by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
In these monthly articles I have been offering readers some background history on the Jewish sources of the values and ideals that motivated me to develop the vision that became Kehilla Community Synagogue. In this four-part series, I turn to Rabbi Arthur Green, the founder of Hebrew College Rabbinical School. This is the seminary where Kehilla’s own SAM Luckey is studying to become a rabbi. And Rabbi Gray Myrseth, the educational director of Kehilla’s school was also ordained at that institution.
You’re probably aware that the name of our congregation, Kehilla Community Synagogue, means “Community-Community-Community!” (Kehilla is Hebrew and Synagogue derives from a Greek word for community.) Because Kehilla has focused so intently on tikkun olam and spirituality, you may be wondering why the name of our congregation highlights the value of community. In fact, it goes back to something that I disliked about synagogues in the 1950s and 1960s.
The American synagogues that were built in the suburbs following World War II were often externally impressive and showy. (Jews were said to have an “edifice complex!”) These congregations had certain specific goals: weekly worship services, education for Jewish children, pastoral care for members, and some adult education and social action. By and large these institutions were not communities. They did not promote personal connections between members, nor did they offer much support for individuals and families during difficult times. Of course, this situation was not only a Jewish problem. American individualism had eroded the sense of community in the U.S., and as a result there was a great deal of alienation in the culture.
Part of the rebellion of the youth culture in the 1960s had to do with ending this alienation. At the core of the new hippie counter-culture was the rebirth of community. All kinds of experimental communes and intentional communities were founded during that period. I myself was personally involved in a number of those experiments, including several spiritually-oriented communities. Havurat Shalom, founded by Rabbi Arthur Green in the Boston area in 1968, was one of the very first of these Jewish communities. Although I later took part and helped lead the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley, it was Havurat Shalom that influenced my life the most, serving as a kind of prototype for Kehilla.
How did Art Green get the idea for Havurat Shalom? Early on, Art had read an article that Rabbi Zalman Schachter had written in the 1950s about the need for an urban “monastic” Jewish community. The idea fascinated him, and he later wrote,
The Jewish community in the late 1960s was self-satisfied, suburban and bourgeois, but nothing exciting was going on, and a whole generation was turning away in disgust. These were the angry years of the late sixties, and much of the anger of young Jews—a good part of it justified, I thought—was directed toward the synagogue. I wanted to make something happen, some kind of counter-synagogue, perhaps, although I didn’t know what form that might take.
Art invited me as well as a number of other, mostly young rabbis to move to Cambridge and to join the faculty of Havurat Shalom. We were all critical of the materialism and secularity of American life, 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 Eastern European Judaism that we had not personally known.
Art Green provided the guiding vision for Havurat Shalom. He wanted to meld the spiritual ideals of the late eighteenth-century Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe with the radical democratic and communitarian values that were then emerging in the American counter culture. We sought to emphasize communal experience and interpersonal intimacy, to study traditional texts, and to share joyous and creative worship services. At the same time, the Havurah was to be a haven for young Jewish men who opposed the war in Vietnam. Many of us participated in anti-war activities and other social justice projects.
We all agreed to live within walking distance from the building that we purchased to house the havurah. We also agreed to remain members of the Havurah for at least three years. Like most of the other experimental communities around the country, the Havurah was small and intimate—30 or 40 members all in all.
I fondly recall the intense hours of blissful prayer, the joyous singing of Hasidic niggunim, the wild dancing on Shabbat and holy days, and the passionate dedication to sacred study. The spirit of openness, creativity and experimentation was patent. Members felt free to express our doubts about many aspects of the tradition, including traditional notions of God.
Havurat Shalom served as a model for what became known as “the havurah movement.” Numerous independent havurot sprung up around the country. And within a few years synagogues throughout the U.S. began to create havurot designed to enable members to celebrate Shabbat together, get to know one another, and act as supports for Jewish families.
By the early 1980s, I began to ask myself whether the American synagogue itself could be transformed by an infusion of the values and experiences that characterized Havurat Shalom. I must say that I was not certain that something like this could happen in a large synagogue context, but I thought it was worth a try. It took more than ten years before it became clear that like Kehilla might stay around for the long haul.