DIY Judaism in the village
- Published: October 13, 2011
When Randi Rothman suggested last weekend that the Yellow Springs Havurah read a book called Empowered Judaism, members at the well-attended Shabbat service agreed it sounded a lot like the collaborative spiritual community already here in Yellow Springs.
Without a rabbi, members of the Havurah lead themselves in prayer, song and scripture in a largely Hebrew semi-monthly service, organize Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies and celebrate the Jewish holidays. A book extolling the benefits of such laity-led communities seemed perfect for the small, engaged, somewhat anarchist Havurah practicing what they called do-it-yourself Judaism.
The Havurah has also taken the High Holy Days to a deeper level, and for the second year will host traveling singer and storyteller Steve Klaper for services which began last week with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Klaper returns this Friday and Saturday for Yom Kippur services, starting with Erev Yom Kippur on Friday, Oct. 7, at 7 p.m. and continuing on Saturday, Oct. 8, at a 10 a.m. service and 7 p.m. concluding service. A community break fast follows at 8 p.m. All events are at Rockford Chapel on the Antioch campus.
Yom Kippur services are open to anyone in the community, Havurah members said. And during these High Holy Days, a time traditionally used for reflection and self-examination, members of the Yellow Springs Havurah discussed ways to grow the tight-knit local Jewish religious community while still fulfilling the spiritual needs of its members.
“I feel like we could really use some new interest and energy,” and more youth, said Jay Rothman in an interview this week. No special knowledge or training is required to participate, just “a little interest and curiosity,” he said. Shabbat services are open to non-members.
The local Havurah may, in fact, appeal to a larger segment of the community, members said. Skills in reading Hebrew or praying are not necessary because prayers are transliterated as well as translated into English. And services are eclectic, with readings from many different religious traditions (Readings from the works of Howard Zinn and Albert Einstein were included in last week’s Shabbat).
The Havurah also wants to reach out to the estimated 300 Jewish people in the community, some of whom may be kept away by negative religious experiences and a desire to be more universalist, Rothman said.
“On the one hand, how do we celebrate our uniqueness and on the other hand be universalist?” Jay Rothman asked of the Jewish community. “It’s not hard to be both, but people think that if you affiliate with a particular community, you are separating yourself.”
For Seth Gordon, who has bad memories from his experience at Hebrew school, the Havurah is a comfortable place for him to live the spiritual tradition of his youth.
“I come because I have these tunes in my head anyway and because it’s a place to be a part of something I grew up in and be part of a spiritual tradition I was given,” Gordon said.
In recent decades the local Havurah grew from a mostly cultural organization that hosted an annual Chanukah party to a much more active tax-exempt non-profit with its own services. For a period of time, Rabbi Gevirtz from Temple Shalom in Springfield put on a monthly service here, and when she died the group gradually took on more responsibility. Today, the Havurah uses a prayer book created by its members and all its participants, including its youth, lead prayers and Torah readings.
“We are very bottom-up, we’re not interested in or seeking any kind of authoritative leadership,” Jay Rothman said. “The do-it-yourself approach has been helpful for us because we had to develop the competence and skills.”
Jay Rothman and his wife, Randi, invigorated the group when they moved back to Yellow Springs from Philadelphia with the intention of creating a Jewish community here in which to raise their three children. When their sons, Moriel and Jesse, went on to become leaders in their college Jewish communities, Jay Rothman knew that the local group, though tiny, was empowered.
But the Havurah may be a victim of its own success. While the current rituals and prayers are comfortable for its members, Cheryl Levine said it may be a challenge to grow the Havurah’s membership.
“We’ve all done different rituals but we’ve found something we can live with,” Levine said. “But for those who are not part of the community, it might be too much.”
Compared to a service at a temple, the Havurah is more relaxed and informal and much more participatory. Instead of a sermon from a rabbi, the Havurah’s members talk about what they glean from the Torah readings in an interactive discussion. They also carry out the Torah reading rituals themselves.
“What I love about the Torah portion is that it’s not a performance,” Gordon said. “We try to be intentional in what we’re doing.”
Even during Yom Kippur, a solemn holiday of atonement and repentance, the service here will be engaging, filled with song, according to Jay Rothman.
“The holiday of Yom Kippur is often seen as a very demanding, exhausting day,” he said. “The services here are as much playful as they are serious, there’s lots of singing.”
At last week’s evening Rosh Hashanah service, tiny Rockford Chapel was packed with more than 35 people, including five Antioch students.
Last year the Havurah, dissastified by the High Holy Days services they created, decided to bring in Klaper, who lives in Michigan. Known as a maggid, Klaper studied liturgal chants with a canter and incorporates Jewish songs, readings and stories from different Jewish denominations.
The Havurah also holds or facilitates services for Sukkot, Purim, and Simchat Torah, as well as an annual Chanukah party.
Regular Shabbat services are the first and third Saturdays of the month at 10 a.m. at Rockford Chapel and are followed by a potluck.