In its own words, “The National Havurah Committee (NHC) is a network of diverse individuals and communities dedicated to Jewish living and learning, community building, and tikkun olam (repairing the world). For over 30 years, the NHC has helped Jews across North America envision a joyful grassroots Judaism, and has provided the tools to help people create empowered Jewish lives and communities. The NHC is nondenominational, multigenerational, egalitarian, and volunteer-run.”
Many people affiliated with the independent minyan scene, and/or organizations named Hadar, would find that they have a lot in common with the aims and ethos of the NHC and the members of that community. At heart, the Hadar world and the Havurah world share the critique of American Judaism’s reliance on institutions and the idea that Judaism is about living values, not supporting institutions per se. And many of the manifestations of that critique, in terms of the sorts of learning, discussions, prayer, and communities generated, are also shared between the two worlds.
Many folks have noticed some sentiment over the years, among Hadar and/or independent minyan individuals who have not attended NHC events, that the NHC is not for them. That may well be true. However, that sentiment is often grounded in a misunderstanding of what the NHC is, and the goal of this FAQ is to attempt to correct that.
Q: “Havurah”? Really? That still exists? Wasn’t the Havurah movement, like, in the 70s?
A: Depends on what you mean by “movement”. The first wave of havurot started in the late ‘60s, it’s true. Many of those havurot don’t exist anymore, though many still do and are quite vibrant.
There has never been a “Havurah movement” any more than there’s an “Independent Minyan movement” or “Hadar movement”. The National Havurah Committee was founded in 1980 to help network independent Jewish communities, without providing any sort of oversight, policy, or financial arrangement with them. The NHC primarily runs a week-long retreat in the summer, the NHC Summer Institute, as well as a handful of weekend-long regional retreats throughout the year.
Q: OK, fine, so there are still havurot. Good for them. But that’s not my thing.
A: Plenty of people in the NHC community don’t want to go to the kind of havurah you’re picturing, either! One of the strengths of the NHC community is the wide variety of backgrounds and interests the participants have within the liberal Jewish world. Plenty of people there like minyanim that sit in circles and have a long parsha discussion in English, like minyanim that never announce page numbers and finish as quickly as possible, connect with their Judaism primarily through political activism and social justice, connect with their Judaism primarily through halacha, connect with their Judaism primarily through spirituality, and connect with their Judaism primarily through community and lox and bagels. And they do it from a stance of strength and authenticity.
Also, realize that the term “independent minyan” is no more than about 10 years old. There are communities whose participants have been involved with the NHC for over 30 years, like the Newton Centre Minyan, that would certainly fit right in with the wave of independent minyanim of the past 15 years if they’d been founded more recently.
Q: But I still think I’ll feel out of place there. I mean, I went to a havurah once, and had nothing in common with those people, especially when it comes to their preferred Jewish practice.
A: OK, so here’s an example: Every morning at the NHC Summer Institute, there are multiple davening options. One, the “trad egal” service, meets every weekday and always before rather than after breakfast. It’s managed by people who care about doing services properly and halachically. A majority of people there wear tefillin, nearly all wear a tallit, and all of them choose to wake up early to daven in that style rather than in the other offered styles that may follow the traditional matbeia’ less closely but may leave more time for sleep. (Or maybe they’re planning to eat a quick breakfast afterwards and then try a second shacharit!) In addition, there are trad-egal mincha and ma’ariv services every day, all the food is supervised by an on-site mashgiach, and there is an eruv on Shabbat. For example.
More and more, NHC participants, especially the generation in their 20s and 30s, come from home communities that fit right in with Hadar and other “independent minyanim”. It’s no longer the case (if it ever was) that the havurah you went to represents the sole “center” of the NHC community’s practice and ethos. The community is too diverse to have a center like that. To quote one participant, “The NHC certainly has an incredible variety of people who attend, from all parts of the hippy-crunchy/conservative-strait-laced spectrum. That’s part of its beauty to me. You can fall anywhere on that spectrum and feel a part of the community, but to really dig it, you have to be open (excited even) to meeting and talking to everybody else who’s different from you.”
