In 1970, six young Jewish couples became part of a countercultural movement in a seemingly unlikely place: Northeast Philadelphia.
Like their contemporaries in other cities and on college campuses, the Philly couples wanted to create their own alternative, egalitarian, inclusive space — outside of local synagogues — where they could pray, learn, socialize, and celebrate the holidays together as Jews.
“They said, ‘Let’s do our own thing, whatever that is. Let’s explore it,’” said Rabbi Steve Stroiman, who was a rabbinical student when he joined the Northeast group five months after it began meeting regularly.
Those informal sessions in members’ living rooms gave rise to the Unstructured Synagogue Havurah, a Hebrew word that means fellowship. Springing up across the country beginning in the 1960s — some accounts have the first havurah being established in California in 1960, while others cite Boston’s Havurat Shalom of 1968 — many of these “synagogues without walls” have long since faded away. Others have continued to thrive.
And in October, Unstructured Synagogue Havurah marked its 51st anniversary.
“The founding members weren’t hippies or revolutionaries. They were teachers and social workers and young parents — conventional, middle-class people who wanted something personal and meaningful in their Jewish communal lives,” said Stroiman, 76, who lives in Mount Airy.
“Back then, synagogues in Greater Northeast Philadelphia were large, sometimes impersonal, and very institutionalized,” he said. “The [founding couples] didn’t feel part of the institution. If you’re not being heard and not being engaged, you either drop out or look for something else.”
Except for Alberta Marcus, 83, a retired teacher still active in the group, all of the havurah’s founding members have died. But the organization has endured, even through the pandemic; in October, meetings shifted from Zoom to in-person, and members gathered for an anniversary lunch at an Italian restaurant in Feasterville earlier this month.
“Are we missing anybody?” Stroiman asked, attempting to be heard above the mega-buzz of conversations around the long table.
“We’re all here!” came the reply.
Marcus, who grew up in South Philly, moved to the Northeast during high school, and still lives in the Somerton section, remembered the havurah’s early days as a heady, “everybody was in charge” time.
“We were participants, not observers,” she said. “We had discussion topics, sometimes humorous, sometimes serious. Everybody brought food, and everybody was very creative. We had artists, singers, and music. A lot of music.”
The havurah evolved on its own and without guidance from other groups; Marcus said she doesn’t remember thinking that she and the other founders were part of a larger movement.
“Was there some kind of a template, or a role model for them? Not really,” Stroiman said. “They were seeking something outside their milieu.”
In an email, Addie Lewis Klein, a senior director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, noted that in 2021 some chavurot (plural for havurah) in the Philly region “are independent prayer communities inside a synagogue structure, and others are truly independent DIY Jewish communities. Some have very traditional Jewish practices and others follow more liberal interpretations of Jewish practice. What they all have in common is a deep commitment to volunteer leadership and creating an intimate sense of community.”
The Jewish Counterculture History Project of the Penn Libraries at the University of Pennsylvania includes oral histories and videos about the evolution of the havurah movement in America. The National Havurah Committee, founded in 1980, continues to nurture chavurot across the country.
From its inception, Unstructured Synagogue Havurah was nondenominational and led by lay people (”I’m the facilitator, not the rabbi,” Stroiman said). Membership has always been limited in number — it was initially defined by the number of people who could fit comfortably in a typical Northeast Philly living room — “but we have always accepted each person’s eccentricities,” he said.
“We’re not just a social group and not just a religious group. The emphasis shifts and evolves.”
His wife, Luci, a retired English teacher in the Philly public schools who spent nearly three decades of her 37-year career at Frankford High, said the havurah differs from other social and religious organizations in that “it functions more like an extended family. We’re all known each other for so long.”
From its inception, the havurah has welcomed observant Jews who have synagogue memberships and people who are unaffiliated; political liberals and conservatives; and Zionists as well as atheists.
“We’ve always belonged to a synagogue,” said Evelyn Goldberg, who is “77 years young,” lives in Bells Corner, and has been a member of the havurah for 35 years.
She credits the group with bolstering her confidence when she decided to go to nursing school in the late 1980s — a big leap for someone who wondered if she were smart enough to attempt such a thing.
“One of the people in the group was a physical therapist, and another was a nurse,” she said. “They showed me how to read a textbook, how to do notes.
“I discovered I had a brain I didn’t know I had,” said Goldberg, who became a registered nurse and went on to earn a master’s degree in health education from what is now Arcadia University. “Becoming a nurse was one of the best things I ever did in my life, and I used the money I earned to [realize] my lifetime dream to go to Israel.”
Leslie Kreithen, 78, and her husband, Marvin, 86, live in Huntingdon Valley and have been havurah members for 15 years.
“I think congregational Judaism is boring,” said Marvin, a retired engineer. “It’s a monologue. Havurah is a dialogue.”
Said Leslie, a retired educator: “I was always looking for a sense of community, and I’m interested in learning, and in Jewish education.”
Marvin has created a number of power-point presentations on themes, including “Jewish Artists You Should Know,” Jewish feminism, and Yiddish theater on New York’s Lower East Side.
The members “really care about each other,” Leslie said. ”It isn’t just about schmoozing.”
Beverly Sher, a retired businesswoman who lives in Warrington and is the havurah’s newest member, enjoys the familial feeling.
“I have a very small family of my own,” said Sher, who is widowed, like several other women in the havurah. “My daughter lives in Israel and my son is busy with his business, and when I was introduced to the group a few years ago everyone was very friendly and accepting.”
Crediting Stroiman with helping set the tone, Sher said the havurah is an opportunity “for us to enjoy each other.”
A retired educator, Stroiman earned a Ph.D in educational psychology from Temple University — and did his dissertation on the havurah.
“The one word that could summarize my findings about the group was acceptance,” he said. “The basics [are] treating people with respect and dignity, and also sharing, not only intellectually, but emotionally. That’s where the trust comes in.”
A consensus that politics are not an appropriate discussion topic at meetings has been a key to the havurah’s longevity. Adaptability is another factor; very early on, after their children asked to be included in the activities, the founding members happily did so.
“We have been able to adapt to people’s changing needs,” said Stroiman. “We’ve succeeded because we’ve adapted.”
The organization the founders created, and that he and other members have long sustained, is smaller now. But its resilience offers an example that may be useful to others.
In October, at the first in-person meeting since the pandemic began, “we stood arm-in-arm after everyone arrived,” said Stroiman.
“We said the traditional prayer thanking God for bringing us together.”