Whittier Celebrates the Last Hurrah of America’s First Havurah

Pioneers: Members of the Whittier Havurah gather at Camp Komaroff in 1975.
Pioneers: Members of the Whittier Havurah gather at Camp Komaroff in 1975.

By Rex Weiner

Published July 13, 2011, issue of July 22, 2011.
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It was September 1960, with hometown hero Richard Nixon running neck and neck with John F. Kennedy in the final stretch of the race for the White House, when a handful of Jewish families in Whittier, Calif., a small city 12 miles southeast of Los Angeles, decided to reinvent themselves as Jews. They formed a group outside their local synagogue to study Judaism, celebrate the holidays and explore the relevance of their religion to their lives.

“They were the first American havurah,” said Rabbi David A. Teutsch, former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and longtime observer of the havurah movement. The havurah is an affinity group dedicated to Jewish studies, prayer and holiday celebrations outside the synagogue structure. The notion that the movement began with countercultural experiments in the 1970s ignores the fact that the Whittier Havurah predates them all.

Hailed by late Reconstructionist leader Rabbi Ira Eisenstein as “a pioneer in our movement,” the Whittier group has origins that are more complex than hippie anti-establishment. As a model of longevity and creative activity, its influence over the years outweighed its peak enrollment of 50 families, inspiring similar groups beyond Southern California. Teutsch told the Forward, “I consider the Whittier Havurah a wonderful success.”

So why, at its 50th anniversary celebration, July 16, is the Whittier Havurah officially disbanding?

“It served its purpose” was how Gloria Bohrer, one of the original founders, summed it up.

The simple answer to why the group is disbanding is, of course, that many have passed on and the remaining members, most of them in their 80s, have moved away from each other and can no longer drive or travel as easily to meet as they once did. But those who are able will meet one more time, July 16 for a luncheon, and will formally donate what’s left in the treasury — “less than $1,000, more than $500,” according to Bohrer’s estimate — to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College as the last official act.

Watch a few clips from the Havurah’s 40th Anniversary video and celebration in California:

Unlike some havurot, which actively seek out new members, the Whittier Havurah strived mostly to serve the spiritual needs of its founding generation. And it allied itself with Reconstructionist Judaism, unlike many of the more countercultural groups that appeared in the 1970s and ’80s, and with the new wave of independent minyanim that appeal to young Jews today.

“Half a century ago, the havurot were more experimental with the words and style of prayer,” said Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, one of the founders of New York’s Mechon Hadar, an educational and prayer institute. For most people now, the independent minyanim provide “passionate davening and traditional Orthodox liturgy with a different approach to gender egalitarianism,” Kaunfer noted.

Each approach tends to engender its own life cycle, observed Riv-Ellen Prell, professor of American studies at University of Minnesota and author of “Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism.” “Every group that begins believing it has the most compelling vision of Judaism ends up speaking to its own generation,” she said.

So it was in Whittier. After Rosh Hashanah services in 1960 at a Conservative synagogue, Gloria and Samuel Bohrer joined Lenore and Seymour Leshin and Leah and Claude Udkof, two other couples from the synagogue, at the Leshin home for coffee and for Lenore’s “highly reputed strudel,” according to the havurah’s resident historian, Shel Osman. “They shared their increasing disenchantment with the traditional and supernatural orientation of synagogue services,” Osman noted, “especially on the High Holidays.”

The Whittier Havurah and the turn toward the Reconstructionist theory were kindled by several influences. Originally from St. Louis, where she graduated from Washington University, Gloria Bohrer had been introduced there to Reconstructionism by Rabbi Robert Jacobs. The publication of “The Havurah Idea” by Jacob Neusner in a recent issue of The Reconstructionist Press, recalling the ancient origins of Jewish study groups, also sparked the imaginations of the three young couples.

The ideas of Reconstructionist founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan struck a chord with those seeking to live Jewish lives in a place devoid of Jewish tradition. Separated from the comforts of the old neighborhood, yet free of its old world ways, the notion of Judaism as an ever-evolving civilization rather than as a practice of ritual made sense. An approach to Jewish observance, for which belief in a “supernatural God” was not required, was appealing.

