“All our kids married out!” “Not one married a Jew!” Several older Jews exclaimed spontaneously after my invited talk about local Jewish demography ten years ago to the members of the Whittier Havurah. I queried the members on a variety of other topics, being naturally interested as I was on the board, and later president, of another havurah, the Movable Minyan. I had long heard of the the Whittier Havurah, and it even figures prominently with a T-shirt in the current Jews in Los Angeles Mosaic exhibition at the Autry.
Whittier Havurah 1975
Being a demographer, I know from the research, rather than the hysteria, that intermarriage is not what most Jews do. The Whittier Havurah kids’ marriages that happened in the 1970s, when even in Los Angeles county, the Jewish intermarriage rate was less than 20 percent. So, the first known havurah, the Whittier Havurah, which Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan lauded as the harbinger of the new Jewish civilization, had kids who didn’t marry Jewish in a much more pronounced fashion than even the secular and ethnic Jews of that era.
A couple of years ago, the Whittier Havurah celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by declaring itself over and donating what remained in its coffers to the Reconstructionist rabbinical seminary. That was a strange choice of a group who broke away from rabbi-led rituals, who were described as forming 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.” and “We loved Judaism, studied it and read intensively,” recalled Rosalind Perle, a havurah member, “but could not abide with the ‘hocus pocus’ part.”
I mentioned that I belong to the Movable Minyan, also a havurah. The Movable Minyan is probably the oldest free-standing havurah, not part of a synagogue, which centered on Jewish ritual and study in Los Angeles. We marked our twenty-fifth anniversary at Shabbat service and will have a 25th anniversary banquet in the middle of June at a Kosher Chinese restraunt on Pico. The Movable Minyan similarly formed as a result of a distaste for organized Jewish worship as we experienced it, e.g. rabbi vs. board conflicts and disenchantment with the usual synagogue services. Perhaps some of the Movable Minyan founders also thought synagogue services a bit hocus pocus.
Movable Minyan 2005
But, there are major difference between the two havurot. The first one, Whittier, seemed a bit less child centered and seemed to emphasize creating and mastering new Jewish content. The Movable Minyan has always been child-centered and has focused on mastering, owning and challenging existing content and innovating from that point of departure. Now, for example, rather than sitting through boring high holiday services, we lay people, enjoy conducting our own high holiday services, adapting and adding so it is recognizable, but also uniquely ours.
Beginning a quarter century later than the Whittier Havurah, the Movable Minyan had the huge advantage of Jews who self-educated themselves to the value of the existing by the availability of resources such as the The Jewish Catalog, which this year celebrates its fortieth year of publication, which was, for a time, the bible of the Movable Minyan in its path of Do-It-Yourself Judaism.
We were just discussing, after our last Movable Minyan board meeting adjourned, the fact that we’ve never really discussed the issue of many of our children who are now getting their Master’s degrees, they might bringing home Jews as possible brides and grooms. I’m wondering if we'll ever have a formal discussion, or perhaps at the Movable Minyan’s 50th anniversary we will have the same plaintive cry as the Whittier Havurah. Rather than donating the treasury to a rabbinical seminary, the Movable Minyan will be able to count at least five rabbis who have received ordination after years of starting as lay-leaders at that havurah. But Jewish marriages don't necessarily need the benefit of clergy, so creating all the rabbis in the world won't make a Jewish marriage happen, but experiencing the warmth of a creative, inclusive Jewish community might.
Some reader responses.....
Gerald Bubis of Los Angeles writes:
I read your blog with interest. Our Havurah just has its 43rd anniversary. It is and always has been “free standing. We have not been child centered . Almost all of our children are married to Jews and the same is true of the grandkids. We have been a serious study centered group even as we have developed deep bonds of friendship over the years. We have at least 4 past synagogue presidents, plus a number of past agency presidents. Many come from Brandeis, most of us are synagogue affiliated with a wide range of synagogues in 24 member group.
Rozanne Keynan of Los Angeles writes:
Hi, Pini --
I, too belong to a chavurah that was formed 25 years ago by the Reconstructionist movement but which went independent shortly thereafter. The Reconstructionist office at first referred to us as the "West Side" chavurah, although not all of us lived on the West Side. At some point we were asked to choose a name, since the other chavurot had taken various Hebrew names. But we were nothing if not iconoclasts. One of our numbers, a working actress, jokingly quipped that we could be The Jets like the gang in West Side Story. The name stuck.
Although we are not a prayer-oriented chavurah, we have studied together and been at each other's life cycle events at our respective synagogues. Our composition and programming have changed over the years and our numbers expanded, and then contracted, due to some attrition and some members relocating away from Southern California. One original member describes herself as a "tag-along gentile," though she is central to the group. Another member had a midlife career change and was ordained as a rabbi. We "took in" a family of Soviet Jews and had the thrill of creating a bat mitzvah for each of their two daughters -- something their family didn't dream could happen. It was the first ever in the history of their family.
So far there have been two weddings, of the group's two eldest children, both to Jewish spouses. There remain seven unmarried twenty-somethings, and we parents have our fingers crossed that our children will find a "nice Jewish" mate. Of course, only time will tell. But born Jewish or not, the newcomers definitely will be second-gen Jets -- and, as such, welcomed with open arms to our no-holds-barred second-night seders, raucous Chanukah parties, Sukkot potlucks, beach parties and Hollywood Bowl picnic nights. As the Bernstein/Sondheim song says it, "When you're a Jet you're a Jet all the way."
Pini -- from Madeline S., a Jets member:
. . . some more authentic ways we have stayed inclusive and together: incorporating the life cycles that include diverse, but common and sometimes unspoken norms......elderly parents, illness, divorce, gay and straight children dating Jewish and non-Jewish people, and our beloved 'tag-a-long' gentile.
Reading and thinking about all this makes me, once again, want to say how much i value and love our havarah!
Richard Siegel of Los Angeles writes:
Thanks for sending this, Pini. Incidentally, I was just at the 45th Anniversary Reunion of the Boston Havurah (aka Havurat Shalom Community Seminary). Surprisingly still going, although quite changed.
Pini Herman, PhD. specializes in demographics, big data and predictive analysis, has served as Asst. Research Professor at the University of Southern California Dept. of Geography, Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work, Research Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles following Bruce Phillips, PhD. in that position and is a past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To email Pini: firstname.lastname@example.org To follow Pini on Twitter: Follow @pinih