Why Be in a Chavurah Group in Your Synagogue?
When my preteen children and I joined Sinai Temple of Champaign–Urbana in Champaign, IL, in the early 1990s, we knew few people in the congregation of roughly 300 family and individual members. Around the same time, the congregation was organizing a new program: forming chavurah (fellowship) groups.
What I learned about chavurot (the plural of chavurah, which has about as many spellings as Hanukkah), is that they are small, informal fellowship groups comprising temple members with similar demographics or interests that meet regularly for spiritual and social connection and to celebrate lifecycle events.
Among the groups planned for our temple was one with really young children, another consisting of older retired people, one of mixed-faith marriages, an intergenerational group, and several others. That was about all I knew, but when I discovered that one group would have members with b’nei-mitzvah-aged children, we joined that one.
The chavurah movement started in Southern California in the early 1960s and may have been part of the counter-culture movement of that era, according to what I discovered recently while doing an online search. It’s unique to North America and was begun within the Jewish stream now known as Reconstructionist Judaism.
Our group, which the teens initially named “Chow Cool Chavurah,” consisted of about five couples and four singles, all with one or two children, one of whom was about to become b’nei mitzvah. We were nearly 30 strong when everyone was present, and at first, the group’s activities were somewhat child-centered with activities such as skating or bowling, followed by pizza. Over the years, though, as the kids grew up and faded from the chavurah, the group morphed as members moved away or chose to leave the group, even as new couples joined.
A few times, the adults of our chavurah convened at a local restaurant, once for Chinese food, another time eating Italian cuisine. One summer in the early years, after the kids had essentially left the chavurah, a group of us attended the annual Shakespeare festival in Bloomington, another college town about an hour’s drive away.
Typically, we met monthly, in people’s homes or backyards, depending on the season and the size of the group. Most of us could accommodate a group of approximately 20 people around a large dining room table or several smaller tables.
More important than where we met, though, was what we did when we were together, and celebrating Jewish holidays was one of the main activities of our chavurah. One family claimed Hanukkah each year and hosted a fabulous party in their home with the tastiest latkes ever. Guests brought hanukkiyot (Hanukkah menorahs), so we could light the candles; we sang Hanukkah songs, too. Another family opted to host the Passover seder each year (no small feat!); someone else liked to host a break-the-fast at the end of Yom Kippur. Another family hosted around Thanksgiving, tying in with the temple’s mitzvah day project of preparing food baskets for needy people. We also gathered on Sundays – often for brunch or a potluck dinner at someone’s house – and occasionally there was a topical or themed discussion after the meal.
As time passed, we watched our children grow, marry, and become parents themselves; most of the chavurah members now have at least one grandchild. As we have gotten older and retired, we no longer meet monthly, but we do still gather for major Jewish holidays and a few times in-between. Sadly, in recent years, four members of our group have died.
Many members of our chavurah are well-travelled, and as I peruse temple bulletins in other cities of varying size when I travel, it seems that the chavurah movement is thriving in some places, where new groups are forming, offering members of congregations numerous ways to engage with their synagogue community. At our synagogue, only a few of the original chavurah groups still exist, and as far as I know, only one new group has formed in recent years, that of families with preschool children.
I spoke to one rabbi who suggested that with so many families trying to balance jobs and child-rearing, the chavurah movement may have run its course. I asked my daughter, who has a very busy life in southern California, raising three young children with her husband, as well as running a business, if, hypothetically, they would consider joining a chavurah, and though I don’t remember her exact response, it was something like, “Who has time?!”
Nonetheless, for me, belonging to a chavurah over the course of so many years has been a fulfilling experience and a wonderful way to "do Jewish" with my children and within our own synagogue family.
Do you have experience as a member of a chavurah? Share it with us by leaving a comment.
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