher goal is critical to their psycho-social development. Our students live in a society that too often values individuality over community, “my needs” over and against “yours.” This is an opportunity to learn and practice how to be a caring community. It has become common in today’s literature on adolescent development to talk of the “Five Cs” (i.e., Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, and Caring). A havurah is an ideal laboratory in which to practice and develop these characteristics.

The Havurah minyan (grades 9-12) functions as a community of equals, from the youngest student to the oldest. In an atmosphere of z’man kodesh, a goal of the Havurah minyan is to start each day with calm reflection, a sense of holiness, and a respect for community – our own and the greater world in which we live. At the beginning of the new school year, the emphasis is on welcoming new members and bringing them into the community. Older students mentor younger students, veterans mentor new members. Community meetings are held regularly to take the “pulse” of the community. Are we meeting the needs of our members? What are we doing well? What could we be doing better? The role of the faculty advisor is to model compassion, warmth, creative leadership, and spiritual growth. However, the service leaders are the students themselves.

The development of student leadership takes time and resources. The Havurah minyan maintains its own library, a collection of books on spirituality, meditation, as well as a resource box full of ideas for leading creative services. Students are encouraged to sign up to lead in pairs, often with someone who is not a friend, to encourage cross-grade fertilization. Allowing students to assume leadership is very important to developing their creativity and their confidence. Students who are reticent to participate in minyan in September often become active leaders by mid-year under the tutelage of older and veteran students. These relationships also move beyond the minyan, bridging the grade level divide as friendships are fostered that last throughout students’ school years.

Giving leadership over to students requires extra effort on the part of the faculty member. It is more time efficient to be the teacher-director in the front of the room, telling students what to do, than to be a facilitator and coach. Sometimes teachers fear the risk involved in giving leadership to students. Distributing leadership among students, at the heart of today’s educational emphasis on student-centered learning, requires thoughtful planning, supportive coaching, and being able to step in if a student needs help. Though this requires more work on the part of the teacher, the reward is in the faces of the students who – at the end of a wonderful morning minyan – smile with pleasure at their own success.

Student leadership also develops character and fosters creativity. Following the model of havurot, the Havurah minyan encourages experimentation in the service, while maintaining respect for Judaism and for the values the community has set for itself. This may be the first place a student experiences guided meditation during davenning, or a drumming circle on Rosh Chodesh. The flexibility of the Havurah minyan allows for students to engage in God-talk with one another, something that rarely, if ever, takes place in a standard minyan. The Havurah siddur, constructed over many years by students, combines standard prayer, student-created prayers, z’mirot, and poetry. The variety of material in the siddur gives students choices for leading services that make davenning different and unique, another key to the minyan’s success.

Each important moment in the life of a Havurah member is celebrated, or mourned, by the community. At the end of each morning we sing Mi She’Berach for family and friends who are in our hearts that day. Birthdays are celebrated, Shabbat and hagim are special days, and new rituals are created for important communal events, such as when the seniors leave the community. This reminds us that when one member of a community of daily worshipers is impacted, the entire community is affected.

As the havurah continues to grow in popularity in America as dynamic, alternative Jewish community, it will offer a unique educational model for t’filah programming in Jewish day schools for students who are looking for a supportive peer group and a a place to grow Jewishly.

Cynthia Peterman is the  Executive Director of The Jewish Teacher Project. The original post can be read here.

February 5, 2013   No Comments

Starting a New Havurah or Minyan

By: Benjamin Maron

So you want to start a new havurah or minyan.

Starting a new community can take a lot of work, medications energy, pestilence and effort, but can also be quite rewarding. The following guidelines can help ensure both that you are not too exhausted to enjoy the first meeting of your group and also that people show up and want to get involved further.

Why do you want to start a new Jewish community? Is there a type of davening (praying) that you would enjoy that doesn’t exist in your area? Do you want to start a group that meets for holidays and learns Torah together? Do you want to start a minyan or havurah with a focus on a specific theme, like social justice or families? Identifying why you want to start your havurah or minyan will help you “sell” the idea to others.

Once you have a vision for the type of havurah or minyan you would like to start, check in with your friends and extended network. If you see a need/void, do others as well? See if their ideas mesh with yours. Have a meeting, or three, to figure out the basics: how often you would like to meet, where you would like to meet, what type of services or programming you would like to offer, and who’s going to do what. Establish a core group of people who are willing to help you get the minyan or havurah off the ground, at least through the first few times it meets.

Create hype! Email your friends and networks, post on Facebook, create a Twitter account, post to listservs and email groups, create a website (this can be done for free as a blog (Blogger or WordPress, for example) or on Google Sites), and in general spread the word that your new havurah or minyan is starting. Don’t forget to mention the details for the first time it will meet (where, when, etc.), a few words about the new minyan or havurah, and encourage people to help spread the word as well.

At the first few meetings of your havurah or minyan, aim to impress. If your focus is on musical davening, find someone who is a truly talented song leader to lead the service. If your focus is on social justice, make sure the d’var tikkun (a talk on a social justice issue) is passionate and exciting. If your goal is for family-inclusive services, make sure there are families and children who know the tunes you’ll be using and will sing loudly and can fully participate. Keep announcements short and succinct. And have a way for people to sign up so you can increase your volunteer base – either leave a sign-in sheet or have slips of paper with the minyan or havurah’s email address, website, or other contact information.

Good luck!

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 29, 2009   7 Comments

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

Policies and Guidelines

By: Benjamin Maron

Many havurot and minyanim have their policies or guidelines available on their websites, viagra dosage as handouts available at services, patient or as documents that are sent to new members of their email lists.

Looking through them, one can get a feel for the variety of models that our communities use for governance, membership, services, and more. Feel free to peruse the following examples, discuss them in the comments below, and make use of them as guidelines for your own community.

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   3 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   78 Comments