Keeping the ‘community’ in Judaism

Last Shabbat morning, I deserted my Conservative home synagogue to attend a special event at Kehillat Chaverim, a group/place I knew nothing about before I was lucky enough to be invited.
I consider that my background gives me the ability to participate with comfort in any Jewish setting. As a child, I went to Sunday school in a Conservative-bordering-on-Orthodox shul, attended holiday celebrations at a fully Orthodox one, and later taught at both. Later still, I taught in several Reform temples, but my home synagogue was one that served a small community where all its Jews were members, regardless of observance levels. However, this latest was my first experience with a group of worshippers who were not formally movement-affiliated.
I learned that this group — somewhere around 35 family units, which counts singles as well as couples with or without children — grew from people who used to worship together on Shabbat on the Levine Academy campus. But, one family offered its home as the group’s headquarters. The home has a large room, fully detached from the house’s main entrance, and it has become a true shul.
It contains an ark, which houses two Torahs, along with books and shelves for the knowledgeable lay leadership; a bimah table and lectern; chairs that can be moved and set in various ways; and tables that come out of a closet when the room is reconfigured for the community lunch that follows every service.
Interestingly, the minhag somehow manages to be both fully traditional and fully egalitarian at the same time. Women as well as men bless and read Torah, a basket of kippot sits on a shelf near the entryway, and meals are completely kosher. I was told that, if a family’s kitchen is not kosher, it can purchase the necessary food and prepare it in the kosher kitchen of another member.
I suspect many large congregations began this way, but with growth came the inability to continue without professionalization and all that means: rabbinic rather than lay leadership, dues and/or other fixed contributions, permanent rather than flexible physical accoutrements, etc. The feel of a large family can too easily be lost with largeness. But here, that feeling is exactly what exists.
But I want you to know why I was invited. Certain people thought I would enjoy a special program: the usual d’var Torah was shortened to allow time for a very creative presentation: A Latke-Hamantaschen debate.
The two presentations were clever, fun. But far more than that, in true Jewish tradition, the single representative for each side managed to bring to bear real wisdom from our Jewish past. Each woman had researched, discovered that scholars and sages offered many opinions on these subject matters, and put forth solid knowledge, as well as humor. And, of course, when tables came out of the closet and the room was reconfigured for lunch, both latkes and hamantaschen were on the menu. The first, with the usual choices of applesauce and sour cream, and the second in a multitude of variations, including chocolate dough and mint and lemon curd fillings, as well as what is more usually expected.
This is not a comparison, but a realization My son married into a very traditional family whose little shul had the same “feel,” even though it was Orthodox and non-egalitarian. So I returned to a long-ago memory, when I sat with all the women, our heads covered, to watch all the priestly descendants among the men rise and come forward to bless the congregation. Large tallitot covered their bodies and heads, hiding their faces, but we could see their hands extended, their fingers forming the biblical sign only they could give in conveyance of its true power. Their feet were bare, in the humility of worship.
I felt that same power and humility at Kehillat Chaverim.

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