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A Jewish World of Infinite Possibility

Looking back at 50 years of Havurat Shalom, one of the longest-lasting creations of the havurah movement

David G. Roskies
May 24, 2018
Photos courtesy the author
David Roskies in 1970 (left), and Havurat Shalom in Cambridge, Massachusetts.Photos courtesy the author
Photos courtesy the author
David Roskies in 1970 (left), and Havurat Shalom in Cambridge, Massachusetts.Photos courtesy the author

To be a Jewish student in the 1960s was to march concurrently or consecutively to different drummers. You could take your cue from Abbie Hoffman, who famously told Judge Julius Hoffman to his face, “You are a shande far di goyim,” signaling that Jewish accommodationism was now a thing of the past. Or you could be swept up in the euphoria of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. My classmates at Brandeis would routinely set out on foot to Walden Pond with dog-eared copies of Thoreau under their arms. Like Thoreau’s philosopher, they sought “to live … a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” Left, right, countercultural: There were many ways to be a Jew. But what they often had in common was their utopian flavor. We thought a better world—a best world, perhaps—was aborning.

It was in that spirit that seven teachers and an incoming class of 11 students co-founded, in September 1968 (the 12th joined in December), Havurat Shalom, a small, communal Jewish fellowship in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was to become one of the longest-lasting creations of the havurah movement. Although, as I see it, the havurah’s utopian phase lasted but five years, from the fall of 1968 to the summer of 1973, it was perfectly captured, and widely disseminated, through The First Jewish Catalog. After that, the do-it-yourself ethos of the havurah became a portable inheritance, its best insights absorbed by synagogues, community centers, and summer camps, while some of the original havurot disbanded. Havurat Shalom lives on, and as it turns 50, it’s worth looking back at what they—we—did.

The Niggunic Renaissance: Make It New!

A combination ashram/monastery/shtibl/Lehrhaus/urban kibbutz, Havurat Shalom embodied the varieties of religious experience in the mid-20th century. Early in the summer of 1969, we relocated to our present and permanent quarters, a three-story wooden building with veranda and spacious backyard at 113 College Avenue in Somerville, Massachusetts, next door to a Masonic temple. By then there were 40 of us—five (including me) who lived on the premises and the rest within walking distance. Many more had applied for admission, but anything larger than 40, it was felt, would derail our quest for fellowship and new spiritual directions. Visitors (welcome only on the Sabbath) would have found a small group of young people sitting on the floor on castaway pillows. Some sat with their heads covered in a multicolored tallit of special design, a psychedelic yarmulke, or both. If they came early, it was time for silent meditation, as the long-haired congregants—male and female, bearded and clean-shaven—slowly trickled in. Some sat perfectly still in a yoga position; some swayed back and forth. The surroundings were spare. In Somerville, the Ark was a large basket affixed to the Eastern wall.

The service began without forewarning or fanfare when one person began to sing a niggun, a textless song, a contemplative melody without words, perhaps no more than a hum at first, or a bim-bam-bam. Where could this New England motley of youngsters have learned such a haunting, uplifting niggun? They learned it either from an LP, a long-playing record, of Hasidic songs from Bobov, Chabad, or Modzitz that carried warning labels not to play them on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, or from the astonishingly prolific Shlomo Carlebach and Ben Zion Shenker, who had just recently burst onto the musical scene.

Starting the service with a niggun signaled a complete break with the Conservative, Reform, and even Orthodox liturgy that most people were familiar with. The havurah style of prayer drew instead from the niggunic renaissance of the 1960s, which fundamentally altered the rhythm of Jewish prayer and its rationale. In other, more traditional settings, in the suburban synagogues we’d fled, what governed the liturgy was the nusach, a modality or leitmotif that distinguished the daily from the Sabbath and festival prayers, the morning from the afternoon from the evening, the high points of the service punctuated by specific melodies sung either in unison or by the cantor and choir. The nusach was a kind of musical score that obeyed an established order presided over by the ba’al tefilah, the Leader of Prayer, who stood before the congregation and stood in for the High Priest. Not so the niggun, which was both accessible and improvisational. It came from outside the synagogue, from the decentralized, slapdash world of the Hasidic court, each melody attributed to one or another Hasidic master—Reb Nachman of Breslov, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the Alter Rebbe, the Rizhiner, or all the way back to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. Decentralized—and radically eclectic, for the niggun obeyed the kabbalistic principle of let atar panui minei, “no place is devoid of God,” and therefore it was the task of the seeker to raise the sparks of holiness from wherever they had scattered—the lower, the better.

