The Havurah: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

January 12, 2017

 I spoke to one of my editors and discovered that my book, Converging Destinies: Jews, Christians, and the Mission of God  should be out within about two months. And you can be sure I will be telling you MORE about that book as the days draw near.

Meanwhile, I am working on another, which I already mentioned to you. The title will have to remain a mystery for a while, but as for content. it will help to form the information base for the HaB'er Havurah Network, a network of home groups I serving based on life experience going back into the 1970's and substantial research I did in the early 1990's.

This model will be a Havurah/House Church hybrid. To help you understand what that means, let me tell you a little about what a havurah is, then in a later post I will tell you about the various kinds of house church one finds out there, and about the history of both the havurah and the house church. As you will see, both the havurah and the house church go back to the first century. 

We can find a variety of definitions of the havurah (roughly, "fellowship") in contemporary sources, telling us that a havurah is:

  • “Friendship circle; a group of people who come together and form an extended family. Bonds grow through regular meetings where members celebrate, socialize, and study together” (Jewish Outreach Institute),[1]
  • “A small group of like-minded Jews who assemble for the purposes of facilitating Shabbat and holiday prayer services, sharing communal experiences such as lifecycle events, or Jewish learning (Wikipedia);[2]
  • “The word havurah comes from the word haver, meaning friend. A havurah is a small group of individuals who gather together for a variety of reasons: to socialize, celebrate Jewish holidays, learn more about Judaism, and participate in social action projects (Temple Solel - Reform);[3]
  • And perhaps most helpfully, this expanded definition, from a blogger in Washington D.C. who calls himself “ZT.” He describes two similar but different kinds of havurot, both of which we will be examining in this chapter. These he describes in two differentiating paragraphs.

Havurot, which take their name from rabbinic fellowships mentioned in Talmud Tractate Pesachim, sometimes have regular meetings for davvening [liturgical Jewish communal prayer] but don't necessarily. They necessarily have non-explicitly religious programing such as meals, social events, retreats, and even sometimes have residential members. In he Jewish community you can find havurot devoted to theater going, to study, to prayer, to book reading, to a wide variety of interests. You often will know most of the people in the room in a havurah. The term itself refers to fellowship, and the communal connections are crucial to making the entire enterprise work. Fostering relationships is a primary goal. Because of this goal, havurot are necessarily on the small side, sometimes by happenstance, sometimes as the result of complicated (in some cases elitist) policies governing inclusion.

There is another kind of group that often uses the term havurah, which is usually found in synagogues. These havurot are sets of families in synagogues that are grouped together to help create an intimacy otherwise hard to attain in large synagogues.

For purpose of our discussion, we will call the first kind independent havurot, and the second kind synagogue havurot.  Where did these come from?

Bernard Reisman names historical precursors from the Talmudic era, demonstrating the ancient roots of havurot as separated out modalities (which we are calling “independent havurot),”  and also havurot as connected modalities, which we are calling synagogue havurot.

The first evidence of havurot appeared in Jewish history during the first century before the Common Era. The early havurot were small groups of Jews who formed to allow for a meticulous observance of halacha [the traditionally prescribed Jewish way of life]. The havurot appeared among both the Essene and the Pharisee communities and attracted those Jews of the ancient world who were dissatisfied with the level of observance of the Jewish law by their contemporaries. In this sense the first havurot were a precursor to the modern Jews who chose to separate themselves from the existing patterns of Jewish life because of their dissatisfaction with the status quo (in the 1970’s havurah movement). They also had in common the motion of a shared living arrangement in which Jewish laws and customs were the prime determinants of the style of living.[4]

What all of these definitions have in common is that a havurah is a relational communal structure, an extended family which meets together regularly for purposes of group cohesion and spiritual nurture, sustaining participants in Jewish life and community. If you detect here something that strongly resembles the New Testament church, then you are quite correct. The chief difference organizationally is that havurot self-select Jews and their significant others/spouses. They are homogeneous units.  And there are various varieties.

One may differentiate at least five contemporary models of the havurah: counter cultural havurah, havurah as family cooperative, havurah as Moshav, havurah as surrogate synagogue and synagogue-based havurot.

In my book, I will explore each of these, on the way to discussing various kinds of house churches, and then the hybrid I favor.

You might well ask, "Why bother? Who needs this?" To find the answer to THAT question you will need to at least look at my previous blog post which you may find here. Reading that, you will understand that we really do need another alternative beyond models currently being used. And reading on later this year in my book about the HaB'er Havurah hybrid, you will know very much indeed about how that can happen.

For now, I hope I've gotten your interest up!




[3] src=directory&view=interiorpages&srctype=detail&refno=239&category=Programs

[4] Bernard Reisman, “The Havurah: An Approach to Humanizing Jewish Organizational Life.” Journal of Jewish Community Service, 52:2 ( December 1975:202-209), 202-203.


One comment on “The Havurah: Where Everybody Knows Your Name”

  1. Something I would look forward to seeing in your book is a summary of any documentation on modern havurot in any of the five forms you cited above, including statistics on their success, their longevity, the conditions that led to their formation and continuation, and the conditions that have may, sometimes, lead to their dissolution. I mention this because an informal independent havurah can operate on a short-term basis, perhaps of only a few years, mirroring the familial process of raising children who then move onward to other activities. Alternatively, a formalized captive havurah, such as in a synagogue environment, can become stale and cease to function with the familial warmth that is one of its primary potential benefits. In such a case, dissolution (and, possibly, reformulation) may be necessary. Because of their characteristic smallness, they are particularly subject to the individual personalities who constitute their membership, their capabilities, their limitations, and their personal stamina in the face of various demands upon them.

    Confederation of multiple havurot under a synagogue community umbrella can potentially provide additional resources, particularly professional ones, that individual independent havurot may lack, thus affecting their longevity potential. Alternatively, members of an independent havurah, in an area comprising a sufficiently large Jewish community, also may participate individually in a number of local synagogues, providing introductions and access to a wider network of resources and activities. Such networking can relieve pressure upon a havurah to become a miniature full-service synagogue in itself, thus not placing corresponding pressure upon its leaders and members to do more than they are capable of sustaining.

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