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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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."
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
"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
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
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
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.
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."
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
"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
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.
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