Counter-Culture Spirit Lives as Boston's Havurah Shalom Hits Middle Age

Closing in on 50, Alternative Congregation Still Innovates

Start ‘Em Early: One of Havurat Shalom’s younger members helps out with construction of the congregation’s sukkah.
emily aviva kapor
Start ‘Em Early: One of Havurat Shalom’s younger members helps out with construction of the congregation’s sukkah.

By Anthony Weiss

Published August 08, 2014.

(JTA) — To certain first-time visitors to Havurat Shalom, the congregation’s prayer room may look remarkably familiar.

From the macrame Jewish star adorning the ark and the Middle Eastern-style lamp serving as a ner tamid to the pillows on a bare floor and the sparely decorated walls, the room looks exactly as it does in a photograph from “The Jewish Catalog,” the iconic do-it-yourself Judaism guidebook published in 1973 that brought the then 5-year-old Havurat Shalom a measure of fame.

At the time, the image suggested an innovative vision of Judaism, stripped of pretense and focused on cultivating a tight-knit sense of community and direct devotional experience. Today, the room looks as if it had been preserved in amber.

But beneath the surface, Havurat Shalom has lived many lives since that picture was snapped.

Its founders have long since left, many of them moving to profoundly reshape the face of American Jewish life — infusing the wider community with the vision that animated Havurat Shalom.

“If you actually look at the people who passed through Havurat Shalom as teachers or as students, it’s absolutely amazing,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “These were the people who would be leading figures in Jewish life in the second half of the 20th century.”

At the same time, Havurat Shalom itself has continued to evolve, sometimes in ways that have made the founders uncomfortable.

Still, when the current members gathered on a recent Shabbat morning, they came together in pursuit of the same ideals that the founders describe seeking at the very beginning — the fusion of prayer and fellowship, tradition and experimentation.

“It’s like a body,” said Aliza Arzt, a member since 1978. “All the cells are different, but it’s the same body.” With 32 current members, Havurat Shalom is small, as it has always been. But historically it wielded an outsized influence.

It is often considered a flagship of the havurah movement, which rose out of the 1960s counterculture and led to a blossoming of small, intimate prayer groups – havurot, Hebrew for fellowship. The movement’s fingerprints can be seen not only on the independent minyanim that have proliferated in recent years but in the more personal, informal style of davening that has come to pervade many congregations.



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