‘Chag sameach," said the rabbi, standing at a baby grand piano, surrounded by a living room packed with children and parents. "Happy holiday!"
"Chag sameach," shouted the three dozen kids, seated on the floor around the rabbi.
It was the Sunday night of Chanukah. The rabbi was Miriam Ancis, 1987 graduate of Hebrew Union College. The site was a brownstone in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, downtown, in the shadow of Williamsburgh Savings Bank.
And the occasion was a family celebration of Havurat Shalom, one of the least known (by design) Jewish groups in the city.
"It’s not a synagogue," stresses Rabbi Ancis, a sculptor and former 92nd Street Y faculty member who has served as the havurah’s spiritual leader/religious school teacher/chief programmer for eight of its 10 years.
Havurat Shalom is a carryover from the 1970s havurah movement that sought to make Judaism more personal by setting up small, informal worship and study circles. Unlike the lay-led groups a generation ago, however, this one has its own rabbi. In a borough full of small Orthodox minyans based in homes, it’s the nearest thing that exists to a Reform shtiebel, though services are held in various members’ homes on a rotating basis.
In addition to bimonthly Shabbat services, the havurah sponsors monthly potluck family programs/holiday celebrations, weekly religious school classes and High Holy Days services in the nearby Lafayette Presbyterian Church.
But this night was Chanukah, and some 50 adults and children, most of the Havurat Shalom membership, gathered at the home of Dianne Abeloff and Sandy Nager. With a Klezmatics CD playing in the background, they snacked on latkes, gambled on dreidels with a jarful of kidney beans as stakes, and made the Hebrew blessings with Rabbi Ancis on a piano-top menorah. The rabbi explained the holiday’s traditions, told a children’s tale, and ended with an invitation to a child-labor rally that week in Manhattan.
It was a young (the adults were in their 30s and 40s) and professional (lots of lawyers) crowd. And fecund. "Everyone here," said Andrew Greenblatt, "has children or is about to have children." His wife, Kim Bryant, is pregnant.
The parents, seated on sofas and wooden chairs around the living room, came from Fort Greene and its surrounding neighborhoods, Park Slope, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights. Most couples were "interfaith." Many had visited more-traditional synagogues near their homes and found them too big, too impersonal.
Everyone this night wore nametags: first names only. The dress code: jeans and sweatshirts.
Havurat Shalom is unaffiliated, but "everyone here would call themselves liberal Jews," Rabbi Ancis said.
The havurah grew out of a children’s playgroup. Some Jewish parents met. Many from minimal Jewish backgrounds, in a neighborhood with a few scattered Jews and without a synagogue for decades, wanted a place where they could meet as Jews. The first name was the Cobble Hill Jewish Group, and it met in the president’s house of the nearby Pratt Institute.
"We were looking for a way to meet and celebrate the holidays," Abeloff said.
"We were looking," Greenblatt said, "for a place to get involved with Judaism": a place "less involved with the minutiae of Jewish practice, more involved with the broad strokes of Judaism."
As Greenblatt spoke and shared some holiday goodies with his wife, Rabbi Ancis worked the room, paying special attention to the youngsters."
At every point everything is geared so that adults can get something out of it and a child can get something out of it," Greenblatt said.
The havurah, said Rodney Crumrine, has grown into what its name means: a friendship group. "We socialize with people from the havurah outside of havurah activities," he said.
At first the group was heavy on stories and crafts, light on religion.With a growing number of children in the religious school (35 this year) and a core of parents in the rabbi’s adult education classes, religious observance, eclectically expressed, plays a larger role. There are joint celebrations of all the major Jewish holidays.
"When I started, they did not want anything ‘religious,’ " Rabbi Ancis said. Now, "the knowledge base has increased. I can do much more sophisticated programs."
Don’t look in these pages for notices of havurah events.
"We do not advertise ourselves," the rabbi says. "We like the intimacy."
Word spreads through a newsletter and phone calls (realtors tell Jewish newcomers about the group) and membership has slowly but steadily grown.
"Over the years," Crumrine says, "we’ve grown so large that only six or seven of the families have homes that are big enough."
"It’s always an issue: should we grow or not?" Rabbi Ancis says. In reality, membership is self-selected. "The criterion for membership is involvement."
Nearly everyone brought some homemade food to the Chanukah event.
At the beginning of the celebration, Rabbi Ancis asked the first-timers to introduce themselves. Several couples accepted her offer.
At the end of the evening, the rabbi offered a personal goodbye and final "Chag sameach" to everyone on the way out. She was beaming.
"Today," she said, "there were 20 more people than a few years ago." This is the first installment of a regular column about how Jews worship, inside and outside of synagogue. Send story ideas to Steve Lipman via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (212) 921-7822, Ext. 236.