Beit Havurah

A unique experiment in creating an intentional extended Jewish community

Beit Havurah was incorporated in 1975 as a unique experiment in creating an intentional Jewish community in time and space that spanned hundreds of miles, embraced singles, couples, families, denominational and age differences, a diversity of interests and professions and a wide spectrum of religious belief and practice. The group purchased an eight-bedroom farmhouse in Norfolk, CT to serve as its bayit. Beit Havurah which lasted almost 40 years donated the house to Hazon in October 2014.

  1. How Beit Havurah Began: The Preliminary Year

    1. Who were we?
      1. We were an outgrowth of the Jewish Student movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
      2. We encompassed a wide range of backgrounds—religious and non-religious more cultural Jews…orthodox, conservative, reform, Zionist, activists from unions and the political left– people wanting to be with people seeking to live a more Jewish life with spiritual depth and community.
      3. Graduate students, authors, artists, poets, lawyers, doctors, teachers, professors, social workers, psychologists and other spiritual seekers.
      4. Most were already part of a Havurah—Havurat Shalom, West Side Minyan, Germantown Jewish Center, Fabregin
      5. Many had attended Camp Ramah or other Jewish Summer Camps together.
      6. A number were children of rabbis and cantors who did not feel at home in the large cathedral-like synagogues of their parents.
      7. Some were children of Holocaust survivors.
      8. Some of us were involved with Jewish communal service as social workers and met at professional conferences.
      9. There were number of upcoming Jewish leaders…including feminists.
      10. In essence, we were People of the Catalogue taking our desire to practice Do-It-Yourself-Judaism to the next level whatever that meant.
      11. Some were actually involved in writing articles for The Jewish Catalogue—a Do-It-Yourself-Guide to Judaism
      12. There were about 6-7 couples in the beginning (about a third of the group) and the rest of us were still single.
      13. We’d meet at gatherings like the Men’s and Women’s Conference or Weiss’s Farm Retreats and would say—“Gosh—It would really be nice to make Shabbos with you!”
    2. The New Hampshire House was rented for August/Elul, 1974, organized by Cherie Koller Fox.
      1. Forty people came through in the course of the month.
      2. Twenty wanted to continue by buying their own property but there was a fear of being overwhelmed by lots of people who would want to be part of this “retreat house in the country.”
      3. The desire for exclusiveness and to limit the number was handled by creating a Lottery—Each person who desired to continue and buy in was allowed to nominate three people. The names were thrown in a hat and drawn one by one to be approached by the person nominating them if they wanted to be part of this experiment until the group had forty committed members.
      4. Black Balling
    3. We incorporated June 1, 1975, and found and purchased the renovated farm house in Norfolk, CT, June 17, 1975.
  1. Years between incorporation and a year or two after the CT Supreme Court decision. 1975-1980, there was a lot of activity with the Bayit often full maxed out at 16-20.

    1. There was always an expectation when we were at the Bayit with others, we would communally observe Shabbat with traditional meals and services…(There were sometimes issues around that which Marty will discuss later…)
    2. Housekeeping—
      1. The LOG,
      2. Touranut, and
      3. The wonderful math exercises for us and the kids in calculating the HESHBON for each visit.
    3. Our space at the Bayit functioned as an incubator for developing ideas in our respective Jewish worlds…
    4. We shared lessons on how to parent with a Jewish twist from one another.
    5. Weekend Themes, Programs opportunities to share:
      1. Elul Work
      2. Medical Ethics
      3. Lashan Harah
      4. Echo Kashruth
      5. Our Jewish Film Festival/marathon
      6. Marty’s slide show of his trip to Poland with his parents
    6. Retreats for our personal groups, e.g. High Holidays, family reunions.
    7. Group Tzedaka – Not quite a Tzedaka Collective but BH contributions made, e.g. Ethiopian Jews, groups in Israel
    8. We celebrated Simchas and other life cycle events together both at the Bayit and other places – weddings, births, bar & bat mitzvahs, jubilees, and funerals: Especially memorable at the Bayit were…
      1. Cherie & Everett’s Wedding, Fall, 1975
      2. Sarina’s Conversion Ceremony also happened in the context of the Havurah, May 30, 1976 – (I want to remind you that we are all Jews by Choice.)
  1. The legal challenges

