Staying Unstructured Has Proven to Be a Perfect Fit for This Havurah

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Unstructured Synagogue Havurah,14 of them — 10 women and four men — sat down to dinner with the Jewish Exponent Nov. 1 at Marco Polo in Elkins Park to commemorate the anniversary of the havurah’s founding.

Contrary to its name, the Unstructured Synagogue Havurah is anything but. 
 
In fact, it’s quite organized. The members meet twice a month at each other’s homes or perhaps at an outing. They have a set agenda at each meeting. They even have planning committee meetings that don’t last all night, which is unusual when you have 16 individuals trying to make plans and coordinate schedules. 
 
But that’s just what the six founding couples — who were soon after joined by a young, unorthodox rabbinical student who didn’t want to have his own pulpit — decided to call themselves when they first assembled to observe Shabbat, celebrate holidays and life cycle events, and engage in Jewish learning back in October 1970. And the name has stuck.
 
Now, 45 years later, though their ranks have been thinned by natural attrition and the inevitable — there are currently five widows among them — the group is still going strong. 
 
When 14 of them — 10 women and four men — sat down to dinner with the Jewish Exponent Nov. 1 at Marco Polo in Elkins Park to commemorate the anniversary of the havurah’s founding, they didn’t argue. They didn’t haggle over who ate what, and everyone acted respectfully towards each other. 
 
Which couldn’t help but leave an observer with the thought that maybe being structured isn’t the be-all end-all of Jewish community. “We wanted to be unstructured,” said Rabbi Steve Stroiman, who came aboard the havurah two months after it was formed — he was the aforementioned rabbinical student — and never left. “But we wanted to be a social group focusing everything on what it means to be Jewish in Philadelphia — the tagline of the Exponent. 
 
“We get together twice a month for religious, cultural and social Jewish activities. It started with couples who were dissatisfied with their synagogues and wanted to create a more intimate, personal meaningful Judaism the synagogues didn’t provide them. Mostly, they’d hold discussions on Jewish-oriented topics.” 
 
 In many cases, these were couples just beginning to raise their families, which resulted in their getting interested in what their parents were doing. But the havurah tried to keep the numbers down — its membership has never been higher than 24 — even though there were no membership fees or other financial considerations.
 
They’d just take turns meeting at each other’s homes. Somebody would cook dinner — fish or vegetarian. Maybe someone else would bring dessert. And on they went year after year. As time went by, some would lose interest. Some would move away. Others might leave their marriages and, consequently, the havurah. 
 
Still, they endured, often at a time when other similar groups were beginning to run out of steam. 
 
“We ran our own services,” said Alberta Marcus, who joined later that first year. “We did our own research, so we learned a lot more than just listening to the rabbi.”
 
“We had Bar and Bat Mitzvahs,” added Stroiman, who retired in 2010 after teaching Jewish Studies at Akiba/Barrack Hebrew Academy for 34 years. “These were put together by the families. 
“I was not the rabbi. We were a self-directed group, with self-directed leaders. Fast-forward 20-30 years — the kids grew up. Some grew out. People died. So we’ve had new couples and individuals come in. From the outset, we wanted to limit it to what would be comfortable in everyone’s living room.”
 
Today the number stands at 16. In addition to those twice-monthly meetings, many of them get together outside the havurah. Perhaps they’ll go to a concert or a show or visit a museum. But as they age — and the average age within the group hovers in the early 70s — getting out regularly becomes more and more of a challenge.
 
“I’m in my 80s,” said Marilyn Benshetler, who’s been a member since the late 1970s. “I find it difficult to go to for big dinners, because I can’t drive at night. So we have more day meetings, plus we have a book club with nine of us that meets once a month.”
 
In their “unstructured” way, they’ve learned to work together, while at the same time truly appreciating what they have. “One thing I appreciate about us is — at least publicly — we’re not judgmental to each other,’’ said Shirley Bogdanoff, attending her first havurah function since losing her husband, Charles, in June. “There’s a love and a caring I haven’t seen anywhere else. It’s always been here. The beauty of this is, we’re able to make it work.”
 
And they have made it work across the Delaware Valley, starting out in the Northeast, then branching out to meet throughout the area — Mount Airy, Huntingdon Valley, Elkins Park, Lower Merion. Havurah members have been teachers, lawyers, doctors, dentists — a sampling from virtually every walk of life. 
 
But now they can’t help but wonder: Where does the future lie? They’ve seen groups like the Sholom Aleichem Club — whose plight was detailed in the Sept. 18, 2014 Jewish Exponent — forced to close its doors last year due to declining membership.
 
How can they avoid a similar fate? “We’re hoping some younger people will find out about us and want to join,” said Benshetler. 
 
“We’ve remained a havurah since its inception because we constantly reinvent ourselves,” said Stroiman, the unofficial leader, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology from Temple. “The founders wanted a group that was not structured like a synagogue. They wanted to make it more egalitarian. 
 
‘Havurah’ is not a common word; it means fellowship.”
 
For a group that calls itself unstructured, they sure seem to have known what they’re doing all along.
 
Contact: jmarks@jewishexponent.com 215-832-0729 
 

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