The National Havurah Committee (NHC) was founded in 1980 to facilitate the activities of fellowships known as havurot and to spread havurah values and enthusiasm to the larger Jewish community, thereby serving as a model for revitalizing Jewish living and learning in North America. The NHC was organized following a successful conference at Rutgers University in July 1979 that brought together different groups that shared the name “havurah.” These included independent havurot that were formed as part of the counterculture of the 1960’s, synagogue havurot that were created within Reform and Conservative synagogues, and Reconstructionist congregations that considered themselves havurot. Though differently organized, havurot, now as then, share the mission of creating small communities in which all members participate in creating authentic and meaningful Jewish experiences. Independent havurot also tend to be non-denominational, egalitarian, and inclusive. Havurah leadership is generally shared by the members; havurot typically do not have professional rabbinic or spiritual leaders.
The first NHC Summer Institute (at the University of Hartford in July 1980) was organized in order to help provide and empower havurah members with the knowledge to grow Jewishly and the skills to enable them to create and sustain such communities. (The first institute was organized and co-chaired by Joseph G. Rosenstein and Michael Strassfeld who, with Elaine S. Cohen, who coordinated the 1979 conference, were the first three chairs of the NHC.) Annual week-long summer institutes have been conducted by the NHC each year since 1980 and have attracted an average of 250 adults (plus many children) of varying Jewish backgrounds and observance. Courses at the institute address the variety of Jewish texts, arts, culture, spirituality, issues, and practice from many different perspectives. Institute teachers are expected to attend as well as to offer courses. The NHC has inclusively recruited teachers from many backgrounds and women instructors when that was considered radical, and served as a prominent forum for discussing feminist perspectives of Judaism in the 1980s. The NHC model of summer programs for lay adults has been adapted by other organizations. Both the longevity of the institute and the replication of the model attest to its success.
Since 1996, an important feature of the summer institute is the participation of the Everett Fellows, a cohort of future leaders of the Jewish community who participate, often for the first time, in a heterogeneous community that manifests both excitement and commitment about Judaism and that embraces diverse ways of living Jewishly. (This program is funded by the Everett Foundation, established by Edith and the late Henry Everett.) Another unique annual feature (since 1995) is the celebratory completion (or siyyum) of a volume of EJ by study groups who have read a page a day (daf yomi) since the last institute.
The NHC also sponsors regional weekend retreats, including an annual New England retreat (since 1986) and an annual Canadian-American retreat (since 1993), publishes newsletters, and maintains on its website (www.havurah.org) a list of havurot. In the 1990s it published in a number of newspapers a weekly D’var Torah column that was written by a diverse group of writers representing all branches of Judaism, and that served as a prototype for subsequent d’var torah columns; it also published three issues of a journal with the appropriately oxymoronic title of “New Traditions.”
Although havurot and individuals participate in the NHC, it has not functioned as a membership organization; its programs have been organized by a volunteer board with modest staff assistance. The NHC has created and sustained programs and promoted values – such as inclusiveness, lay leadership and teaching, involvement, egalitarianism, fellowship – that have had an impact on the wider Jewish community.
-- Joe Rosenstein wrote this article for the new edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica in 2005.