Monday, September 18, 2006

Response to JTA article on NHC/Everett's/the havurah movement

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency's Sue Fishkoff wrote an article on the Everett fellows program and the National Havurah Summer Institute more broadly:
Once a domain of the middle-aged, havurah movement turns to youth
RINDGE, N.H., Aug. 30 (JTA) -- When Ben Murane arrived earlier this month at the National Havurah Committee´s Summer Institute, the annual gathering of the country´s independent Jewish prayer communities, he was "surprised to see all the older people here," he says.

Murane, 23, thought he and his friends at Kol Zimrah, a three-year-old, lay-led minyan on Manhattan´s Upper West Side, were at the forefront of a religious revolution led by young people turned off by the impersonal, hierarchical nature of institutional Judaism.

He had no idea that the white-haired, guitar-playing, anti-establishment grandparents he found himself living and studying with for a week in New Hampshire had done the same thing almost four decades earlier.

The aging hippies and progressive hipster frame seems to be gaining steam as a method for understanding the havurah phenomenon in Judaism. I'd be curious to see some numbers but haven't there been new minyanim and havurot being started on a fairly consistent basis for the last almost forty years. I am quite aware of havurah/minyan jews everywhere from in their latter 80s (often Mordecai Kaplan study groupers), to their 50s and early 60s (lots of the original havurat shalom, germantown minyan, new york havurah types), 30s and 40s, all the way to newborns. I am most aware of the 20-something scene cause its where i spend the most time, but it doesn't seem intuitive to me that the oft-repeated claim, that the movement is split into the middle-aged camp and the young camp, is accurate.

"Everyone I´ve met at Kol Zimrah is young," Murane explains.

This is certainly true, but is anecdotal.

But the havurah movement is 38 years old, dating back to the 1968 founding of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, Mass., the first intentionally non-denominational community of Jewishly literate, religiously egalitarian and politically liberal young Jews.

As I said earlier this week, it might make sense to acknowledge the Kaplan study groups that used havurah terminology. That said, Havurat Shalom was quite critical in the emerging havurah phenomenon as a network point, a training ground, and a model.

Even as mainstream synagogues began co-opting the havurah model to reinvigorate large, impersonal congregations, a network of independent havurot grew, creating an all-volunteer National Havurah Committee and, in 1979, the first summer institute, where havurah members from across North America gather every year to sing, dance, pray, study and meditate.

Schulweis started a havurah in his synagogue in 1968. Given that his model was appearing before any havurah movement gelled, it's hard to make the case that he was co-opting what didn't yet exist.

It is also important to the history to note that the NHC and its institute grew out of the Weiss's farm retreats held jointly by the major havurot.

This year the movement symbolically turned over the reins to the next generation. Ben Dreyfus, 26, and Elizabeth Richman, 32, co-chaired the summer institute, the first time it was headed by two young people.

This is a wonderful trend. Age aside, Ben and Elizabeth are artful and articulate ambassadors and advocates for the movement. It was a great move to put such talented and effective leaders in charge. That they were young is a bonus.

I think it would be fairer to say that they are the first of a new generation as the folks who organized it originally weren't much older.

"There´s a passing of the baton," says social psychologist Sherry Israel of Brandeis University, who´s been coming to the institute since 1983.

"All of us who have seen these kids grow up in this community are pleased as punch, and relieved," says Debra Cash, a member of Havurat Shalom from 1974 to 1981. "There was a question for a long time, is this kind of transdenominational Judaism for them?"

The answer seems to be yes.

"For us, havurah Judaism is very much about doing it ourselves," says Benj Kamm, 22, who first came to a summer institute as a child.

Kamm believes havurah Judaism has much to offer his generation.

"We see our peers not knowing much about being Jewish, not knowing why they practice. They bring in clergy to be Jewish for them. For many people in my generation, havurah Judaism is saying we need to own our Jewish experience," he says.

I think Benj means to honor the variety of experiences that our friends have had and suggest that havurah judaism can lead to a deeper connection when it moves people from passive to active in their spiritual lives. Probably part of his quote got chopped.

By the 1990s, the havurah movement was graying. At the summer institute of 1990, there were just four people in their twenties.

The following year, the Edith and Henry Everett Philanthropic Fund began underwriting a fellowship program to bring 18 post-college Jewish activists to each summer institute. Everett alumni, together with children of movement founders like Kamm and members of new independent minyanim like Murane, in five years have created a vibrant new population base.

Go Everetts! They are also the folks who led the charge against the Jewish community honoring folks who got wealthy on cigarette profits. They speak with a clear progressive conscience. The challenge at this point would seem to me to be how the fellowship can be expanded to 36 or so and how it can attract a wide array of yidden including the folks at some of the larger minyanim who haven't been heavily involved in NHC. It would be great if NHC emerged as the voice for the havurah phenomenon, and it certainly could if some of those conspicuously absent arrive at the table.

This summer, the single largest group of participants was people in their 20s.

"This is the second wave" of havurah Judaism, says Richman, a 2000 Everett fellow. She and Dreyfus, a 2002 Everett fellow, say the "tipping point" was 2001, when groups of young Jews in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington began forming their own independent minyans along traditional havurah principles.

Yay!

Some of the leaders of these new minyans, like Dreyfus and Richman, leaders of Kol Zimrah in New York, were Hillel activists in college.

The increase in day-school education is also significant.

Others are new to Jewish organizational work, but are active in groups like Jews in the Woods, an on-line community of young activist Jews, or might have studied in Israel for a year or worked with the Israeli peace movement.

