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The Eleventh Commandment: You Shall Bring and You Shall Build

Veyakhel–Pekudei (Exodus 34:1–38:20)
Muriel R. Gillick
March 17, 2012

Today's Parsha starts with a speech by Moses reminding the entire Israelite community—yet again—what God has commanded. Recall that this part of the narrative comes after Moses got the first set of tablets on Mt Sinai, after the episode of the golden calf, and right after Moses received the second set of tablets. What we expect to hear at the communal gathering is a reprise of the ten commandments. But that's not what we hear at all. Instead, we hear only three. In fact, the first two commandments are really just one. And, what's even more surprising, the third commandment is actually an entirely new exhortation.

Moses begins by telling the people they must observe Shabbat, adding that anyone who works on the seventh day shall be put to death. This is the first commandment. Then, and this is the second commandment, the assembled masses are told they may not kindle fire on Shabbat. As you can see, this is really just a corollary of observing Shabbat. And finally, Moses issues a new demand: everyone is to bring gifts to the Lord to make the Tabernacle. Now, Moses was a remarkable fundraiser—after his speech, there was an outpouring of gifts. People gave earrings and other jewelry, they brought linen and goat's hair and acacia wood and spices. The list goes on and on. In fact, Moses must have been the greatest fundraiser of all time—eventually, he has to tell the people to stop giving. Then, in the second Parsha—we have a double portion today—the tabernacle is built with all these gifts, according to specs revealed to Moses.

Shir Hadash today has sent out a call to its members to give their thoughts, their ideas, and their energy to rebuilding the havurah. Our project is a metaphorical building process, not a literal one. And of course in true Reconstructionist tradition, the command to engage in renewal is not issued from on high, but emerges from the members themselves. But as we engage in the process of thinking about who we are and where we are going—and in keeping with the exhortation to remember, which is also an important theme of the Torah—I thought it might be useful to examine our origins, to put Shir Hadash in the context of the havurah movement as a whole, and to learn what has happened to other first generation havurot. Finally, it is worth studying the newest crop of independent minyanim, to further inform our thinking.

The havurah movement, as it turns out, has an ethnographer, but no historian, so this was no easy task. Riv–Ellen Prell, an anthropologist at the University of Minnesota, published a ground–breaking book in 1989 called "Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism." She spent 18 months as a participant–observer at the Kelton Free Minyan in LA, a group founded in 1973 by a handful of people in their twenties and thirties. Prell took as her starting point the work of Max Weber, sociologist of religion, asking "why does a religion take the form it does within a particular historical period?" What Prell found was that havurot developed in the U.S. in the late 1960s as a reaction against suburban synagogues; they were built by people who were alienated from many American institutions, who espoused a philosophy of individual autonomy, and who wanted a religious experience within a community.

In the three pages allotted to the havurah movement by Jonathan Sarna in his "American Judaism: A History," the origins of the movement are attributed to a desire by some American Jews to "revitalize their Judaism… in harmony with countercultural ideas of the day." The paradigmatic havurah was Havurat Shalom, founded in Somerville in 1968. Established as a seminary and a place where Jews could live, worship, and study, it also did double duty as a means for young men to avoid the draft.

The countercultural roots of the havurah movement may have been overstated—at least one group, Whittier Havurah in Los Angeles, was born in 1960, well before the Vietnam War and the emergence of hippies, flower children, draft dodging, and bra burnings. But I think it's fair to conclude that it was the hunger for an intense and more authentic religious experience than what was available in American synagogues that was the prime motivating factor behind the early havurot. Havurot were distinguished from synagogues by their emphasis on celebration and joy (Charles Silberman, in his 1985 book "A Certain People" argues that the American synagogue tended to dwell on persecution and suffering), by their insistence on equality of the sexes, on lay participation, by a warm worship style, and by the emphasis on study, especially of traditional texts. All of this was nicely summarized in the first volume of "The Jewish Catalog," published in 1973 and subtitled "A Do it Yourself" kit. Altogether, the 3 volumes of the Catalog (the third one came out in 1980) sold a phenomenal 500,000 copies.

The Havurah movement had a profound effect on American religious life. Some of its founders went on to become leaders in the Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Movements. Many conventional synagogues established small worship—study groups of their own to meet the growing demand for greater intimacy and participation in prayer and they gradually humanized, personalized, and democratized their services. But what ultimately became of the havurot established in the late sixties, the seventies, and the very early eighties?

It's not clear how many havurot existed outside of established synagogues in 1981, the year Shir Hadash was created. Charles Silberman, writing in 1985 and giving no references, says "there are at least 300 throughout the country, and maybe as many as 500." I tried to find a more precise answer to the question, consulting the resources of the National Havurah Committee and the Association for Social Scientific Study of Jewry. I reviewed the National Jewish Population Surveys of 1990 and 2000 which report on how many people are affiliated with each of the four major movements, as well as on levels of observance (Shabbat candle lighting, kosher eating, etc), but say nothing about havurot. I could find no reliable data. All I learned was that the National Havurah Committee did not keep records as a matter of policy.

Finding out the fate of the 300 or 500 havurot was equally difficult. Jonathan Sarna asserts authoritatively that "most in time either disappeared, evolved into larger and more formal prayer groups, or became attached to neighborhood synagogues." In the end, the best I was able to do was to identify 106 organizations that call themselves havurot and that appear in the Directory of the National Havurah Committee, an informal, voluntary listing. By going to each of their websites (all but a handful have a website), I was able to determine when most of them were established. The data are incomplete, but it seems that the older havurot are proud of their heritage and conspicuously include their birthdate on their websites. Of the 106 organizations listed, 14 (including Shir Hadash) proved to have been in existence by 1981 and were actually havurot. It is impossible to generalize about the size of these communities, the breadth of their activities, or how they have evolved over time. Some report having children's programming and babysitting. A few state they have no more than 30 members. Some are affiliated with the Conservative Movement, a few with the Reconstructionist Movement, one with the Reform Movement, and one with the Jewish Renewal Movement. Some have a rabbi, others do not.