In the countercultural system adopted by Havurat Shalom, the singing of a niggun, whether as part of a formal service or at a ceremonial meal, was at one and the same time a revolutionary and restorative act. On the one hand, it signaled the return to a more authentic sound, which came from Over There, from the spiritual heartland of East European Jewry. On the other, it signified a new start. No more would one obey the strict protocol of Junior Congregation. No more would communal meals be accompanied by the raucous table-thumping of Jewish summer camp. (One morning in 1971, a veteran of Camp Ramah chose to lead a standard Ramah-style service, whereupon havurah member Arthur Green stood up and left.) The niggun, finally, doubled as a mantra, thus aligning the havurah’s quest for spiritual renewal with a new-found passion for eastern religions. Repeated over and over, the niggun was a time-tested way of achieving kavanah, spiritual intentionality. At Havurat Shalom, all means of achieving spiritual intention and intensity were kosher.

Havurat Shalom stood for the radical proposition that the main business of attending synagogue was not building social capital, not aping the gentiles, not gossip, not finding or making a match or doing business, not listening to a sermon on current events—but davening. So the first word that one learned upon joining the havurah was the key concept of davenen (in Yiddish) or davening (in Judeo-English)—not to be confused with “prayer.” Davenen was avodah begashmiut, something one did with body and soul. Davenen demanded one’s undivided attention. There was no room for distraction, for talking, for childcare. Davenen was an art that had to be unlearned in order to be relearned. “Shiru ladonai shir hadash,” proclaims the psalmist in the Pesukei D’zimra, the verses of praise that usher in the morning service. “Sing to the Lord a new song.” The main thrust of the niggun was to make it new, make it new, make it new!

Looking back upon those heady days in Cambridge and Somerville, I would now say that the most profound change wrought by Havurat Shalom was the birth of a New Jew whom I would call the Homo davenus. Not Jews praying, but Jews “at prayer,” for whom contemplative prayer was to become a core religious experience. For davening to do its work, it would have to be liberated from the system of ritual obligation and rabbinic enforcement. Davening would have to flow from the personal, autonomous realm of the individual and obey the ethos of the religious fellowship, the havurah. It was through the davening experience that one could test the limits of communal responsiveness—and openness.

The person who modeled the Homo davenus was Reb Zalman Schachter. Polish-born, raised in Vienna, interned in Vichy France, and trained as an early emissary of Chabad in the United States, Reb Zalman had already broken with ogreerthodoxy when, on sabbatical from the University of Manitoba, he joined Havurat Shalom, just called into being by Green and his fellow rabbis Albert Axelrad and Joseph Lukinsky. As it happened, I had already met Reb Zalman at a Jewish theology workshop held in the Laurentian Mountains, just north of Montreal. The workshop was closed to the public, but we members of Shomrei Ha’umah, a group of high school students who met in the basement of Rabbi David Hartman’s home, were allowed to attend as flies on the wall. Looking more like a beatnik than a Hasid, peppering his speech with Yiddish, Reb Zalman was a unique presence among that august group of scholars and thinkers, including Emil Fackenheim, Yochanan Muffs, Jakob Petuchowski, and David Novak.

The next time I met Reb Zalman was in early March 1969 when I joined a carload of Brandeis students who had begun attending Sabbath services at Havurat Shalom in Cambridge. It was Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath before Purim, which recalls the enmity and gratuitous cruelty of the Amalekites in Deuteronomy 25, and Reb Zalman was the ba’al tefilah. What I remember from that service is how it ended, with a Mourner’s Kaddish unlike any I had ever heard.

