I loved coming to the Havurah, where I was called up to the Torah and could hold it in my arms. I loved being somewhere where I was an equal and included in the minyan. I loved how haimish and down home the Havurah was and is. So fun to sit on cushions on the floor and daven and be a part of rather than apart from. I loved the kavannah, the religiosity/devotion minus dogma. I wanted inclusion, and got that at the Havurah. I could be part of, along with all the women and the men. It's hard to describe being part of something for the first time in my life. I had attended as an outsider/insider since a small child, but I could not truly join in with until I was 17. It had been excruciatingly painful for me to be so excluded.
The Havurah felt so life giving to me. Like a breath of fresh air; it was a mechaya. It brought me alive again. It was special to have a place that was both traditional, in that we said most of prayers in Hebrew, yet, at the same time, that was welcoming of women as well as men and of gays and lesbians as well as straight people. I loved the deep commitment to tradition and devotion, yet openness to women, gays and lesbians and also to people who were not Jewish. They were welcome too. I loved how the Havurah was steeped in Jewish language, tradition, history and practice without being insular and forbidding. A special combination that was perfect for me.
I first heard of the Havurah from Sharon Strassfeld, who taught at my Chabad School. She, Michael Strassfeld and Daniel Siegel wrote the New Jewish Catalogs and helped start the Havurah.
The Havurah was started in 1968 by men who were unhappy with the mainstream Jewish Community. They were involved in The Civil Rights and Anti- Vietnam War Movements. They wanted something more intimate and deep. They wanted an alternative rabbinical seminary. Why? Deep interest in Judaism, and also, a way to avoid the draft. The alternative rabbinical seminary never did materialize, though people did study a lot at the Havurah.
The founders got a grant and used it as a down payment on the building that became Havurat Shalom. In those days only men could join and their wives or girlfriends. They borrowed from the different movements, the devotion of orthodoxy, with the reform spirit of the Reform Movement, the evolving nature of Halacha, Jewish law, of the Conservative Movement. the reconstruction focus of the Reconstructionist Movement and the kavannah of the Hasidic movement.
Women were not originally counted in a minyan until one day, a woman asked the 9 men if they were going to daven. They kind of looked at her sheepishly. She said, “Well there are 10 people here.” The men looked around and began davening. That was the start of women being counted in a minyan, and we have not looked back!!
When I arrived in the 70s I loved the lingering 1960s era funkiness: a shul in a house, with pillows on the ground to sit on and a macrame Torah Cover. I loved how down to earth it was and how well I fit in. I often slept over at the Havurah while still in high school. It was a safe, comfortable place for me where I could be myself. I certainly did not have this in the orthodox community, where I never felt like I was understood or truly welcomed in any way.
In the 70s the community was about half men and half women, and that is when it became fully welcoming of gays and lesbians. Since I am a lesbian, it meant a lot to me that I was accepted.
During the 80s there was a great preponderance of women and a big focus on lesbian feminism. That is when the Siddur Project started, ultimately writing Siddur Birkat Shalom. The Siddur Project feminized the Hebrew for about half of the siddur, and there was less emphasis on hierarchy and more focus on the immanent aspects of God and the community, as well as less emphasis on punishing evil doers and more emphasis on destroying evil itself. There was also more acceptance of other religious paths.
I kept attending through the years, enjoying the davening and learning and meals and holidays. I believe it was in 1985, after I graduated from college and came home from Israel, that I became a member of the Havurah.
A highlight of Havurah history for me was when we offered sanctuary to Emilio, a refugee from El Salvador. I was touched that our community was taking in someone who had faced such horror and was refused asylum. I had heard so much about how awful it was for Jews during the holocaust, who had nowhere safe to go. I was haunted by the story my Bubbie told me about her favorite sister Beileh, who asked her to send money, so she could flee Hitler. I asked my Bubbie with great worry, ``Did you send it Bubbie, did you send it?" And Bubbie said, " It was the Depression, and I didn't have a nickel." "What happened to Beileh, Bubbie?" I asked in fear, and she said, "Hitler came and that was the end of that."
I was so glad that Emilio would not have the fate of Beileh and so many other Jews during the holocaust. For me, the lesson of the Holocaust was to save people who were subjected to such cruelty and to offer asylum. That to me is the lesson of Jewish History, for Jews and for All People. I felt terribly proud of the Havurah for doing this and grateful to be part of such a wonderful community.
