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On the Origins of Kehilla

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

Note: This is the second of a series of personal essays that I will be publishing monthly in Kol Kehilla. In each article I will share the origins of one of the ideals and/or values that motivated me to start Kehilla. The essays are adapted from the manuscript of the book I am in the process of completing, tentatively titled There is Only One Love: The Ba’al Shem Tov in the Modern World.

Creating Radical Community

In 1968 I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be part of an experiment in alternative Jewish community to be called “Havurat Shalom.” The Havurah was started by Rabbi Arthur Green, with whom I had been close in rabbinical school. This would be the first havurah of the emerging Jewish counter culture.

The faculty was composed of seven or eight rabbis, most of us newly ordained. Rabbi Zalman Schachter was one of our teachers. We were tired of the overly academic ways in which we had been educated and wanted to teach Judaism in a way that would make our religious tradition relevant to life in the contemporary world.

The strong sense of American individualism was something we took for granted, but we felt that without genuine community such individualism could be terribly oppressive. We experienced the absence of community both in the society at large and in the American synagogue. We were critical of the materialism of American society, and we longed for intimate connections with like-minded comrades and with the Spirit. Many of us also felt a longing, even a sense of nostalgia, for the spiritual depth of the East European Judaism that we had not known.

Art Green provided the guiding vision for Havurat Shalom. He sought to meld the spiritual ideals of the late 18th-century Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe with the radical democratic and communitarian ideals that were then emerging in the American counter culture. We sought to emphasize communal experience and interpersonal intimacy and to share joyous, creative worship services. At the same time, the Havurah was to be a haven for young Jewish men who opposed the war in Vietnam.

By the second year we knew that we didn’t have the resources to develop a serious rabbinical program and we dropped the word seminary from the name of our community. I recall the intense hours of blissful prayer, the joyous singing and dancing on Shabbat and holy days and the passionate dedication to sacred study. There was a spirit of openness, creativity and experimentation.

Havurat Shalom was primarily a spiritually-oriented community, but there was a social and political dimension to our vision as well. Rabbi Everett Gendler, an important mentor of mine and one of our faculty members, wrote about the issues facing the country at large and the Jewish community in particular:

     When Havurat Shalom Community Seminary was established three years ago, its founders felt a keen sense of the crisis both in the United States at large and within the Jewish community in particular. The draft, Vietnam, racial and economic injustice, and personal disorientation were evident to all. These issues persist today in perhaps aggravated form, while the deterioration of the cities and the massive environmental threat join the list of urgencies. As for the Jewish scene, there was little within organized Jewish religious life in the U.S. which adequately related the resources of the tradition to the problems faced at the time; and that has not changed significantly during these three years . . .

In response to these urgencies, a number of us traveled to Washington, D.C. for the large anti-war demonstration in 1969. One of our student members, Stephen Krieger, initiated “Brookline Light and Power,” a storefront youth center for high school students that offered draft counseling. Some havurah members took turns manning the center at different times.

The dancing at the Havurah was incredible. We didn’t actually dance that often, but when we did, the floor of the living and dining rooms that had become our sanctuary creaked and bobbed up and down so much that we feared that the weight of the dancers might collapse the floor. A structural engineer we hired told us that we would have to shore it up with beams of wood from below in the basement.

Within a few years, Havurat Shalom had inspired the creation of many more independent havurot.  The idea caught fire and establishment rabbis began to introduce havurot into their congregational settings. This became a way for synagogues enable their members to develop greater intimacy.

I have a warm memory of my three years at Havurat Shalom. I’m certain that I would not have initiated Kehilla Community Synagogue without having had that particular experience. In 2013 I attended the 45th reunion of Havurat Shalom in Boston. It was so wonderful to be together with my old comrades again.


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