Reb Zalman concluded by singing the Kaddish to the melody of “Zog nit keyn mol” (“Never Say”), the hymn of the Vilna partisans, written in 1943. In so doing, he took a prayer hallowing the name of God and reset it along the plane of human history. At the same time, he took a melody that was resolutely secular, composed in the Soviet Union, and harnessed its power for spiritual ends. Let atar panui minei. Whom did he do this for—and why? He did this, I would guess, for himself. As a living link to European Jewry, Reb Zalman wanted to turn Shabbat Zachor into a commemoration of the Holocaust, a term that was just beginning to gain currency in America. But he also wanted to give the Holocaust a redemptive spin: If today was Shabbat Zachor, then Purim was soon to follow. Nowhere but in Havurat Shalom could Reb Zalman have attempted this complicated hermeneutic because the rule at the havurah was that you had to trust the ba’al tefilah. Wherever his personal style of davening led is where you had to be ready to go. For me, hearing Reb Zalman’s Kaddish was a self-defining moment, because it meant that the Yiddish secular world from which I came was suffused with religious significance, and that the most powerful way to respond to the Holocaust was the most indirect: by channeling, challenging, and short-circuiting the traditional liturgy.

Reb Zalman taught us that one could daven even in English, provided that the words were chanted in the same recitative as the Hebrew and flowed seamlessly therefrom, and were accompanied by the proper body language, whether one swayed back-and-forth or side-to-side. English was both medium and message, allowing us to admit our natural inheritance into the closed and oftentimes forbidding precincts of the Hebrew prayer book. It was at Havurat Shalom, perhaps at the Uncle House on College Avenue, perhaps at a retreat, that someone first sang “Adon Olam,” the concluding hymn of the Sabbath morning service, to the tune of “Scarborough Fair.”

This perfect marriage of words to melody was something universally accessible, because everyone had memorized at least the first stanza of the song from the single released in October 1966 by the two apostles, Simon and Garfunkel (not to be confused with the Gospel According to Peter, Paul, and Mary); to fuse the lyricism and longing of this exquisite British ballad to the most sublime hymn about the oneness, omnipotence, and omnipresence of God was not some clichéd ecumenical gesture. Done well, with true kavanah, it was an act of spiritual alchemy.

Meaningful davening had to flow both vertically and horizontally. Urging us to use the word “Jew” as if it were a three-letter verb root, as if we were speaking Hebrew, Zalman said: “We can Jew with more or less intensity; we can Jew with more or less frequency; we can Jew with more or wider amplitude.” Some years later, a Havurah-trained ba’al tefilah widened the amplitude by singing “Adon Olam” to a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” for what was gospel singing if not the soul sister of davening? What was a Negro spiritual if not the wellspring of niggun? We, the first of the baby boomers, foot soldiers in the social protest movements of the ’60s, were determined to embrace that musical-mystical fusion as Jews: to Jew it with great intensity, to Jew it with great frequency, and to Jew it with great amplitude.

Make It Mine: The Lehrhaus

The full name of the havurah, as it appeared on its incorporation papers and letterhead, was “Havurat Shalom Community Seminary.” The choice of “seminary” was practical and political. As this country expanded its war in Southeast Asia, college students woke up one day to the news that graduate school no longer exempted them from the draft. Unless one was classified 4-F, unfit for military service, escaped to Canada, or pulled a high number after the lottery was established, one’s best bet was a 4-D deferment for ministers and divinity students. If you were male, Jewish, and under the age of 24, in other words, attending rabbinical school could save you from being killed. Barry Holtz, Tufts ’68, had wanted to pursue a graduate degree in English, but after a conversation with Alan Mintz in New York, he picked up the phone, called Art Green, recently ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and suggested the creation of a new rabbinical seminary in Cambridge. That was the right call to make because the spiritual crisis of American Jewry was very much on Art’s mind, and if a new kind of Jew were to be incubated, one needed to start from the top. In September 1968, Barry became a member of the first entering class at Havurat Shalom. The 10 entering seminarians included Holtz and Joey Reimer, who were both also pursuing graduate degrees at secular universities (Holtz at Brandeis, Reimer at Harvard) and active draft resisters like Jim Kugel, who worked for the Jewish Peace Fellowship, and Stef Krieger, who was preparing himself to go to jail. “Shalom” was the code word that signified the group’s unanimous opposition to the war.