    1. The Norfolk Zoning Hearings—challenged whether or not we were a synagogue or a boarding house for a bunch of urban hippies.
    2. Paul Lichterman, of blessed memory, a member who was a Legal Aid attorney, headed our legal defense team.
    3. Support came from
      1. Anti-Defamation League
      2. American Jewish Congress? Committee?
      3. Non-Jewish members of the Norfolk Community—especially from some members of the local churches who would come sit with us at each of the zoning hearings and court appearances.
      4. (Find letters of support)
    4. We ended up in the Connecticut Supreme Court who declared that we were a synagogue and entitled to our first amendment rights. They determined that our level of Jewish observance and whether or not we could sleep over in our property could not be dictated by the Zoning Board.
    5. The Testimonial for Martin Gold, CT Anti-Defamation League was a communal fundraiser to cover our legal expenses.
    6. Also A Night with Rabbi Zalman Schachter at the 92nd Street Y?
    7. These legal challenges forced us to grapple with who we were and how we defined ourselves as Jews. The over simplification of presenting our Jewishness as the “frumest common denominator” for the outside world left many non-orthodox feeling uncomfortable.
    8. For this reason among many others, about 15 people dropped out after the Supreme Court ruling in 1978.
  1. Fast forward twenty years from the 1980’s through the late 1990’s

    1. New members came in…mostly by marriage.
      1. However, when considering a new member, if an existing member felt really uncomfortable with a certain person becoming part of the Bayit, a practice of Black Balling was allowed.
      2. After a couple instances of this happening, there was a reluctance to recruit new members.
    2. We stabilized, aged together and raised our kids…
    3. There was very much a feeling of “extended Jewish family” that extended well beyond our time together at the Bayit.
    4. We’d gather for Holiday Weekends and a couple weeks in the summer or over winter break…
    5. Day after Christmas 1983, Paul Lichterman fell through the ice and died.
      1. Raised issues about a Jewish cemetery on our grounds
    6. Part of Sarina’s vision was that we would be sitting in our rocking chairs out on the porch when we were old and grey.
  2. Individual needs began taking over… By about 2000, only 16 members remained; by 2009, 13 members.
  3. When only eleven of us were left…and there was a breakdown in personal relationships as a result of two divorces in the group…we realized we lost our critical mass…and our mission.

  1. Challenges of just functioning together Jewishly and fairly

    1. Frumest common denominator on issues of observance did not always sit well with everyone.
      1. e.g. Kashruth—e.g. Orthodox vs. Conservative standard on cheeses
      2. Communal vs. private consumption and practice
    2. Money!
    3. Navigating interpersonal relationships.
  2. To be Open or Exclusive

    1. Right to Black Ball Potential Members
    2. Guest policies and reservations
  3. Extending beyond our generation – We were one cohort – within 15-20 years.

  4. Why people dropped out…

    1. Some just stayed to show solidarity through the resolution of the lawsuit
    2. Financial reasons
    3. Graduated and moved away for a job
    4. Got married
    5. Priorities changed–Lack of commitment
    6. Their friends left.
    7. Wanted a Jewish Timeshare for personal use – not a community.
  5. Why people stayed?

    1. A desire to continue to be part of the extended Jewish family we had created.
    2. Some wanted, in essence, to maintain a personal Jewish Retreat.
  6. Beit Havurah was an incubator that provided space, time, and companionship that helped shape, affirm, share, celebrate, and transmit Jewish values and identity on a very personal and individual basis for people who would go on to be leaders in their respective communities and become Jewish thought leaders in our time/generation.

In the end, it was our goal to help further revitalize Jewish life for ourselves and for others. As we close this final chapter of our 40 year experiment called Beit Havurah, it feels good that we can contribute our assets to an institution like Hazon dedicated to thought leadership and Jewish intentional community and that we could do so with 100% consensus from our remaining members. We hope that the legacy of Beit Havurah will live on here at Hazon and inspire the next generation to create their own new chapter in conscious Jewish living and community for their time.