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Transforming into a "Havurah of Havurot"

The Gerer Rebbe began class by asking his students about a classmate who wasn’t there that day. “How’s Moshe Chaim doing?” The students didn’t know. “What?” asked the Rebbe. “You don’t know? You pray under the same roof. You study together. How can you tell me you don’t know how Moshe Chaim is, whether he needs help or advice or comforting? How can that be?” 

If the Gerer Rebbe (the first) were a contemporary rabbi the story would have no meaning. Today, unless we are friendly with someone in our congregation, the odds of us knowing if she or he is ill, or in need of help, are very slim. Of course, we would willingly help if asked, as evident by how quickly Temple Beth Am volunteers sign up to help through our Lotsa Helping Hands group. However, the reality is that we are meaningfully involved in the life of only a relatively small group of people. But when we think about the Golden Age of the Jewish communities at the time of the Gerer Rebbe, almost 200 years ago, we tend to assume that they were all involved in each other’s lives.  

And here is the big problem. If even at the time when all Jews belonged to the synagogue and attended Services every Shabbat (most men daily), it was still easy for members of the community to be overlooked, what should we expect today when our congregants rarely pray together or learn together?   

A synagogue that describes itself as “one big family” is either a true miracle, or simply overstretches the euphemism. Hundreds of families cannot form one big family. But ten families can live in a way that genuinely feels and acts like an extended one. This is the idea behind a havurah. Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a pillar of the Conservative Jewish Movement, successfully established havurot in his synagogue many years ago. He did it when he realized that the primary task on the agenda of the synagogue is not rituals and theology, but what he called “the humanization and personalization of the temple.” To experience true belonging is an imperative prerequisite for the cultivation of religious and moral sensibilities. 

At TBA we talk a lot about the importance of tearing down the boundaries between Jews and synagogues. We work hard to make it easy for people to join our Temple; now we are going to work even harder to help them to belong. The formation of havurot is an important step to achieve this goal. A havurah is a small group of Temple members who come together to socialize, to learn and enjoy Jewish living with their families. They celebrate Jewish Holidays together, eat together, study together, and worship together. For many, the havurah really turns into an extended family. The beauty of the havurah is that it offers the synagogue member a community small enough to enable personal relationships to develop, and to express their Jewishness their own way.  

I believe that when the havurah endeavor with initiative works, our synagogue itself will gradually be transformed into a “Havurah of Havurot”, a Jewish assembly in which havurot meet for worship, study and celebration, not as isolated men and women.  

When the Gerer Rebbe asked about Moshe Chaim, not everyone at the temple knew how he was doing. But rest assured that members of his havurah were taking care of all his needs, like extended families do.  

Shanah Tovah,  
Rabbi Alon Levkovitz 

Fri, December 4 2020 18 Kislev 5781