What allowed the havurah to hang out a shingle as a rabbinical “seminary” in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was a core Judaic faculty composed mostly of Conservative rabbis: Edward Feld, David Goodblatt, Green, Burt Jacobson, Hillel Levine, Lukinsky, and Michael Swirsky. Under one roof, the havurah would house the American university and the Lithuanian yeshiva, combining intellectual rigor, tolerance for diversity of thought and practice, and spiritual and existential seriousness. Was such a utopian model even possible to achieve? Only if that new hybrid were the very opposite of JTS. “As a place to embark on a Jewish religious path it fell short,” Swirsky would later recall about his years at JTS, “mainly, I think, because it combined the worst of the two systems of teaching—dry scholasticism and an insistence on observance—and seemed to give little thought to students’ growth as human beings or as Jews.” Because they had survived the severity of a yeshiva and the barrenness of a university, the founders and faculty of Havurat Shalom were resolved to find a new model for serious Jewish learning.

Thinking small, it was possible to reimagine a Hasidic shtibl as well as the study halls of Wissenschaft, critical scholarship—in short, to revisit a short-lived experiment called the Frankfurt Lehrhaus. Brandeis professor Nahum Glatzer was our living link to Franz Rosenzweig. Once before, in the early 1920s, Rosenzweig had brought together the brightest and the best that German and Central European Jewry had to offer—lay persons, professors, and rabbis—to create a new home for Jewish learning, in which, to quote Glatzer, “there is no boundary line between the sacred and the secular material,” because Jewish learning, according to Rosenzweig, was a holy pursuit. Havurat Shalom, like the Lehrhaus, would offer a dual curriculum: one for basic Judaism and Hebrew literacy, and another for advanced scholarship and intellectual synthesis. In search of a curriculum, Michael Fishbane, then a doctoral student at Brandeis, went back to the inaugural issue of the Yearbook of the Leo Baeck Institute, where Glatzer had published a vivid account of the Frankfurt Lehrhaus. Just as neo-Hasidism was the havurah’s main source of inspiration for prayer, a utopian experiment from Weimar Germany heralded the reclamation of Jewish learning as a holy act.

What was true of the prayer room, where we sat on the floor in a circle, in the manner of an ashram, was true of the weekday classrooms, where we sat around a wooden table, in the manner of the old beit midrash: The layout of the room was the blueprint of our utopian experiment. There was no privileged place to sit, no Eastern wall. As in the Lehrhaus, every teacher at the havurah was also a student. Once admitted into the fellowship, each haver had to commit to a serious program of study, whether or not he (and later, she) was officially preparing for the rabbinate. Student members paid $500 tuition; faculty members taught without pay. The biblical caste system of priests, Levites, and ordinary Israelites, which determined the distribution of synagogue honors, was summarily discarded, as was the medieval system of ranking people according to their yikhes, or pedigree.

The emancipation of women followed not too long thereafter. At our first aufruf, when the groom was called up to the Torah in honor of his forthcoming nuptials, his fiancée was called up, too. Then came a Sukkot retreat during our second academic year. The joyous outdoor festival was drawing to a close and we were about to return to Somerville when Seymour Epstein asked the group if a minyan could be organized the next morning, because the 17th of Tishrei was his mother’s yahrzeit, and he needed to recite the Kaddish in her memory. But when he started doing a head count, Mona Fishbane protested that he was counting only men, whereupon, to assuage her, Epstein immediately agreed to count women. Soon, women were admitted as equal members, not merely as spouses, and finally women stepped forward to lead the davening.

The central challenge posed by the havurah’s personal mode of Torah study was how to “make it mine”—and how not to “make it mine.” In the Reform, Conservative, and upscale Orthodox synagogues of our youth, the serious, close reading of the ancient sources in their Hebrew original had been replaced by “a mere voguish attachment to ‘what’s happening’”—this, from a brochure authored by Joel Rosenberg announcing the “Havurat Shalom House of Study for Adults.” “We are interested in a return to the sources,” it read. “We feel that text study must play an important part in our House of Study.” If one did not feel morally, theologically, aesthetically, and existentially challenged by the ancient sources, each one according to his or her abilities and ambitions, then there was no point studying them at all.

