Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Why don't we get together and call ourselves an Institute?

SDB summed it up in an oft-quoted email four years ago:

The Havurah Institute was slightly closer to heaven on earth than other places I've been before. It was a week of learning, singing, dancing, talking, thinking and feeling. Requirements and inhibitions were discouraged. If you felt like singing, you sang. If you felt like dancing, you danced. If you felt like swimming and then taking a canoe out for a few minutes, you swam and then took a canoe out for a few minutes. If you felt like going to class, you went to class. You could make friends with anyone regardless of age or affilliation. It was a place full of individuals and families of all ages, shapes, colors, orientations and interests, united by a love of learning and teaching and a desire to make Judaism a positive force in their lives.
The National Havurah Committee began in the late '70s, growing out of the legendary gatherings that brought together people from the various independent grassroots Jewish communities. The last five years have seen a resurgence in the creation of independent Jewish communities, as another generation has come of age, been alienated from institutional Jewish life, and formed critical masses to produce viable alternatives. This generation (in their 20s and 30s) has been attracted to the NHC through the Everett Fellows Program, and (along with the children of the original '70s havurahniks who are the same age) has formed a symbiotic relationship with the havurah veterans as we all advance a vision of a progressive democratic participatory egalitarian Judaism.

As an expatriate of the Reform movement, I have found the NHC's Jewish practice to be what the Reform movement professes to be on paper but fails to be in reality (though it's probably not a good idea to mention that too much, since it would piss off many people in both the Reform movement and the NHC). In particular, the Reform movement advocates informed autonomy, but most members of Reform synagogues are not informed, and therefore are not autonomous (relying instead on clergy and on their memories of how things have always been). The NHC, in contrast, has many people who are very informed and very autonomous, and empowers people to educate themselves and make independent decisions and thus to be the mythical ideal Reform Jews (though rarely identifying as such).

This autonomy leads to a rich diversity in belief and practice, exemplified by 4-5 different egalitarian prayer options every morning (and not the same 4-5 each day), as well as a number of non-prayer options. The chaos that some fear would be the result of independent decision-making fails to materialize; instead, this diversity is a source of strength.

One of the most important roles that Hillel filled during college (in addition to a forum for cross-fertilization among different Jewish approaches) was as a catalyst for Jewish innovation, in the very literal sense of "catalyst": something that lowers the activation energy of a reaction. Back in the day, if you had a crazy idea and wanted to, say, set all of kabbalat shabbat to R.E.M.'s album Automatic for the People, then great! Here's a room to hold the event, here's a xerox machine to make copies, here's an email list of 1000 people to publicize the event, here's a dining hall where everyone can eat afterwards. But in the real world, everything takes so much more effort (finding a space, assembling the people, etc.), so a much smaller percentage of creative ideas becomes reality.

However, the NHC Summer Institute can act as such a catalyst for one week out of the year. Want to teach a workshop on any topic you're interested in, or lead a service in any style? Great, it's on the schedule! Want to assemble people to talk about the Sefat Emet or Midrash Rabbah? Put up a sign! This year, two first-time participants, fed up with not being able to talk about Harry Potter Book 6 around people who hadn't finished it yet, organized a free-form Harry Potter text study in the back of the dining hall one day at lunch. The ages ranged from single digits to senior citizens as we speculated about Horcruxes and Unbreakable Vows. A few explicit Jewish connections came up in the discussion (the Aramaic etymology of "Avada Kedavra", the parallels between the Boy Who Lived and the Moses story), but most importantly this epitomized the NHC's value of being a multigenerational learning community, with the 10-year-olds running circles around the adults with their knowledge and insight.

Though the word "egalitarian" within the Jewish community refers commonly to gender equality, gender is only one piece (albeit an important one) of egalitarianism as understood by the NHC. The operative principle is that every teacher is a student and every student is a teacher. Rabbis and other scholars are incognito, going by their first names and participating as civilians. Those who are invited as teachers include both those whose profession relates to the topic of their class and those who have unrelated day jobs and dabble in this on the side, and no distinction is made between these groups. Teachers are "on" for 90 minutes a day while they are teaching their classes, and are regular participants in the Institute for the other 22.5 hours every day. This year I took Carolivia Herron's class on "Jewish Africana Midrash" in the morning (and got an autographed copy of Nappy Hair), and then she took my class on "History and Mathematics of the Hebrew Calendar" in the afternoon.

ER and I are co-chairing next year's Institute, so we're starting to assemble the team of people who are going to make it happen. The whole community voted on next year's theme. We picked out six soundbites from Parshat Eikev (the Torah reading during the 2006 Institute), and then everyone ranked their preferences, and a winner was chosen with instant runoff voting. The winner is..... V'hayah im shamoa' tishm'u / If you really listen (Deuteronomy 11:13). This theme encompasses listening on a literal level (e.g. music), as well as listening to other people, to other communities, to ourselves, and to God.

Save the dates: August 7-13, 2006!


  1. Funny thing, this web... was reading an RSS feed I have at technorati on innovation. Saw a Paul Simon quote headline and clicked to read your post. Not what I was expecting, but that's ok, because it's good to know that the Havurah movement continues. Having run the P'nai Or Kallah twice in the '80s, its especially good to know that younger folks are still engaged enough to keep things going.

    Best to you in your endeavor - if you haven't run an event like this before it'll be a great learning experience for you. And even if you have, it will provide a richness and deepness to your experience that you'll cherish.

  2. BZ, great news to hear that you and ER are going to chair the next one. In some ways the Institute happens because of the community, but I'm sure inspirational energetic leadership will be a big plus. I'm sorry I could not make it to this one (being in Jerusalem and all). I would be excited to continue our conversation about bringing more folks of our generation into havurah/bringing participatory Judaism to more folks in our generation.