More intimate look at religion

As membership drops in some synagogues, many Jews seek small group settings

By James Janega
Tribune staff reporter
Published April 28, 2006


When Amy Stein returned to Chicago after five years in Jerusalem, she missed the sense of belonging to a community so universal in religious scholarship and unique in personalities.

Fearing Chicago would never be the spiritual home Israel had been, she spent the next decade in Chicago "shul surfing"--hunting for the perfect synagogue and never quite finding it.

Last year, the 11th on her search, she found the Mitziut Jewish Community in East Rogers Park--a religious group on the fringe of American Jewry, complete with drum circles, drop-in meditations and Kabbalistic study.

As American Judaism searches for itself in the 21st Century, many Jews are looking to these smaller, more intimate religious experiences, even carving them out within larger synagogues. Such small group settings are called chavurot--Hebrew for "fellowships."

Intimate experience

"People are looking for a more intimate kind of experience in the context of things that have taken place in the larger society," said Arnold Dashevsky of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life in Connecticut.

The phenomenon is small-scale and has roots in 1960s-era hippie Judaism. Each such group, chavurah in the Hebrew singular, typically has 10 to 50 members and often meets in members' homes. The groups may or may not include a rabbi and often offer extracurricular spiritual activities that might raise eyebrows at some congregations, said Steve Lipton, a local drum circle leader.

As Stein got to know the closely knit Mitziut community--an eclectic mix of praying artists and singing therapists who shared an intense interest in exploring what made each of them Jewish--she realized she had found a home.

"I felt it in my soul, some deep place in my heart," said Stein, a 37-year-old pharmacy benefits project manager. "It reminds me of when I was a kid in an overnight Jewish camp, or in Jerusalem, where you're closer to God."

Larger and more established congregations are trying to replicate those good feelings by creating similar experiences for members.

"At 8 o'clock Friday night, there's not only one monolithic experience taking place in the synagogue, but many different services," said Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer of Congregation Bene Shalom in Skokie, where song services and meditation classes have been added and where a healing chapel is under construction.

At Evanston's Beth Emet the Free Synagogue, where Lipton is a member, two Saturday services are offered--one traditional and the other more free-form. And both groups are among those seeking to tailor more opportunities to meet in smaller, more personal groups.

"The synagogue is saying, `They're all of equal value; take a look at what interests you,'" Goldhamer said of the increased offerings at such congregations.

The changes, made gradually over the last decade or so, occur against a backdrop of outreach efforts attempting to reverse dropping attendance at Sabbath services and declining membership in synagogues.

More than 5 million people in the United States identified themselves as Jewish in 2001, according to the National Jewish Population Survey that year. The number had dropped 6 percent from a decade earlier, and most respondents further declared themselves unaffiliated with a synagogue.

The findings touched off nationwide efforts to reinvigorate Judaism's faithful, such as Synagogue 3000. It also played to the strong suit of the Lubavitch Chabad, the Orthodox group whose outreach has included supplying kosher Passover meals to stranded Jewish backpackers in the Himalayas. On pleasant days, its Illinois chapter headquarters on Howard Street sends forth recreational vehicles to do good works around Chicago.

New ways are needed to remind Jews that they have a good thing going, said Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz of Lubavitch Chabad. "That's why the kinds of things that we do to reach out to people come from another angle," he said.

Parrots and Sabbath

Lipton agreed. A sometime songwriter as well as Jewish drum circle leader at Mitziut and elsewhere, he set "Shabbosville" to the tune of Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville," comparing relaxation on the Sabbath to "a Caribbean vacation with a lot of parrots and margaritas around."

The song would never pop up in an actual Sabbath service, he said. But, "I would argue for it in context," Lipton said.

While drums are banned at his synagogue, Beth Emet, he has led drum circles at Mitziut that included as many as two dozen people. "All of a sudden, it all just clicks, and it all complements each other," Lipton said.

That was exactly what Rabbi Menachem Cohen had in mind when he founded Mitziut in 2003. He was reacting, he said, to the way traditional Jewish services seemed chilly to some and to a streak of "megamall" commercialism in America that left the fruit of spiritualism withering on the vine.

"We wanted to find meaning and significance in what we're doing," Cohen said. "We wanted to foster that feeling that we were a close-knit group that did more than just come together and pray periodically. We weren't finding it elsewhere."

What becomes of Mitziut and other chavurot as Judaism adapts to modern American life is anyone's guess. Even Cohen wonders how they will be seen in 20 years.

In the meantime, the option has provided connections lacking elsewhere, those who have flocked to it said.

"It feels positive," said Stein, now chair of Mitziut's leadership group. "It's the gift of giving this to people who are largely unaffiliated with other synagogues or movements. You see the light bulb go off in their eye.

"You see them feel comfortable when some of these other places don't make them feel comfortable at all," she said. "Somewhere along the way, something got lost."

 

 

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