On the Sabbath, everyone took part in the Torah discussions, punctuated by awkward silences, reminiscent of a Quaker meeting. “As with davening,” Joel Rosenberg would explain many years later, “when discussions are good, they’re stupendous. But most remarkable of all is that they’re no one’s special property. The neophyte and the veteran are on equal terms here, both because the focus is on a text and reading experience that everyone shares, and because a question is sometimes more of a contribution than an answer.”

The havurah was about the drama of living inside the text. In the spring of 1970, when the group was about to split in two (of which more, below) and everyone was asked to write a vision statement, Art Green found the Torah text that told our story. To be more precise, the text found him, because it was the week of Parashat Terumah, when the Torah reading describes the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. “This havurah business,” he wrote, summarizing the debate and staking out his own position, was akin to building a home for God in the desert, “a shared dwelling, for that which seeks a place. You can only do it,” he stated, now quoting directly from the parasha, by “gifts…from every person whose heart so moves him; by uplifting the best you have to give, gold, silver and copper, namely, your longings and your fantasies.” So the vision statements were our terumah, our shared private offerings, the distillation of our longings and fantasies, all of which together were needed to build a home for God in West Somerville, next door to a Masonic lodge. This psychological spin and fanciful play with the Torah text were the hallmark of Hasidic interpretation, as we already knew from studying with Art.

“One of the first things I’ve learned,” he continued, switching abruptly to the first-personal singular, “is that there are many temples, infinite conceivable temples, and whom you try to build your temple with is terribly…important”—and on this subject the Sages, speaking through parable (in Sifre Devarim),had something sobering to teach us about the dangers of building a palace when there were too many architects. The warning was this:

Such building has to proceed from our private sanctuaries, or else it will be shallow. Such building must surely allow for an aggregate of various architectural styles, or we will all choke and flee. (The commitment to religious personalism remains firm.) But the sharing involved simply requires much more trust than we all presently offer one another, and that’s why I no longer think that the entire present havurah can or should remain together.

It was not easy to strike a balance between religious personalism and true confessions. Talking Torah in a personal vein was not just the touchstone of truth in the relations ben adam lehavero, among the members of the Havurah. It was an essential way of monitoring and measuring the relationship ben adam lamakom, between ourselves and God.

Close encounters with the text were to be based on the Hebrew-Aramaic original. Let us recall that the historic-philological school of biblical criticism was then in its heyday, especially at Brandeis, where our own Michael “Buzzy” Fishbane was working on his doctorate with Nahum Sarna and Cyrus Gordon. Our interest in finding Ancient Near Eastern parallels, Buzzy taught us, had nothing to do with proving that biblical religion was somehow superior to that of the other ancient peoples. Such an approach smacked of 1950s apologetics. What we wanted was to restore the ancient texts to their radical otherness; hearing the Akkadian and Ugaritic echoes was like entering into another world. Who cared about the Ur-text, restoring some putative original, if the Torah could somehow unlock for us the experience of standing at Sinai?

At just this time, Everett Fox, my classmate at Brandeis and an occasional davener at the havurah, had begun work on an English translation of Genesis, based on the famous Buber-Rozenzweig translation, which sought to Hebraize and biblicize the German language as far as possible. Suddenly, via the English, we were seeing and hearing Leitwörter jump out at us from every pericope—whatever that meant.

How, then, was it possible to bridge the gap between the absolute otherness of the ancient texts and our own habits of the mind? This is where the new methods of reading that we had learned in college came in: William Empson’s seven types of ambiguity, Wayne Booth’s unreliable narrator, Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. A close reading of the Torah revealed manifold layers of ambiguity, contradictory points of view, embedded symmetries and structural complexities, and the aesthetic reward of such a reading was to reveal the hidden delights of the Book of Books. This new literary approach to the Bible was first incubated at Havurat Shalom. In search of a deeper reading, we used the historical and the inner-textual approaches to achieve a personal encounter with the divine author.

As Torah-intoxicated readers, we were closer to Ezekiel than to Jeremiah, closer to Job than to Jonah, closer to Rabbi Akiva than to Rabbi Yishmael. There were no shortcuts, in the days before Google and Wikipedia, to unpack these paradigms of the Jewish religious imagination and to locate oneself somewhere on the continuum. For this, you needed a fellowship, a study partner (a havrutah), a teacher and (preferably) a vocalized text.