As to the havurot that have disappeared—it's about as difficult to learn about their demise as it is to find negative studies in the medical literature. (It's a lot easier to publish an article showing that a medication works than one showing that it does not.) The Whittier Havurah was written up in the Forward when it disbanded in 2011, on its fiftieth anniversary. The group dissolved because many of its members had died; many had moved away; and the remaining ones were in their eighties. The article reported that "unlike some havurot, which actively seek out new members, the Whittier Havurah strived mostly to serve the spiritual needs of its founding generation." It was allied with Reconstructionist Judaism and functioned within an established synagogue.

If only 14/106 of the havurot in today's National Havurah Committee Directory were around in 1981, when were the others born and what characterizes them? This question has a partial answer. Since 1997, a new form of havurah–style Jewish institutions has arisen. These have been called "emergent sacred communities." Summarizing the findings of the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study, Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College and colleagues say there are really several varieties: independent minyanim, which like the original havurot are unaffiliated, lay–led and participatory; rabbi–led emergent, which are similar but have a rabbi; and alternative—emergent communities that focus on social justice or other concerns rather than prayer. (Examples of independent minyanim are Kehilat Hadar on the Upper West Side in NYC and the Washington Square Minyan in Brookline; a sample rabbiled emergent community is IKAR in LA; and an alternative—emergent is Boston's Moishe Kevod House.)

As of the compilation of the survey, 82 of these emergent communities were identified: 48 independent minyanim, 20 rabbi–led groups, and 14 alternative emergent. Focusing on the independent minyanim, an interesting picture emerges. Their members are overwhelmingly young: 81% are under 40. The desire for community is the glue that holds them together: 86% report that the main reason they go to services is to be involved with the community. Worship (listed by 49%) and music (listed by 48%) are the next most important aspects of the community. The Dvar Torah and social justice are important to a minority of members of the independent minyanim.

So far, these groups sound very similar to the havurot established in the sixties and seventies. But when we look at the backgrounds of the members, crucial differences begin to emerge. A constellation of 5 factors characterizes the upbringing of these young minyan members. Fully 40% of them attended Jewish day schools and 65% attended Jewish summer camps. Most striking, 80% participated in their college Hillel. And finally, 52% spent at least 4 months traveling, working, and/or studying in Israel. The net result is that this group is Jewishly well–educated. They have high levels of linguistic, ritual, and cultural competence. The data on the rabbi–led minyanim are similar.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, whose book, "Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities," is perhaps a Jewish Catalog wannabee, tells the story of how he came to help found Kehilat Hadar in Manhattan. As a student, Kaunfer attended Harvard Hillel, which he describes as having an "overly predictable and plodding" service. The Torah readers, he continues, were "so–so" and the divrei Torah uninspiring and too long. In short, he found services boring. Kaunfer was a financial analyst for a time. Then he went to Israel. When he returned, he began looking for a spiritual home. Influenced, he says, by the start–up culture in the US, he decided to found a group that used the traditional liturgy but practiced full gender equality. His group would be lay–led but have high standards of excellence. He wanted a service that doesn't drag out (he introduced the idea of the 5 minute dvar) and that engages the participants through music. Interestingly, Kaunfer decided to become a rabbi—and enrolled at JTS—after starting Hadar.

Where does all this leave Shir Hadash as we seek to shape our future? With food for thought, I hope. We don't have to follow the lead of the majority of havurot founded in the seventies and eighties, but it's useful to know that most of them disappeared, morphed into something else entirely, or are fading away, though a few remain strong and vibrant. We don't have to try to attract young members, but it's helpful to know that if we do seek new members, the data indicate that those young people who are looking for a do–it–yourself community today have considerable Jewish education, acquired in day schools, Jewish summer camps, college Hillels, and visits to Israel. They, like the early members of the havurah movement, are in search of a participatory, egalitarian community, but have a different sense of what is "meaningful." The young people we are likely to appeal to may well be considerably less educated Jewishly than those attracted to independent minyanim. Hence, if we decide to try to pursue a growth strategy, we can remain participatory but may need to rethink our do-it-yourself approach.

How we will fulfill the Eleventh Commandment, to bring and to build, remains to be seen. Whatever we do, we should take advantage of the experiences of others as we go forward on our mission.


  1. Steven Cohen, J. Shawn Landres, Elie Kaunfer and Michelle Shain. Emergent Jewish Communities and their Participants: Preliminary Findings from the 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study. 2007.
  2. Elie Kaunfer. Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010.
  3. National Havurah Committee. Directory.
  4. North American Jewish Data Bank. National Jewish Population Surveys.
  5. Riv–Ellen Prell. Independent Minyanim and Prayer Groups of the 1970s: Historical and Sociological Perspectives. Zeek Magazine, 2006.
  6. Riv–Ellen Prell. Prayer and Community. The Havurah in American Judaism. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1989.
  7. Jonathan Sarna. American Judaism: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.
  8. Charles Silberman. A Certain People: American Jews and Their Lives Today. NY: Summit Books, 1985.
  9. Jack Wertheimer. Recent Trends in American Judaism. American Jewish Yearbook, 1980. pp 63–162.