Havurah Judaism

The havurah movement and The Jewish Catalog blended Judaism with the 1960s counterculture.


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Reprinted with permission from American Judaism: A History (Yale University Press).


Influenced by the same “anti-establishment” restiveness (“don’t trust anyone over 30″) and expressions of minority group liberation (“Black is beautiful”) that suffused America as a whole during this time [the 1960s], Jews–especially baby boomers born after the war and now coming to maturity–also channeled their feelings of rebelliousness, assertiveness, and alienation into domestic programs aimed at transforming and strengthening American Jewish life. They worried, as so many had before them, about the future of American Judaism, fearing that it would not survive unless it changed.

In response, they sought to revitalize their own Judaism, developing bold new initiatives to show that their faith could be timely, “with-it,” mean­ingful, and in harmony with the countercultural ideas of their day. 

The Havurah Movement

Some of the most exciting and enduring of these new initiatives emerged from within the “havurah movement,” named for the separatist religious fellowships that radical Jewish pietists, mystics, and scholars had formed back in the days of the Pharisees during the late Second Temple period. The Reconstructionist movement had appropriated this term in the early 1960s in an effort to promote the creation of small fellowship circles consist­ing of Jews who were partial to the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan [the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism] and gathered on a regular basis for study, discussion, and prayer.

Later that decade, in 1968, socially active, politically liberal students concerned with “the quality of Jewish living and the desire for an integrated lifestyle” appropriated the same term for a new institution established in Somerville, Massachusetts, called Havurat Shalom Community Seminary, devoted to fellowship, peace, community, and a “new model of serious Jewish study.”

Disdaining “self-satisfied, rich suburbanites” and “smug institutions,” the new seminary, be­sides helping students to avoid the military draft, sought to meet the needs of “serious young Jews… deeply involved in honest religious search, who are quite fully alienated from Judaism by all the contacts that they have had to date.” The idea, borrowed in part from Theodore Roszak’s The Mak­ing of a Counter Culture (1968), was to jettison the bourgeois middle-class values of suburbia and to re-imagine Judaism “as a revolutionary force… [that works] toward liberation, toward greater freedom for the individual and the society.”

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Dr. Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Chief Historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History. His new book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, is now available.

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