The Torah was black fire on white fire and there were those among us who had seen what this writing looks like. One way to see was by tripping on acid or smoking a lot of pot, so long as it was done leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Another was by studying the Zohar, with its fantastical cast of characters—Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, the Great and Smaller assembly of Holy Friends; Kabbalah study was reserved for those who met at 6 a.m. I lived in the havurah building for a year and would find them engaged in this most allusive and elusive mode of scriptural exploration when I came downstairs for breakfast. Jewish tradition had much to teach us about altering one’s state of consciousness. On this score we concurred with Yaffa Eliach that what the Besht had smoked in his famous lyulke (pipe) when he wandered in seclusion through the Carpathian Mountains, was something a lot more potent than tobacco.

Make It Ours: Havurah

There were many models for how to daven or make sense of Torah, but there was no model for how to build a utopian community. Almost as soon as Havurat Shalom began, it began to disintegrate. In February 1968, barely six months after the first 12 haverim convened in Cambridge, Stef Krieger charged Art Green to align with the radicals, the maximalists, those who wished to transform their lives entirely. So Art Green drafted a covenant for the havurah to consider. “We join together in this covenant out of a sense of divine mission,” it read, “out of a search for the realization of the sacred in our lives as individuals and as brothers and sisters in a community …

[1] … Though each of us makes his own path toward this realization, we are bound together by a common sense that religious striving, guided by our roots in Judaism, is the central meaning of our lives.

[2] We join together in the realization that the ideal of havurah is not easily fulfilled, that the very nature of our undertaking requires dedication in struggle …

[3] We recognize Jewish religion as a revolutionary force, one that does not sit well with the search for comfort or the temptations of complacency. Our commitment is such that we will not be led astray by a search for respectability, by offers of acceptance from those whose values we reject, or by temptations of material success and superficial growth.

[4] Judaism is a religion at work toward liberation, toward greater freedom for the individual and the society. We reject as perverse any use of religion that leads toward repression of the human spirit, meaningless conformity, or the stunting of serious personal growth.

[5] Our religiosity is characterized both by a constant search for the eternal and an awareness of the radical newness of every hour. Constant study of the sources of Jewish religious life in the past is a vital part of our undertaking; wholly one with that study is the attempt to convert our learning into meaningful religious action. We seek to be learned Jews, not bound by the tradition, but enriched by its insight.

These five commandments, taken together, shifted the burden inward, from actions that must be done on behalf of society to the daily discipline of building community, and the 11th and last saw the havurah as a lifelong commitment. “Leaving Havurat Shalom…will not affect the commitments we here undertake,” it read. “Should a signer of this covenant feel, however, that his life can no longer be guided by the principles of this covenant, he may ask the other signers to release him from the obligations here undertaken.”

This Covenant was never adopted by the group, but there was a committed cadre that remained tied to a model of shared income and disparaged the idea of professional advancement. That group, however, was the minority, and by 1970 the hardcore communitarians were made to feel unwelcome, outnumbered by those whose main academic or professional work lay outside the havurah. Those who lived in the world effectively banished those who wanted the havurah to represent a small secession from it.

After that split, in the summer of 1970, when such members as Noam Kornfeld, Stef Krieger, Jim Kugel, and Jeff Sokol left the group for good, the rest of us regrouped and determined to serve the Lord begashmiyut, by reuniting the mind with the body. Too many mind-expanding drugs were, we decided, bad for the body. Too much social action, whether on behalf of general or Jewish causes, was bad for the mind. Instead, the glue that was to hold our community together was the preparation and consumption of food in a group setting. Why else were we expected to live within walking distance of the House if not to host one another on the Sabbath and expose one another to untold culinary delights? Each havurah household owned a copy of the Moosewood Cookbook and expended much effort over its labor-intensive recipes. But if our kitchen work was labor intensive, it was not devoid of humor. The menu for one such communal meal, with the joking header “Catering by Roth, Green, and Mann Appetizing, Newark, N.J.,” included such items as “Bagels DeLuxe,” “Onion Poopsies,” and “Real Jewish Seltzer.” And the pièce de résistance: “Kugel Galicièn.”

