D.C.-Based Minyan Mixes Shabbat With Activism

By Julia Appel

Published May 04, 2007, issue of May 04, 2007.
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Washington - Tikkun Leil Shabbat, a participatory prayer group, or havurah, may soon have to find a bigger space.

The havurah’s average attendance has increased to upward of 150 from 30 since its founding barely two years ago. Even after halting their advertising on Jewish e-mail lists in Washington, every third Friday night dozens upon dozens of young Hill staffers, not-for-profit analysts, community organizers and graduate students spill out from the main seating area into the stairs and hallways of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s carpeted basement. For many of them, finding the havurah has meant finding a home in the Jewish community — one they feel actually expresses their progressive values.

“We originally started Tikkun Leil Shabbat as a summer experiment with no intention of continuing it,” co-founder Joelle Novey explained. “The decision to continue it came from the attendees, who, by the middle of the summer, were saying: ‘This has to continue. I’ve been looking for something like this for years.’”

At first glance, the havurah resembles other new independent prayer communities along the East and West coasts — the mostly 20s age demographic, the volunteer leadership team, the desire for participatory and spirited prayer. Its name, however, is the first tip-off that leaders are creating something more than simply good singing or socializing: It combines tikkun olam (repairing the world) with tikkun leil Shavuot, the practice of studying Torah all night on the holiday of Shavuot. As the havurah’s Web site explains, apply the notion of study and prayer for the sake of repairing the world to the Jewish day of rest, and you get “Tikkun Leil Shabbat.”

The havurah also is unique in that it has an official co-sponsor: not the Jewish federation or even a supportive synagogue, but rather the activist group Jews United for Justice, known for its involvement in local labor and affordable housing issues.

In place of a talk about the weekly Torah portion, known as a dvar Torah, Tikkun Leil Shabbat has a dvar tikkun — a talk by a representative from a local social justice organization on the group’s latest campaign and what attendees can do to help.

“We’re framing the talks about local social justice work by giving them a Hebrew name and a sacred context,” Novey said. And her hopes extend beyond D.C. “One thing I would hope is that we could contribute something, that the idea of a dvar tikkun will become second nature for the next generation, just like how for us, we think, ‘Of course Tu B’Shvat is about environmentalism.’”

The model is sticking. Hundreds of miles north in Boston, the Kavod Jewish Social Justice House has instituted a dvar tikkun in its own services.

Novey and several other JUFJ board members proposed creating and co-sponsoring the havurah in 2005. “We only had to discuss it a few minutes before recognizing that it would be a wonderful experiment,” said the organization’s president, Shelley Moskowitz.

Today, that experiment has become integral to JUFJ’s strategic plan. “It’s part of a three points of contact theory,” said the organization’s director, Lori Leibowitz. The havurah “is one of those points of contact for people, and maybe they’ll also get an e-mail or they’ll see a flier, and suddenly JUFJ has become a familiar entity to them and they are more likely to volunteer.”

In addition to outreach for its campaigns, JUFJ uses the havurah as a showcase of sorts.

“Funders are impressed with our programs when I describe them, but I can’t show our successes to them unless I bring them to TLS,” Leibowitz explained. “Several members speaking at a community meeting isn’t that interesting, but TLS is a window to what we do. I can say, ‘This is our constituency. Here is a community of young Jews who really care about justice.’”

Prior to the launch of Tikkun Leil Shabbat, JUFJ, like many Jewish activist groups across the country, had focused on more secular expressions of Jewish values.

Avi Rosenblit, who was director of JUFJ at the time, sees the havurah as coming out of a desire to shift this status quo.

“Here were people who felt like their interest in Jewish spirituality and in social justice were two disconnected parts of the same idea, but there was no place to synthesize them,” Rosenblit said. “The desire for that synthesis is what I think animated those first meetings and ultimately the continued success of the program.”

In a city in which a glance up at the skyline reveals the Washington Monument, and in which the bars play C-SPAN like it’s baseball, the havurah’s combination of social justice and prayer is uniquely appealing. Regarding the havurah’s popularity, Novey posited, “The political tenor of life in D.C. meant that there were already people looking for a way to articulate their activist work in an explicitly Jewish way, so we tapped into what I think was already present.”

Rosenblit thinks the political backdrop does not sufficiently explain the appeal of the havurah. “People aren’t satisfied anymore with tack-on social justice or tack-on Judaism,” he said. “They want to really know it, on a deeper level.”

In other words, while synagogues often shy away from politics and Jewish activist groups from prayer and God talk, Tikkun Leil Shabbat is diving into both.

The havurah features a full, traditional Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy in Hebrew, communal blessings over wine and challah, Sabbath songs and grace after meals. Service style alternates between instrumental accompaniment with circular chair arrangement and instrument free with chairs facing East, toward Jerusalem, to allow for a range of Sabbath observances. Potlucks feature two tables, one for regular vegetarian food and one for vegetarian food adhering to the most stringent kashrut specifications, so that all attendees can eat. At the same time, alongside the dvar tikkun, “greening” efforts have meant reusable dish ware, cloth napkins and recycling for potlucks, and attendees are encouraged to walk or bike to services in order to reduce carbon emissions.

The havurah’s activist focus has not been without its tensions. One attendee commented that she found the political bent to be overdone: “It might be nice for others, but I come for the people and the davening.”

And recently, the steering committee caused quite a flap when it decided not to use kosher wine for communal Kiddush. In boycotting what some members see as a xenophobic kashrut law requiring that no gentile participate in the wine’s production, the steering committee has stuck to one interpretation of social justice in this case, but it has lost some attendees who no longer feel that their religious needs can be met. The committee is now re-examining the issue in light of communal feedback.

Of course, as much as organizers of the havurah talk about the social justice component, they also freely admit that a basic reason for its popularity is social. In a city as transient as D.C., Tikkun Leil Shabbat provides a welcoming community with a potluck dinner. But even for those seeking socialization, the self-selected constituency is important.

“I work in nonprofits, so it’s not like I’m looking for another way to get involved,” said Alix Davidson, who has been attending Tikkun Leil Shabbat regularly since its founding. “I come because I like having a space full of other progressive young Jews, who I know share my values.”

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