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The havurah, or Jewish fellowship group, encompasses "a wide range of approaches in which relatively small groups of Jews come together regularly for programs which include Jewish study, celebration, and personal association" (Reisman, 1977). Use of the Hebrew term ḥavurah (pl. ḥavurot) as a social institution has its origins in the small communities of Pharasaic Jews from which emerged rabbinical Judaism over 2,000 years ago. In contemporary usage, the havurah refers to an attempt to restore a sense of Jewish community to North American Jewish life. In contrast to the synagogue, the havurah is distinguished by the personal responsibility assumed by members for their religious and social activities, rather than delegating them to the rabbi or other institutional officials.

Contemporary havurot emerged through two different and unrelated avenues. In the early 1960s, the Reconstructionist movement, which had espoused fellowship groups since its inception in the 1930s, established havurot to give substance to the teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan to transform the Jewish community. After becoming an independent denomination in 1968, Reconstructionists continued to create havurot as a substitute for, or adjunct to, its synagogues.

In the late 1960s, inspired by the counterculture of that period, many havurot were created predominantly by Jewish students who combined their Jewish seeking with political activism and opposition to the Vietnam War. Notable among these havurot were Chavurat Shalom in Somerville, Massachusetts (1968), the New York Havurah (1969), and Fabrangen in Washington, D.C. (1970). Havurot in this period also often adapted Ḥasidic motifs such as communalism, mysticism, ecstatic singing, and transcendence, both to restore what members felt was missing from Jewish life, and to emphasize their rejection of the conventional "corporate" synagogue.

The havurah may thus be considered a postmodern institution in that it celebrates the "cultural, and social transformations that have come together in the contemporary period and that include a movement away from the modern idea of a universalistic rational culture and toward a multicultural reality that celebrates the value of the local and the particular and attempts a new openness to premodern forms and motifs" (Kepnes 1996).

By the early 1970s the havurah had become an accepted part of the American Jewish scene, and were divided between independent and synagogue-affiliated havurot. Research conducted at that time found that most havurah members were young families with young children, closely resembling the demographics of synagogue members. However, they demonstrated a higher level of personal observance than synagogue members and were more likely to espouse liberal or radical political opinions. Since 1974, an annual summer retreat has been sponsored by the National Havurah Committee, the organizing body of independent havurot; by 1982 it was estimated that 20% of Reform congregations had one or more havurot.

Today there are several hundred independent havurot, primarily in the U.S., although the idea has spread to Canada, Israel, and several European countries. Approximately one-third of all Conservative and Reform congregations have one or more havurot, and some 40 havurot are affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement. While their loose organization makes it impossible to gather precise statistics about havurot, their influence on American Jewish life far exceeds their modest numbers. Havurah members occupy positions in academic Jewish studies, cultural organizations, Jewish federations, Jewish education, and the rabbinate. The egalitarianism of the havurah has become a fixture in American Jewish life, especially with regard to Jewish feminism. Other innovations inspired by the havurah and adopted by many Jewish organizations include retreats, the exercise of creating imaginative, non-rational midrash, the use of Hasidic niggunim (melodies), Jewish folk music, and the revival of Jewish crafts.

Indeed, the havurah example has stimulated the creation of new Jewish institutions such as the Elay Hayyim Jewish Retreat Center in New York State, and the proliferation of minyanin (prayer and study groups) in cities across the United States. As the havurah continues to evolve, the children of havurah members of the 1960s have themselves founded second-generation havurot, and National Havurah Conference's annual retreat has become a multi-generational event.

In addition, unaffiliated and highly mobile young Jews increasingly incorporate computer communications into their creation of postmodern Jewish fellowships and communities. An example of this is Kehillat Hadar in New York, founded in 2001 with seed money from the Jewish Federation of New York, a trans-denominational egalitarian community with members in their 20s and 30s who use a World Wide Web site and electronic mailing list to organize and schedule study, celebration, and social action in rented facilities. Similarly, Mishpacha, funded by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, is an online havurah providing interaction and Jewish learning for young Jewish parents.

The havurah has not become as stable and self-sustaining a Jewish institution as the synagogue. However, for four decades it has provided an avenue of involvement for Jews who seek to express their Judaism in a small, self-directed group, while stimulating innovation in the larger Jewish community. It is still too soon to determine if the recent experiments influenced by the havurah will have similar influence and longevity.


S. Kepnes (Editor), "Introduction" in Interpreting Judaism in a Postmodern Age (1996); B. Reisman, The Chavurah: A Contemporary Jewish Experience (1977); G. Bubis/H. Wasserman, Synagogue Havurot: A Comparative Study (1983); R. Prell, Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism (1989); J. Neusner, Contemporary Judaic Fellowship in Theory and Practice (1972).

[Peter Margolis (2nd ed.)]

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