One difference you are likely to find from your home community, if I may make an assumption grounded in statistics, is that the NHC is more intergenerational. You really will find 13 year olds and 30 year olds and 70 year olds all learning and praying and eating and singing together. Really. It’s quite unusual, and one of the strongest things about the NHC community.
Q: Why use the term “Havurah” at all, then, if it’s so misleading and comes with so much baggage?
A: Communal, participatory learning is a core value of the NHC. “The Torah cannot be acquired except in fellowship.” Every student is a teacher, and every teacher is a student. Traditionally-structured yeshivot, like Yeshivat Hadar, are a fantastic model for a certain kind of frontal learning from experts in Jewish text, law, and thought. (And even they rely heavily on the “chavruta” style of learning.) The havurah model, where everyone has something to teach and is encouraged to do so, is a different model, and one that many of us find at least as powerful. It dovetails nicely with the idea of lay people building independent communities.
(Besides, Hadar folks know about confusing branding as well as anyone. Do you mean Kehilat Hadar or Yeshivat Hadar? Wait, they’re separate?)
Q: Independent communities? It sounds like you’re talking about independent minyanim now, not Havurah.
A: I am! According to some, independent minyanim *are* havurot, and havurot (except those that are affiliated with an institution or that only meet for non-prayer activities) *are* independent minyanim. More to the point, though, the model of educated lay leaders building their own communities for their day-to-day Jewish life, and sharing ideas with other similar community builders in other cities, is and always has been the goal both of the NHC and of organizations like Mechon Hadar. The two worlds aren’t that far apart, and that’s true now more than ever.
Some independent minyanim founded in recent years with strong NHC influences include Kol Zimrah (New York NY, founded 2002), Tikkun Leil Shabbat (Washington DC, founded 2005), and Segulah (Washington DC / Silver Spring MD, founded 2009).
Q: Havurah? Is that the same thing as Renewal?
A: No! They’re actually polar opposites in some ways. The NHC and ALEPH did diverge from a common lineage if you go back far enough to when all the countercultural extra-institutional Jews were under one umbrella, but they went their separate ways in a split that has been compared to the Hasidic-Misnagdic split. And believe it or not, the NHC is the Misnagdim! Like the Misnagdim, the NHC has a greater emphasis on intellectualism and text study; like the Hasidim, the Renewal world has a greater emphasis on spirituality, and vests religious authority in “rebbe” figures. The Renewal movement places much importance on formal religious leadership, even creating new titles for non-rabbis in other leadership positions; at the NHC, rabbis set aside their titles and go by their first names. The Renewal movement has developed many of the trappings of a formal Jewish denomination, with a rabbinic ordination program and a set of affiliated communities; the NHC has none of that.
Q: What is the Havurah movement’s view on the authority of halachah?
A: The NHC isn’t a “movement” like that, and doesn’t have official views about halachah or about most other things. They say that if you ask two Jews, you’ll get three opinions. If you ask two Jews at the NHC Summer Institute, you’ll get at least five opinions. Whatever your views are on any topic, the chances are you’ll find people at the NHC who agree, and you’ll find people at the NHC who disagree.
Q: But the NHC is totally a movement – it has its own siddur!
A: If you’re talking about Chaveirim Kol Yisraeil (“the purple siddur”), that was created by the now-defunct Progressive Chavurah of Boston, not the NHC.
Q: What is the NHC’s policy on gender egalitarianism in prayer?
A: All minyanim officially organized by the Institute planning committee (like all minyanim organized by Kehilat and Yeshivat Hadar) are fully egalitarian. However, anyone who wants to organize an unofficial minyan on their own during Institute is free to do so.
Q: Does the NHC ever have workshops on _____?
A: It will when you offer to teach it! But chances are it’s a subject that someone has shared on before. The range of workshops offered by participants at NHC events has varied from four-part classes on deep text study, to tool kits and skill shares on how to run your havurah/minyan, to using an assortment of texts to teach on contemporary issues. The range of subjects is broad and the collected knowledge of folks at NHC events is significant.
(Thanks to BZ, SJ, MSW, ASL, ASB, MR, and RA for their contributions and edits, and please let me know if you’d rather your full name be here than initials.)