Do you remember the NBC sitcom Cheers? Well I lived in Boston in the 80’s when the television series was launched. Friends and I frequented the iconic real-life bar and namesake on 84 Beacon Street.
The sitcom, almost canceled in its first season, eventually transformed into one of the most highly rated, nationally acclaimed hits, repeatedly nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series and nominated for 28 Primetime Emmy Awards. Its series finale was watched by 93 million viewers, almost 40% of the US population at the time.
I found Cheers riveting with its quirky yet lovable characters who inhabited their stools at the bar. Their stories, their relationships, the way they showed up for one another at life’s happiest and most difficult moments. A place where everybody knows your name.
That is the synagogue for me, or at least that which CEHV ought to be for each of us. And as with the sitcom Cheers, the early years of my time at CEHV were fraught with worry over the future of the congregation. Today our community is thriving.
I know for some of you, maybe even many of you, members of this synagogue have been there for you at your happiest moments and when you faced daunting challenges. But as our congregation grows, transforms, and strives to meet the challenges of 5783 and the years to come, it is necessary for us to take bold visionary steps in shaping our Jewish future.
So much is already happening. Many of you study with me on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for varied adult learning. Others are Shabbat regulars who experience their lives in Jewish time. Many have become involved in our ongoing Tikun Olam initiatives, the Caring Community, Sisterhood, and other vital committee work. And many of you are part of the JLA parent community.
I believe that we are standing at an important moment; are we committed to continuing our transformation of CEHV into a force for the future? To remain relevant, we at CEHV need to cultivate a structure for authentic connections in which every member has opportunities to support, and be supported by, other members of our congregation, opportunities through which Jewish life is celebrated with friends.
Ecclesiastes says: אין חדש תחת השמש there is nothing new under the sun. In September of 1960, in Whittier California, the first chavurah was formed. The chavurah, an intentional group, whose root is חבר meaning friend, was originally created as part of a counter-cultural movement in the 60’s and 70’s by folks searching for a synagogue alternative, for a transformed and sustainable American Judaism. In its time, the chavurah movement was a revolutionary re-imagining, a revitalization of Jewish practice.
Back in Boston in the 80’s, across town from the Cheers bar, a group of academic Jews, political activists, rabbis and students forged Havurat Shalom, a lay-led group of peers that met regularly to experience spiritual prayer, celebrate Shabbat and engage in deep, meaningful Jewish study. My life in Boston intersected with members of Havurat Shalom, and it served as the ideal for the kind of Jewish community I hoped to shape as a congregational rabbi in the future.
Ultimately Judaism that succeeds is not Judaism that is done for you, but rather by you; we do not subscribe to a proxied religion. Our rabbis, cantors, teachers, and educators cannot replace your individual, personalized engagement in your Jewish journey. The shaping of chavurot within CEHV would be an opportunity for Jewish empowerment, the exploration of your unique Jewish passion and expression, and the sharing of that experience with like-minded members of our congregation.
So what would Chavurot look like? Chavurot created at CEHV by and for members would not be an alternative to congregational life, but rather a strengthening and transformation of your Jewish experience. Chavurot, by definition, are self-selected and self-directed, a group of people who are supported in taking the steps to shape an intentional group around a shared interest. Each CEHV chavurah would be egalitarian and democratic by nature, engaging with and highlighting shared interests, shared values, shared stages of life, or shared passions.
Depending on each group’s needs, each chavurah may meet once a month, twice a month, or once every two months. On our website, www.cehv.org, there will be a template for establishing a CEHV chavurah for the upcoming year 5783. This template can be filled out by any member who has an interest or passion through which they would hope to connect with other like-minded members of our congregation. You might be interested in a peer writing chavurah, a hiking chavurah, a Shabbat chavurah, a musical chavurah, a dancing chavurah, a parenting chavurah, a retiree chavurah, an LGBTQIA+ chavurah or a chavurah fashioned around Jewish text study through chevrutah (peer learning).
Chavurot can choose to meet in the synagogue building, members’ homes, a restaurant, a vineyard, a swim hole or mountain top. Like everything that we value in Judaism, we define ourselves not by that which we receive but by that which we bring. In the course of establishing CEHV chavurot, each chavurah is asked to participate in a minimum of one CEHV community wide event as a group four times a year, a Shabbat service, a holiday celebration, a rally, or a CEHV program. The chavurah may choose to take an active role in synagogue events by delivering a Dvar Torah during a Shabbat morning service, preparing a Shabbat lunch following morning minyan, preparing the Schpiel for Purim, or simply participating in a community wide activity as a cohesive group. Suddenly, the members of your chavurah will feel differently about attending Shabbat services when they share it with like-minded folks from your group and share the spirit of your chavurah with the larger congregation.
There is a story that the rabbis of the Talmud tell: Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, the Gerer Rabbi, noticed that one of his talmidim (students) had been absent from the community for a while. The Rebbe questioned another talmid (student) concerning the wellbeing of the absent one, “Tell me, how is your neighbor, Moshe?” “I am not sure,” replied the second talmid, “Is there something I should know?” The Gerer Rebbi replied with great sadness, “You are neighbors, your children go to the same school, you study the same Torah, you pray in the same shul, and you don’t know how he is? If he needs help or advice, comfort or compassion? How will you possibly be able to show up for him?!”
What connects you to your Jewish identity? What is your philosophy of life? Is it based in intellectual exploration, social networks, connection to the earth and the outdoors, your children? Everyone at CEHV can find themselves in an intentional group. Talmud Pesachim uses the term Chavurah to identify the group of people who will participate in a critical ritual in the life of the Temple. Judaism is transformed through the cohesive group with whom you share the experience. The chavurah experience elevates an individual member’s commitment and involvement in becoming part of something bigger. The interpersonal relationships supported in chavurot have the power to transform the congregational experience.
Rather than creating a counter culture, we will create opportunities within our congregation for individuals, couples, and families to celebrate Shabbat and holidays together, experience communal Jewish life, and deepen Jewish living through study תורה, prayer עבודה, and Jewish living גמילות חסדים. Being part of a chavurah empowers the individual to personalize their engagement and participation in Jewish experiences. It promotes connection, fellowship, and community among the members of our congregation.
We are emerging from three years of the COVID Pandemic. So many of us have sustained our connection to congregational life over zoom and via livestream. The task of chavurot and for CEHV of the future is to humanize, personalize, and shape a Jewish future based on interpersonal relationships and shared experiences.
Imagine the bar in Cheers, Sam Malone, Diane, Coach, Carla, Norm, Cliff, Rebecca, Woody, Frasier, Niles, and Lilith, a dubious assembly, quite the eclectic, motley crew. In what world that you know would Frasier hang out with Norm? Now look around you in your congregation; the pulse of this community is that we are stronger together. Each intentional group of members under our roof serves as a spark that strengthens us all.
Whether we sit around a table and share good food and wine, lead and participate in Shabbat worship and Jewish learning together, celebrate the simchas of life, or walk one another through the saddest moments, Abraham Joshua Heschel enjoins us to be mindful that Judaism is a doing, and for that purpose we all need connection and community.
Being part of a chavurah with members of CEHV with whom you share experiences ultimately strengthens not only your relationship with one another and with your Jewish identity but also the very fabric and future of our congregation.
Cheers almost folded after the first season, but instead was transformed into a highly revered, nationally acclaimed hit.
CEHV has been around for 170 years and counting. Chavurot will play a vital role in sustaining our congregation and forging a Jewish connection for generations to come.