Special Interview Gaining a Renewed Sense of Judaism

What better time to explore the educational, cultural and spiritual aspects of Judaism than during the summer? That’s the philosophy adopted by the National Havurah Committee which is sponsoring its 11th Havurah Summer Institute July 14-20 at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

More than 300 Jewish adults, teens and children will gather for a week of intensive Jewish study, experience, celebration and community to gain a renewed sense of Judaism, according to Mordechai Liebling, executive director of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot and cochairman of the program.

"This is the time of the year when everybody’s batteries run down," Liebling said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "It’s important to recharge your batteries with respect to Judaism."

Each participant is required to enroll in two sessions of classes, each with four scheduled meetings. The 28 topics offered by the Institute range from "Pardes: Working with Torah Texts on Four Levels" to "Sensuality and Spirituality in the Poetry of Jewish Women." The main dilemma for most of the Jews involved was not finding a topic of interest, but deciding which of the courses to choose.

Classes are college and adult education level, according to Liebling, and the instructors are often experienced Hebrew school teachers. "The program was designed to provide an atmosphere for teacher-student interaction and a setting to be able to conduct intensive adult education in a matter of Jewish life at a fairly high level otherwise unavailable," Liebling explained.

A HOST OF WORKSHOPS AND STUDY SESSIONS

Afternoons will be spent in various workshops focusing on Jewish religious skills, such as reading Torah, choir, art and dance groups, research projects and discussion on the Havurah movement. There is very little free time for the participants and even the evening hours are cramped with activity.

The first two nights offer entertainment, both musical and dramatic. Another evening features a fund-raising auction for Institute scholarships.

The Institute has also planned daily "Beit Midrash" communal study sessions modelled after traditional Eastern European Jewish study houses, and an evening of community-wide discussion, designed to have people recognize the denominational differences within the community and begin increased tolerance.

Growth of a communal atmosphere culminates with the celebration of Shabbat. On Friday evening, the Institute conducts a Kabbalat Shabbat service which blends traditional prayer and new blessings. "It’s a service we hope all liberal Jews feel comfortable with," said Liebling.

Since the Shabbat is geared toward the whole community, which comprises members of all denominations, various minyanim are available. While the Institute welcomes participants from all backgrounds, a fundamental commitment of the Havurah movement to egalitarianism and minyanim organized by the planning committee will include equal participation by men and women.

Havurot, the Hebrew word for "fellowship," is not a denomination and according to Liebling is "post-denominational," meaning it transcends denominations. Those affiliated with Havurah may belong to synagogues of any denomination or may exist independently.

The nearly two-decade-old movement is based on the idea that Jewish lay people should "learn to do Jewish for themselves." Its principle tenets include the belief that all Jews have an opportunity to examine Jewish tradition and make it meaningful in contemporary contexts.

In the beginning, Havurah members were young, well-educated secularly and often alienated from the Jewish community. They formed their own community for the warmth and interpersonal relationships they felt were lacking in the synagogues and temples. Now Havurah has grown into a more mainstream group that coexists with all movements.

The National Havurah Committee in past years held several Summer Institutes in various locations. "This year we decided to have only one larger consolidated one," said Liebling.

One of the major differences in each year’s program according to Liebling, is the focus of the classes and discussions. This year’s theme is liturgical relationships and changes in liturgy. There is also a separate children’s program relating to friends as a community and a community as friends.

The special guest for this year’s Institute, which is chaired by Liebling, his wife, Devorah Bartnoff, rabbi for Congregation Am-Haskalah in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Dr. Moshe Waldoks, a professor of Jewish Studies at Clark University in Boston, is Avraham Burg, advisor to Prime Minister Shimon Peres on diaspora affairs and a leading advocate for pluralism in Jewish life.

Liebling believes the teachers and students in the program will further the Havurah movement. "This will strengthen Havurah around the country," he said.

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