I had the honor of living with Emilio for a few months. It was a great time. I got to hear him tell his harrowing story of how he ran away, because his family had the chutzpah to ask for things like electricity and running water. We heard him tell about how he fled across Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and how he had been put in a detention center in San Francisco and went on a hunger strike. I remember how he planted food in the backyard of the Havurah, what a good farmer he was. I saw him use his considerable handyman skills to do work for the Havurah, and I read his poetry,
We also helped Emilio’s family. A member at that time who was pivotal in the Havurah’s offering Sanctuary, hired a coyote to bring his sister across the border. His sister stayed at the Havurah for a while too, and gave birth to a baby girl. Then she was in sanctuary at Temple Beth El in Sudbury.
The Jewish Sanctuary Network was a beautiful thing. Participating in it is a part of our History/Herstory at the Havurah.
Since The Havurah was and is all about inclusion, we built a ramp to welcome people in wheelchairs or with mobility impairments, as well as educating ourselves about disability rights.
I remember so many wonderful meals together, great davening, especially over the High Holidays, when so many people would come, crowdeding into the front hall and spilling out the door onto the porch. So many “lecha dodis” and “lecha dodati's” on the front steps. Muslims and Hindus and Pagans all coming to visit. A Haitian woman coming and telling us about her organization and how it was helping people in Haiti, and a woman telling us about how to help immigrants today by going to court for them and accompanying them.
I left the Havurah in the late 90s. It just was not working for me. Not sure why, nothing bad, but I kept trying to make it work and it would not. My membership was on hold for about 15 years.
Then Reena Kling, a beloved member of the Havurah, died. Reena embodied everything loving about Judaism. She had a strong, beautiful, mystical spirit about her and she was also practical and stood up to injustice and worked for Tikkun Olam.
I went to Reena’s funeral, and I heard a voice saying, “Come back and rejoin.” I think it was Reena’s Spirit calling me back. I listened. I had been gone so long that many current members did not know who I was. I had to go through the joining process like a newcomer. I frankly was upset. But a friend said, with some heat, “just do what they say, that is a good community.” So, I did and I have not looked back.
I have led many services, including a Tu b'shvat seder, the High Priest Service on Yom Kippur, did a d’var Torah on the story of Hagar being thrown out of her home, and lead many Shabbat services. I leyned for the first time this year and I give many divrei Torah.
Before the pandemic, a friend and I hosted Open Mic dinners and led workshops at the Havurah. I stay there often, and it is my home away from home. Other friends have stayed over with me. I appreciate the welcome we extend to people in the broader community and so do my friends.
I have helped with the Havurah’s little free pantry. Sometimes I take fresh food to the homeless in Davis Sq. I participated in an interfaith Peace Service that Havurat Shalom was part of at a local Catholic Church that is predominantly Vietnamese. My poem was featured in the flier, and we read it during the service.
Starting in the 90s, there have been more trans and nonbinary people at the Havurah, who have been welcomed as were gays and lesbians in earlier times. Now we are changing our liturgy to include some non-gendered references to people and God. For example, when calling people up to the Torah, we no longer say, “ben” or “bat.” We say “mi beyt,” from the house of, so that trans and nonbinary people can also feel welcome at the Havurah,
While there have been many changes through the years, what has not changed is the devotion and kavanah, and the openness towards different kinds of people. We are welcoming to all and our dues are completely affordable to all. Our services are free, including High Holiday services. The haimishness, and openness and love of Judaism has not changed. The commitment to peace and justice and caring has not changed.
We have adapted to the ongoing pandemic. We give tzedakah, do interfaith work, feed the hungry, give clothes and diapers to those in need, stand up for Black people and immigrants and for housing for all. We are also involved with a community fridge in conjunction with our Catholic neighbors.
This is Havurat Shalom. We invite you to join us to daven/pray, sing, study and celebrate in the 21st century. In a time of anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, climate catastrophe, hunger and poverty, we still stand for justice, peace and love and offer a welcome to all. We would be honored to have you join us. We know you will be glad that you did and hope you will join your voice and presence with that of our ongoing, beloved Havurat Shalom. Welcome!