havurat shalom

Havurah Judaism

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

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.”

“Commune Congregation”

Havurat Shalom soon abandoned the trappings of a seminary and became a “commune congregation.” Its members enjoyed praying by candle1ight and sat on cushions on the floor. Group singing and slow wordless melodies (nigunnim) borrowed from Hasidic chants punctuated their prayers. Relevant texts, particularly those that spoke to contemporary ideals, received particu­lar emphasis. Along with like-minded “new Jews” who studied and prayed in companion institutions in major communities like New York, Washington, and Los Angeles, they spoke of “religious renewal,” disdained Judaism’s “established” movements and organizations (including the Conservative movement in which most of them had been raised), and believed that through diligent efforts they could themselves “redeem the current American Jewish religious life.” Their aim was to re-create Judaism in their own generation’s image.

The Jewish Catalog

The ideals and values that the Jewish counterculture and the havurah movement embodied soon moved from margin to mainstream. The text responsible for this remarkable transformation was The Jewish Catalog (1973), a happy mixture of Jewish law and lore, apt quotations, well-chosen photographs, whimsical cartoons, and general irreverence that billed itself as a Jewish “do-it-yourself kit,” a guide to how to become “personally involved in aspects of Jewish ritual life, customs, cooking, crafts, and creation.”

It served as the Jewish religious counterpart to the counterculture classic known as The Whole Earth Catalogue, a massive compendium of information, tools, and resources, and it also served as a popular, basic introduction to the practice of Judaism.

No book published by the Jewish Publication Society, except for the Bible, ever sold so many copies. Eventually expanded to three volumes, The Jewish Catalog served as the vehicle for transmitting the innovations pioneered by the creative young Jews of the havurah movement throughout North America and beyond. The widespread return to ritual that soon became evident across the spectrum of American Jewish life, the renewed interest throughout the community in neglected forms of Jewish music and art, the awakening of record numbers of Jews to the wells­prings of their tradition–these and other manifestations of Jewish religious revival in America all received significant impetus from The Jewish Catalog.

It spawned a whole library of competitors and sequels, brought fame to Havurat Shalom–to whom the book was dedicated–and helped to transform the Jewish counterculture into an influential mass movement.

Havurah-style worship spread through Jewish communities across the land. Influenced by the Reconstructionist fellowship circles, by Havurat Shalom and its counterparts, and by The Jewish Catalog, independent havurot (plural of havurah) sprang up in cities large and small, while some Reform and Conservative synagogues put the havurah idea to work within their own institutions to promote the “humanization and personalization” of worship and the democratization of synagogue life.

In place of the large formal synagogue service, these havurot adopted 60s-era ideals–including egalitarianism, informality, cohesive community, active participatory prayer, group discussion, and unconventional forms of governance. Participants met weekly, biweekly, or monthly; sat in circles; dressed casually; took turns leading worship and study; ate, talked, and celebrated together; and partici­pated in the happy and sad moments of one another’s lives–one rabbi per­ceptively described the havurah as a “surrogate for the eroded extended family.”

Evolutionary Change

To be sure, havurot never replaced synagogues for the majority of American Jews. Most havurot, in time, either disappeared, evolved into larger and more formal prayer groups, or became attached to neighborhood synagogues.

But the havurah movement’s countercultural ideals, counter-aesthetic values, and relaxed decorum lived on. In moderated form, they became part of mainstream Judaism, which as a result became more in­formal, more focused on promoting fellowship and community among members, and more open to discussion-based learning, group singing, and participatory prayer.

“I think the notion of creating empowered engaged Jews who live in intensely participatory, vivid, vital Jewish communities is what we sought to create in the New York Havurah and is what many of us are now seeking to do in [mainstream] Jewish life,” one anti-establishment havurah leader, who later became executive director of New York’s Jewish federation, explained. “Many of the things that I have tried to do as a Jewish professional. . . are still motivated by those commitments.”

In the end, the havurah movement, like so many previous attempts to radically transform Judaism, produced evolution, not revolution.

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