In the nearly 40 years he has been a member of the Baltimore Chavurah, Dick Goldman has often thought the group would make a terrific model for the entire Jewish community. And though Shoshana Harris, one of the Chavurah’s founding members, said there is no magic formula to the group’s longevity, it is evident that there is something magical about the tightknit, interdenominational community its members have created over the years. The Chavurah meets six times every three months for Jewish learning, holiday observance and prayer, and levels of observance among its members run the gamut from Orthodox to Reconstructionist.
Founded in 1974 by Aliya Cheskis- Cotel, the Baltimore Chavurah started with a group of eight Jews in their 20s and early 30s. Harris is the only member who has been involved since the group’s inception.
“If my memory is correct, she [Cheskis-Cotel] learned about the Boston-area Chavurah movement that wanted to move away from institutionalized Judaism to a more personalized, living one,” said Harris.
In general, she explained, “the 1970s were percolating with lots of creative ways to be Jewish, and young Jews wanted to create their own Jewish environment and develop new rituals. It was an exciting time of experimentation, innovation and connection to the essence of Judaism.”
Some of the group’s current members, including Goldman and his wife, Roz, and Shlomo and Louise Alima, joined in 1976; Gail Lipsitz joined in 1977.
“I was single and had just moved to Baltimore,” recalled Lipsitz. “Another single woman told me about the Chavurah, and I had kind of been floating around, and I needed something.”
When she heard about the Chavurah, Lipsitz was interested.
“Really, we were hoping to meet men, but all of the people in the group had different last names. That was the way in the ’70s so it was hard to tell who was married and who was single,” she said. Nevertheless, Lipsitz welcomed the opportunity to learn with others who were well versed in Jewish history and religion.
At the time, she noted, belonging to the group was somewhat controversial, since almost none of the members belonged to a synagogue.
“Joining a synagogue and trying to fit into its existing structure seemed much less attractive than, for example, building one’s own sukkah and davening with women and men who developed their own services and prayer materials,” Harris pointed out. “It was a liberating and spiritual experience to break out of the synagogue mold and create a unique and personal Jewish experience.”
“We had our own services, our own holidays, even our own Sunday school,” said Alima. “Once we had kids, we started affiliating.” Yet, synagogue memberships or not, they kept attending meetings of the Chavurah. And as members married and started families, they brought their children with them.
“At the early meetings, some of the women used to nurse their babies. Now we’re having grandchildren,” said Goldman. In fact, said Carol Pristoop, “at the last meeting we learned that there were six daughters [of Chavurah members] pregnant with seven babies!”
When Pristoop and her husband, Allan Pristoop, were first asked to join, she felt intimidated by the Jewish IQs of the other group members, and he thought it was too much of a commitment. In fact, the Pristoops turned down the invitations more than once.
“Then we went to [fellow Chavurah member] Miriam Gerstenblith’s wedding and saw the ruach, and we had to join,” said Allan Pristoop.
“If you want ruach, you invite the Chavurah,” pronounced Glenna Ross, the newest member of the group, who joined in 1993. “I think a lot of the strength of the group comes from the fact that so many people in it were Jewish communal professionals.”
A sizable number of Chavurah members are Jewish educators, mental health professionals, klezmer musicians and scout leaders. While some members came to the group already in the field, that wasn’t the case for everyone. Carol Pristoop, former executive director at the Pearlstone Retreat Center, earned a master’s degree in Jewish communal service after joining the Chavurah.
“It was such an eye-opening experience,” she said. “It was kind of like an incubator for me to become comfortable with the Jewish experience.”
Susan Coleman and her husband, Jeff, had little Jewish education when they joined, but Coleman said the group was so accepting, that they soon felt comfortable.
“Some people want to present textual study and others want to do something less academic,” she explained. “Everyone has their strengths.”
Over the years, the Chavurah has found a rhythm that works for them. Every three months, four people take on the responsibility for planning programs for the quarter. Since the group began, Goldman said there have been 500 different programs. Group presentations have included talks on topics such as famous chazzanim to Jewish comedians to the Litvak-Galistsianer Wars, to activities such as helping to build the JCC playground, and Purim spiels.
“The beauty for me is that almost all the resources come from the people designing the programs. It’s so inspiring,” said Gerstenblith. “Before the Chavurah, I had never experienced that spirituality and I find it at the Chavurah, not all the time, but sometimes. The other night when Shlomo led a Yom Hazikeron service, it just ripped me apart.”
In 1977, said Goldman, the group decided to put guidelines for membership in writing. Early on, they tackled some serious questions.
“We had many discussions about who was a Jew, and who could join,” said Goldman. “We decided that [for the purposes of the Chavurah] anyone who identified as Jewish was Jewish. We would respect every person’s observation.”
There are no leaders and everything is decided by consensus. Money is collected only as needed, except for tzedakah, and there is rarely a need for it. In the last 20 years, said Goldman, the rules have stayed mostly the same.
It has taken sensitivity and compromise to make the Chavurah work for people with so many different religious perspectives, and group members admit that this is especially challenging when they hold religious services.
“Some of the Orthodox men don’t come when we’re having services. Some don’t say the prayers,” said Ross, who is Orthodox. “On Friday nights, people can’t always make it to meetings, but we try to accommodate them by having the Chavurah close to their homes.”
“Some don’t keep kosher, so maybe they will bring a cold dish with special utensils,” said Goldman. “We have a list of different homes and the different levels of kosher.”
“Things come up, but we are part of the group,” said Ross. “We have made a decision to be here and that outweighs other things.”
And the group has been together through thick and thin.
“It’s amazing how close the second generation is,” said Lipsitz.
“When Dick [Goldman] was very sick, his son had so much support from the kids in the Chavurah,” offered Carol Pristoop.
“It goes both ways,” added Allan Pristoop. “When our son was having some issues, he got support from the other kids too.”
“My daughter is studying in Israel now, and it’s amazing how many Chavurah members have taken her out to dinner when they are visiting,” said Gerstenblith.
Lipsitz recalled bringing her newly adopted son to a Chavurah New Year’s Eve party straight from the airport on the day he first arrived in the U.S. She also remembered the support she received from the Chavurah when her husband Allan passed away in 2007.
“It was a very sudden, shocking loss. I would never have gotten through it without the Chavurah,” said Lipsitz.
“We like to say the Chavurah is the family we’ve chosen. Being together is more important than doing it ‘my way,’” added Goldman. “We’ve found ways to work things out.”