So it was back to basics—and back to nature. As a group, we ate together twice a week: The Wednesday communal meal was followed by a formal or informal meeting around the fireplace, and seudah shlishit, the Third Sabbath Meal, was accompanied by song and a personal presentation of some kind. When the size of the havurah jumped from 12 (there had been significant attrition during Year One) to 40, the newly augmented group convened in Packard Manse, a retreat center in Stoughton, Massachusetts (where our very own Everett Gendler lived), and in lieu of paying for room and board we did agricultural work in its fields and gardens. Every Sukkot and Shavuot from 1969 to about 1973, the havurah went on retreat (or alternatively, on Shavuot, held an in-city tikkun). It was at the Sukkot retreat held at Camp Ramah in Palmer, Massachusetts, that two havurah wives finally put their foot down and insisted that the men also help with cleanup.

All this, and more, was possible so long as we lived within walking distance of Uncle House, were still in our 20s, and had barely begun to think about raising and supporting a family. Once the war in Vietnam ended, moreover, the need for rabbinical ordination became moot. Armed with a doctorate, one could get an academic job in the burgeoning field of Jewish studies. It was only a matter of time before most of us would move on—some to Israel, some to Philadelphia, some to Manhattan, some back to Toronto. Admission procedures at Havurat Shalom were abolished a year after Art and Kathy Green moved to Philadelphia, in the summer of 1973.

What remained was a hunger for utopia. Utopia was the knowledge and experience of what was possible when, by some miraculous confluence, everything and everyone you needed were all in one place; when by some divine act of contraction, what the Kabbalists called zimzum, many of the brightest and the best that North American Jewry had to offer were brought together under one roof—and consecrated their lives to doing Jewish: to Jew it with great intensity, to Jew it with great frequency, and to Jew it with great amplitude.

Utopia was total empowerment. Do-it-yourself Judaism. Utopia meant thinking small, by combining the shtibl and beit midrash, i.e., salvaging a Jewish life dedicated to faith and worship through a reimagined Hasidic shtibl and placing adult Jewish study at the center of one’s life through a latter-day Lehrhaus. Utopia meant adopting a new code of behavior, a new dress code, a new language, a new song repertoire, a new menu. The table was our altar—Art Green pronounced TV dinners morally treyf. Every meal had the potential of being sanctified or being polluted—by empty talk and raucous singing. Whosoever saw Michael Brooks cutting the challah at his Friday night table, a model of serenity and spiritual purpose, with Ruthy sitting at his side, witnessed something bordering on the mystical.

The Legacy: Make It Everyone’s

This Memorial Day weekend, members past and present of Havurat Shalom will celebrate its golden anniversary at a retreat at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, in Falls Village, Connecticut. So it’s a good time to take stock of how we changed the Jewish landscape, in North America and beyond, for better and worse.

Above all, Havurat Shalom reclaimed, or made, the Homo davenus. Turning back the clock to the Hasidic shtibl of old, we demonstrated that contemplative and ecstatic prayer could best be incubated and cultivated in small, independent minyanim, some of which later came to be known, in fact, as havurot. Large Conservative and Reform synagogues, built to satisfy the edifice complex of one’s elders, were refitted to house a havurah in the basement, the chapel, the social hall. To take the most dramatic instance, Ansche Chesed, one of the oldest Ashkenazi congregations in Manhattan, was rescued from the wrecking ball when a group of former hippies, still dressed in T-shirts and blue jeans, offered to join forces with the old-timers and formed multiple, separate-but-equal minyanim in this landmark building. The once-radical proposition that the main business of attending synagogue is not social but spiritual, whether in practice or as stated goal, has become a commonplace. Every hazzan who trains at a Reform or Conservative seminary must now learn a whole repertory of niggunim.

A few years ago, I attended a three-day gathering in Jerusalem of 17 independent minyanim that have been organized in Israel under the banner of traditional egalitarianism. They do not recognize Havurat Shalom as their progenitor, but we know better. Egalitarianism became the touchstone of a Jewish struggle that was ongoing. Jewish men learned to clean up alongside the women. Jewish women learned to lead the davening along with the men. Ezrat Nashim, the pathbreaking Jewish feminist collective, was organized in 1972, only a few years after the founding of Havurat Shalom.