If one gets four words to describe Jews in the Woods, an on-line community wouldn't be it. The phrasing is misleading and implies that the folks in the community don't meet often. Aside from the several yearly gatherings, and near weekly meetings of related groups, JITW functions as a network with its community members constantly seeing eachother and interacting, staying with eachother on trips to different cities, and partnering to form innovative organizations.

The summer institute has become a touchstone for these young Jews, Dreyfus says. They form social networks and keep in touch during the year, feeding off each other´s inventiveness.

This is certainly true. JITW and NHC offer in fairly parallel ways with significant cross-membership.

"There is again a generation of young people who are served by" independent havurot, argues Rabbi Arthur Green, spiritual luminary of the Reconstructionist movement and founder of Havurat Shalom. "They see themselves as too unconventional for a mainstream congregation. They want a more informal style of worship."

Art is one of the most important figures in the development on the havurah model and it's nice to see he was interviewed. He has since become one of the most important figures in American Jewry having run two seminaries (Hebrew College Reb and RRC) as well as become the leading English writer on Nahman and the Sfat Emet.

Like those who founded the first havurot, these younger Jews are very committed to text study even as they oppose what they call the elitism of religious authority. Rabbis are not addressed as such, and workshops are taught by teenagers as well as renowned intellectual figures.

Sarah Brodbar-Nemzer, 22, of Toronto, has been coming to the institute since she was 8. At 13 she ran a workshop and at 15 became a member of the board.

"This has always been a place where my leadership was taken seriously," she says.

These younger Jews are bringing new sensibilities and priorities to havurah Judaism, while preserving the movement´s original egalitarian and counter-cultural nature. They want greater emphasis on music, social action, and traditional observance.

Good analysis of a tough set of questions.

"There´s less fear of halachic practice," notes Green, adding that the founders of the havurah movement were fighting feminist and pluralist battles that today´s young Jews have moved beyond.

Some of the young men and women this summer sported tzitzit but not necessarily kippas, exhibiting a fluidity of ritual dress that deliberately flouts convention.

"I put them on a year and a half ago as a political protest, against the right and the left," Murane says of the tzitzit. He´s critiquing Orthodox Jews who claim ownership of the ritual as well as his colleagues on the political left who disdain it.
I don't particularly see my choice to mix these two as flouting convention. I am a german jew and our practice is to wear tzitzit tucked in as i think it has been for hundreds of years. kippah on the other hand i view primarily as a statement of identity politics, which i make selectively as appropriate. I have been thinking more about the most appropriate moments, but that is for another post.

"These young people see no conflict between their traditionalism and their activism," Green says. "They talk about poverty and preserving the environment using the language of halachic obligation."

At the insistence of young participants, all the coffee at this summer´s institute was Fair Trade, the T-shirts were sweatshop-free and workshops were offered on topics such as the "Beyond Oil" alternative-fuels campaign and ethical consumerism.

This is a wonderful step. Hopefully other more conventional jewish organizations will follow suit. With the exception of the Reconstructionists and maybe a few years later the Reform movement I am not anticipating a major move in this direction, sadly.


"It´s always been part of the institute, but we´ve brought in more of it," Richman says.

In their worship, "music is used more deliberately and engagingly," Israel notes. "Havurah services were always participatory, but this group is doing exciting things with music."

The young Jews taking leadership roles in havurah Judaism "believe passionately in what we do," Richman says.

That makes their parents happy.

"In the late ´80s our young people were telling us, ´You need to tell us what to do,´ " Cash says. "This group of the last decade, they just invent it. Even though there´s a chance havurah will morph into something different with this generation, it looks as if it will carry forward.´´

I share the author's optimism and don't have enough info to weigh in on Deborah Cash's claim that there is a major difference in the approaches of the 80s cohort and present cohort.

1 Comments:

At 9/18/2006 , Blogger BZ said...

I am most aware of the 20-something scene cause its where i spend the most time, but it doesn't seem intuitive to me that the oft-repeated claim, that the movement is split into the middle-aged camp and the young camp, is accurate.

It is empirically accurate in describing the demographics at this year's Institute. With the ages of participants sorted by decade, people in their 20s were the largest group, followed by people in their 50s. Yes, new minyanim/havurot have started continuously over the last 40 years, but there has been a particularly large wave in the last 5 years.

Age aside, Ben and Elizabeth are artful and articulate ambassadors and advocates for the movement. It was a great move to put such talented and effective leaders in charge.

Aw shucks. :)

I think it would be fairer to say that they are the first of a new generation as the folks who organized it originally weren't much older.

Yeah, it should have said "first time it was headed by two people born after 1970."

The challenge at this point would seem to me to be how the fellowship can be expanded to 36 or so and how it can attract a wide array of yidden including the folks at some of the larger minyanim who haven't been heavily involved in NHC.

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

The increase in day-school education is also significant.

Elizabeth and I both went to public school all the way through. Among the people my age who have become leaders in the NHC, there isn't a particularly high incidence of day-school education.

I don't particularly see my choice to mix these two as flouting convention. I am a german jew and our practice is to wear tzitzit tucked in as i think it has been for hundreds of years. kippah on the other hand i view primarily as a statement of identity politics, which i make selectively as appropriate.

Also, even from a formalistic perspective, it's not such a contradiction -- tzitzit are a mitzvah d'oraita, whereas kipah is a minhag.

I share the author's optimism and don't have enough info to weigh in on Deborah Cash's claim that there is a major difference in the approaches of the 80s cohort and present cohort.

The davening styles are definitely different. This is sometimes a source of tension. However, I think it's important to look past the davening styles and see our commonalities (rather than seeing the differences and concluding that our minyanim have nothing in common with the havurah movement).

 

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