Wo r d
Photo by Rob Levy
Once a domain of the middle-aged,
the havurah movement turns to youth.
Jewish telegraphic Agency
hen Ben Murane
arrived last month
at the National
Havurah Committee's Summer
Institute, the annual gathering of
the country's independent Jewish
prayer communities, he was "sur-
prised to see all the older people
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 imper-
sonal, hierarchical nature of
institutional Judaism. He had no
idea that the white-haired, gui-
grandparents he found himself
living and studying with for a
week in New Hampshire had
done the same thing almost four
"Everyone I've met at Kol
Zimrah is young," Murane
explains. But the havurah move-
ment is 38 years old, dating back
to the 1968 founding of Havurat
Shalom in Somerville, Mass., the
first intentionally non-denomi-
national community of Jewishly
literate, religiously egalitarian
and politically liberal young Jews.
Even as mainstream syna-
gogues began co-opting the
havurah model to reinvigorate
large, impersonal congregations,
a network of independent havu-
rot grew, creating an all-volunteer
National Havurah Committee
and, in 1979, the first summer
institute, where havurah mem-
bers from across North America
gather every year to sing, dance,
pray, study and meditate.
This year, the movement sym-
bolically turned over the reins to
the next generation. Ben Dreyfus,
26, and Elizabeth Richman, 32,
September 21 2006
co-chaired the summer institute,
the first time it was headed by
two young people.
"There's a passing of the
baton," says social psycholo-
gist 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 transde-
nominational 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 gen-
eration, havurah Judaism is say-
ing we need to own our Jewish
experience he says.
By the 1990s, the havurah
movement was graying.
According to institute lore, by
1999 there were just four people
younger than 35. The follow-
ing year, the Edith and Henry
Everett Philanthropic Fund
began underwriting a fellowship
program to bring 18 post-college
Jewish activists to each sum-
mer institute. Everett alumni,
together with children of move-
ment founders like Kamm and
members of new independent
minyanim like Murane, in five
years have created a vibrant new
population base. This summer,
the single largest group of par-
ticipants was people in their 20s.
"This is the second wave" of
havurah Judaism, says Richman,
a 2000 Everett fellow. She and
Dreyfus, a 2002
say the "tipping
point" was 2001,
when groups of
young Jews in
New York, Los
their own inde-
ples. Some of the
leaders of these
like Dreyfus and
ers of Kol Zimrah
in New York, were Hillel activ-
ists in college. Others are new
to Jewish organizational work,
but are active in groups like Jews
in the Woods, an on-line com-
munity of young activist Jews, or
might have studied in Israel for
a year or worked with the Israeli
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.
"There is again a genera-
tion of young people who are
served by" independent havurot,
argues Rabbi Arthur Green,
spiritual luminary of the
and founder of Havurat Shalom.
"They see.themselves as too
unconventional for a mainstream
congregation. They want a more
informal style of worship."
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 author-
ity. Rabbis are not addressed as
such, and workshops are taught
by teenagers as well as renowned
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 bring-
ing new sensibilities and priori-
ties to havurah Judaism, while
preserving the movement's origi-
nal egalitarian and counter-cul-
tural nature. They want greater
emphasis on music, social action,
and traditional observance.
"There's less fear of halachic
practice," notes Rabbi Green, add-
ing 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.
"These young people see no
conflict between their tradition-
alism and their activism:' Rabbi
Green says. "They talk about
poverty and preserving the envi-
ronment using the language of
At the insistence of young
participants, all the coffee at
this summer's institute was Fair
Trade, the T-shirts were sweat-
shop-free and workshops were
offered on topics such as the
"Beyond Oil" alternative-fuels
campaign and ethical consumer-
ism. "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
The young Jews taking leader-
ship 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."