Thanks to the generosity of Gary Orren and the Merle Orren Scholars Transformation (MOST) program of Temple Emanuel I’m spending this week at the National Havurah Committee Insitute being held this year at the University of Hartford.
The National Havurah Committee is an organization of groups knows as “havurot” (the plural of “havurah,” from the Hebrew root meaning both “friend” and “member”) and has existed and been running this event since at least 1980. Many of the participants return to the Institute year after year, some for more than 20 years. Being at Institute is a little like grown-up Jewish summer camp; there are always activities going on (more than any one person can do). You sign up in advance for two longer classes which are held daily, plus there are various other workshops, activities, and experiences to attend. For example, I attended a workshop where I learned how to crochet a kippah (not that I actually can do it yet, but I can appreciate better how the ones I wear are made). For my main classes, I’m attending one on the “Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto,”a Polish Chasidic rebbe who uniquely bridged tradition and modernity in ways we can learn from, and most of whose works were lost until his manuscripts we found buried in Warsaw after he was killed in the Holocaust. My other class is “Visual Midrash” taught by a professional artist where we’ll get to work on parchment to create art.
Havurot are typically small, volunteer-member-run groups, either independent or part of large synagogue. The independent ones tend to function as synagogues for their members in term of having services, and overlap with “independent minyanim” that have been popular in recent years. It’s certainly a different approach to Judaism than being part of a large synagogue, but being here makes me realize that we’re all in the same boat: just as synagogues need to be participatory places with small communities to involve people, havurah members also participate in schools, camps, and synagogues for Jewish education and community. At a program last night, the Institute’s Liturgist in Residence Mitch Chefitz shared how at his synagogue, the few remaining Shabbat morning regulars always wait at Kiddush for the rabbi to bless the challah, an echo of the ancient past where the priests had a special role in the Temple; but what’s happening more and more today is “partnership Judaism” where all of us are partners with God, and they’re looking for ways to do that.
Another interesting thing about this year’s Institute is that it coincided with Tisha b’Av, the sad fast day of the Jewish calendar, a remembrance of the destruction of Temple in Jerusalem. Being with a Jewish group that was marking the day made it more meaningful and I actually completed the fast. And, while many synagogues hold services outside of the sanctuary to symbolize the exile, being actually outside my synagogue did that even more. As the fast was drawing to a close, just before the sun began to set, I saw a rainbow over the campus. I searched with my phone and found (on Chabad.org) and said the prayer for seeing a rainbow: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי אֶלוֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם זוֹכֵר הַבְּרִית וְנֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתוֹ וְקַיָם בְּמַאֲמָרוֹ—that God remembers and is faithful to the covenant (he made when showing a rainbow to Noah) and keeps his word. The idea that after a hard time we still have God’s covenant seemed like a very appropriate theme as the close of Tisha b’Av is soon followed by the season of Jewish holidays.
I’ve heard about the Institute various times over the years and am glad I finally had a chance to attend. It’s given me Jewish experiences that are expanding my knowledge in ways I wouldn’t ordinarily have, and that no doubt I’ll find myself reflecting back on in my future involvement in the Jewish community.
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One other thing I want to highlight – this is the most genuinely inter-generational Jewish event I’ve been to. Most things in the Jewish world are mainly empty-nesters OR mainly families with children OR mainly single 20-somethings; they all mix together her. From what I gather, this was done behind the scenes very intentionally by giving people of different ages leadership roles and it’s also certainly part of why the event has been going on for so long (although it makes it a little harder to find your place as a new person). There’s also a strong emphasis on accessibility.