This project focuses particularly on the havurah movement, which represents a signal effort to reinvent Jewish communal worship and social life outside the framework of traditional synagogue denominations and structures. The first such institution, Havurat Shalom, was established in Boston in 1968, in the wake of Israel’s Six-Day War and at the height of America’s cultural, social and political ferment. In his study of American Judaism, historian Jonathan Sarna emphasizes that havurah members consciously set out to “jettison the bourgeois middle-class values of suburbia and to re-imagine Judaism” as a liberating force capable of revolutionizing personal and religious relationships as well as politics and society. (Sarna, American Judaism, p. 319). Related efforts sprang up in other cities, such as Fabrangen in Washington, D.C., the New York Havurah, as well as havurot in the mid-West and California. With the spread of radical Jewish cultural movements came distinct trends and independent organizations: the Jewish renewal movement, P’nai Or, the Jewish Student Network, and related self-identified Jewish secular political activism, like Jews for Urban Justice, Breira, Ezrat Nashim and Jewish Feminism, Jewish Gay culture, Jewish music and the Klezmer revival, and Jewish Back-to-the-Earth agriculturalists.
As we approach the half-century mark since the founding of Havurat Shalom, this project seeks to contribute to building a documentary record of these diverse forms of Jewish counterculture through a pilot effort to interview approximately twenty-five key members of the havurah movement. We intend to focus primarily on Havurat Shalom as well as on the New York Havurah and Fabrangen in this initial phase of the project. It should also be noted that each of these havurot had their own particular structures and outlooks and were not in their early years part of an organized movement. The history of the havurah and of the Jewish counterculture more generally remains to be written, and indeed, at the present time, archival collections are being assembled at Brandeis University, the University of Pennsylvania, the American Jewish Archives, the American Jewish Historical Society, and the University of Colorado—just to name a few institutions. This project aims to further the current effort already underway by documenting the experiences and reflections of early havurah participants through oral history. These oral histories will ultimately be made available to the public as part of an open, pluralistic, and cooperative endeavor to gather and disseminate information. Thus, this initial and limited oral history project represents an important piece of a larger effort to collect information about and begin to interpret this important moment in American Jewish history.