“We loved Judaism, studied it and read intensively,” recalled Rosalind Perle, a havurah member, “but could not abide with the ‘hocus pocus’ part.”

In a 1983 article for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association magazine, Ruth Wiener, another havurah member, wrote that they were “struggling to discover our identity in personal, ethnic and religious forms; somewhat rebellious of tradition, intellectually willing to question and now somewhat aware through our studies that there could be a way of approaching our Jewishness that would be more intellectually acceptable and more satisfying to us.”

“They wanted their Judaism not to contradict their rationality,” Teutsch observed, “to blend with it, rather than conflict.”

Expanding quickly to 25 from the original six, the Whittier Havurah officially affiliated in May 1961 with the Reconstructionist movement. By the following year, it counted 17 couples as members, all of them also members of Temple Beth Shalom — a requirement in the havurah’s early days.

With membership flourishing, the Whittier Havurah members developed their own liturgy of holiday worship, organized potluck Sabbath dinners at members’ homes, met to study and discuss the Bible and other Jewish texts, and examined Jewish history using James Michener’s “The Source” as a guide. In a process she likened to “group therapy” in her account, Wiener described the members’ wide-ranging examination of “life cycle events such as birth, bar mitzvah, marriage, intermarriage, divorce, the Jewish family, women’s place in Judaism, retirement, death and dying.”

Annual retreats to Camp Ramah in Ojai and to other scenic conference centers in the region became havurah hallmark events, featuring a procession of distinguished scholars-in-residence that included even Kaplan himself, who visited several times. The intense experience of the retreats brought the havurah members closer together, as did the gatherings for bar and bat mitzvahs, holidays and anniversaries.

“We became an extended family,” Gloria Bohrer said. “We learned, we loved….” And grieved. “We would all converge at the shiva house. We created a shiva service that was very personal.”

The Whittier Havurah was not without conflict. Some critics labeled its form of religious observance “fast-food Judaism,” and the epithet “mishagoyim” was not unusual. Then again, one member did confess to surreptitiously cooking bacon in the trailer at the retreats. But the major conflict within the group was over its future: by what course should the Whittier Havurah proceed in years to come was a frequent topic. Would the group continue beyond its members’ lifetimes?

At the apex of the Whittier Havurah’s trajectory, with more members than any one home could handle for Sabbath potluck dinner, members discussed branching into two groups. “But that would have been like cutting off an arm,” one of them said. The logical next step would have been to form a congregation within the Reconstructionist Federation. But that never happened either.

“It would have destroyed the Whittier Temple [Beth Shalom] if we’d formed another congregation,” Adar Belinkoff told the Forward. He also noted that they “didn’t have much of a structure,” a factor that hindered future planning.

The choice not to split Whittier’s Jewish community was the reason that enrollment in the havurah required membership in Temple Beth Shalom. The decision was in keeping with the early thinking of Kaplan, who in 1936, when faced with the future of his own movement, wrote, “Reconstructionism should become a quality of existing Jewish institutions and movements rather than another addition to their quantity.” In any case, the decision sowed the seeds of the Whittier Havurah’s eventual demise.

“At one point,” Belinkoff said, “it was thought that the children would carry on.” But in reminiscences by those children — dispersed around the country, married and with grown children of their own — there is no mention of a desire on their part to continue the Whittier group. As Charles Belkin, 61, wrote in the “Sheheheyanu” commemorative album on the group’s 40th anniversary: “The primary focus of the Whittier Havurah, as I see it, was not on the children and their needs…. Rather, the primary focus was on the adults, on their survival and growth as Jews, on their need to be continuously interested in and challenged by Judaism and on their need for ‘adult’ answers relevant to their lives.”

There may be no monument erected, no plaques declaring the group’s remarkable history, but it is clear that the children will not forget the formative experience of growing up with the Whittier Havurah. To a significant degree, they maintain Jewish homes and lives around the country, many in connection with Reconstructionist synagogues as well as Conservative ones.

Among the wealth of heartfelt tributes in the 40th anniversary “Sheheheyanu” to the Whittier parents and their circle, Joel Meskin offered gratitude to the havurah for “helping me experience that place where heaven and earth are so close that it appears as if they are kissing.”

Contact Rex Weiner at feedback@forward.com

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