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'Chavurah,' Without a Building or a Rabbi, Reaches Its 36th Year

May 24, 2007 By:
Rachel Silverman, JE Feature
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Members of the Unstructured Synagogue Havurah celebrating Simchat Torah
Synagogues are built around the idea of organized worship -- the notion that Judaism should be practiced at a central address where activities can be held, congregants can study, a rabbi can lead, and officers can fundraise.

Yet Philadelphia's Unstructured Synagogue Havurah shares very few of these elements. Indeed, the group has no dues, no building, no officers and no rabbi.

Yet the group, which consists of roughly 18 adults who meet twice monthly in each other's homes, has, at various points, run Jewish study sessions; held Megillah readings, Shabbat dinners and sukkah-building parties; planned trips to New York's Ellis Island and to Washington, D.C.; and celebrated the Bar and Bat Mitzvot of half-a-dozen teenagers.

Most impressive, perhaps, is the fact that the group has sustained itself for 36 years now.

Last week, two-dozen participants gathered in the Mount Airy home of Steve and Lucy Stroiman, where, seated in a circle around the living room, they lauded the experience they've shared.

"I love the camaraderie of the group," said Evelyn Goldberg, a 63-year-old nurse who lives in the Northeast. Over the years, the support and friendship here "have really cacooned me."

Steve Stroiman, 62, agreed. "We are an extended family," he said, gesturing around the room. "Our kids grew up in this group."

Though this chavurah has no "leader" per se, Stroiman, who teaches at Akiba Hebrew Academy, serves as a type of facilitator. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1974, he went on to get a doctorate in education from Temple University, where he wrote his dissertation on the development of the unstructured chavurah.

On a national scale, the birth of contemporary chavurot lies both in the Reconstructionist movement, which had long espoused such groups as vehicles for Jewish transformation, and in the countercultural rumblings of the 1960s.

The term comes from chaver, meaning "friend" in Hebrew.

'A Nice, Family-Oriented Way'

Over the years, however, many individual groups have become affiliated with synagogues, or have spun off into minyanim within specific shuls.

The unstructured chavurah is perhaps one of a dozen still operating in Philadelphia, estimated Stroiman.

Founded by several families in the Northeast section of the city, the group didn't begin with an organizational blueprint. Instead, founders merely recognized that "they didn't want to start a synagogue, because they didn't want to repeat what they left."

From there, Stroiman explained that the vision evolved somewhat organically. Programs such as community-service trips and, more recently, Kabbalah study were developed as individuals suggested them; the group's size maxed out at "whatever each person's living room could comfortably hold."

"We didn't have any role models to follow, so we were what we were as we developed," he said.

Retired teacher Alberta Marcus, 67, recalled that individual participation was always an important component.

"Every family had to prepare something for each service," said Marcus, a resident of the Northeast. "It was such a nice, family-oriented way to learn about Judaism."

Other members talked about the chavurah's nontraditional dynamic. Holiday services, for example, often incorporated skits, readings and poems, alongside standard prayers.

"The way we do our Jewish stuff has always been very eclectic, very creative," attested Lucy Stroiman, a retired teacher. "It didn't replace what you could do in a synagogue, but there would always be something added to it."

In fact, some participants have maintained membership in both circles, belonging to the chavurah as well as to a traditional synagogue.

As Marian Cohen, a retired social worker from Cherry Hill, N.J., explained: "I like to be able to go into the synagogue and hear a sermon. I like going to services in an organized way.

"And yet, at the same time, I also like coming to a group like this and being creative," she continued. "I belonged to [Congregation Beth El in Cherry Hill] because I belonged there for so long and my roots are there, but my heart is here."

Stroiman said that the chavurah tries to engage in "pluralistic Judaism."

The Jewish upbringings of various members ranged from secular to Orthodox -- one individual was even raised Christian and later converted -- but most said that now they "don't look at themselves as labels." Most of the time, the group uses a nondenominational Tanach.

"I consider myself an eclectic Jew," pronounced Helene Malenbaum, a resident of Bucks County, and the newest addition to the group. "If there's something I enjoy, I'm going to go. I don't care what a person's label is."

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