The old models of adult Jewish learning, from the yeshiva to the scholar-in-residence, needed a complete overhaul. The rallying cry, best formulated by Barry Holtz, was Back to the Sources. Through a formal and informal curriculum that combined Hebraic literacy and critical scholarship, classical commentary and lived experience, it could be possible for modern Jews to feel themselves living inside the text of Torah. When Michael Swirsky moved to Jerusalem, the first thing he did after settling in was to open the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Close to half the entering class was housed in a separate dorm, in the hope of fostering the experience of community. Meanwhile, back in the United States, the first National Havurah Institute, held at the University of Hartford in August 1980, turned adult Jewish study into the best way of spending your summer vacation (and, unlike Havurat Shalom, was organized to be child-friendly). Invented in Boston, the Me’ah Program of adult Jewish study also traces its origins back to Havurat Shalom. Limmud was to follow shortly thereafter.

Out of our havurah there arose a North American School of Jewish scholarship and adult Jewish learning. Google these names from the first three cohorts at Havurat Shalom: Michael Brooks, Seymour Epstein, Eddy and Merle Feld, Michael and Mona Fishbane, Lawrence Fine, Everett Gendler, David Goodblatt, Arthur Green, Barry Holtz, Gershon Hundert, Burt Jacobson, James Kugel, Larry Laufman, Hillel Levine, Joe Lukinsky, Danny Matt, Stephen Mitchell, Bill Novak, Nehemia Polen, Joe and Gail Reimer, Joel Rosenberg, George Savran, Jim Sleeper, and of course, the fearless threesome, Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, and Sharon Strassfeld, the editors of the Jewish Catalog trilogy. Before Havurat Shalom, there was no such thing as a Jewish Retreat Center—a modest place set aside for meditation, study and fellowship, where Mother Earth was brought closer to heaven. Utopia, the havurah demonstrated, is not just a state of mind. It can also be a piece of real estate.

As with all utopian experiments, however, the balance sheet of Havurat Shalom has a debit side as well. The radical decentralization of synagogue life contributed significantly to the present crisis of rabbinic leadership. Even after the established seminaries became more benign places, it was no longer clear to the laity why it needed rabbis, what kinds of sermon answered to one’s needs, why paying dues to this movement or another still made sense. What had begun as an Oedipal struggle for independence ended up emasculating the American rabbinate as an institution.

In retrospect, the transition from havurah spouses to women as independent members did not happen as smoothly as we like to remember it, and the inherent flaws of our slapdash egalitarianism had unintended consequences. The capstone of the struggle for egalitarianism was the ordination of women rabbis, but the same laity who supported the idea on paper has yet to fully embrace a co-ed rabbinate, and women clergy still struggle for respect, jobs, and equal pay.

Once the war in Vietnam no longer held us together, our ranks began to thin in all directions. Some, like Jim Sleeper, who went on to be a political columnist for the New York Daily News, entered the political fray as fully emancipated Americans. Some took the utopian impulse to Israel, where they learned to grow artichokes on Kibbutz Gezer. Others, who remained committed to a life of the spirit, turned to Buddhism—or became Haredi. Jeff Sokol is today Rabbi Yitzhak Sokol, who after spending 30 years and fathering 11 children in Lakewood, New Jersey, now lives in the Old City. And we never articulated a lasting religious-political program. Religious personalism partnered naturally with conscientious objection—as a group we marched on Washington on Nov. 10, 1969, against the war, even as we observed the Sabbath—but so far as I can recall, we never marched together on behalf of Soviet Jewry or any other Jewish national cause.

Shifsbrider, compatriots onboard ship, is a concept I learned from my parents, who fled Europe in the summer of 1940 on the New Hellas. It signified the bonds that were forged with total strangers, thrown together from all across Europe, on a one-way ocean passage that turned a motley group of refugees into citizens of the free world. I too went on a once-in-a-lifetime journey, accompanied by a motley group of seekers from across the United States and Canada. En route, we became a fellowship, a havurah, who dreamed up a Jewish world of almost infinite possibility.


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David G. Roskies is the Sol and Evelyn Henkind Chair emeritus in Yiddish Literature and Culture and a professor emeritus of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary.